On Dec. 13, Stanley Tookie Williams has a date with death. He sits in California’s Death Row. The only thing that now stands between him and the executioner is a final appeal for clemency from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Williams is convicted of the gang-style murder of a night clerk and three members of a family-run motel, a 1979 crime of which William says he is innocent.
It may be questionable whether Williams was the trigger man in these horrific crimes, but what is not in doubt is that he lived a despicable life. Williams is credited with being the former leader of on of the nation’s most notorious street gang–the Crips.
In his own words, Williams described his former life as a nihilist. Since his incarceration, Williams has been transformed, not just in words, but in deeds.
He has authored children books, mediated truces between gangs and lectured youth in hope of persuading them not to become involved with gangs. His work for justice and peace has garnered nominations for the Nobel Prize in both literature and peace. Here is a man whose life oozed death, but due to his redemption now brings forth new life.
I do not know if Williams’ transformation is the result of a religious conversion. What I do know is that as a Christian who is part of a nation that proclaims to have its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, my response–our response–to a repentant man who cries out for mercy is to offer forgiveness.
Many sincere Christians may agree with me, but most of these same Christians still support his death. That is under a problematic logic which insists that individuals can offer forgiveness, but as a collective society they must extract vengeance.
The goal of justice thus ceases to be the rehabilitation of the criminal (based on the Christian concept that all can be saved), and instead becomes revenge for crimes committed.
Euro-Americans have traditionally compartmentalized Christian morality into two spheres: either two cities, as per Augustine, or two swords, as per Martin Luther.
These theological perspectives allow Christians to formulate two types of moralities: one for the private life (the heavenly city) and a different, if not contradictory, morality for the public life (the earthly city).
But there is no such moral dualism within the biblical narrative. The major error of Christians of the dominant culture is depending excessively upon the great reformers of the faith, while failing to recognize their limitation in bringing about justice in light of the oppression faced by the marginalized.
James Cone reminds us that great reformers like Calvin and Wesley did little to make Christianity a religion of the marginalized. “Though no one can be responsible for everything that is done in their name, one may be suspicious of the easy affinity among Calvinism, capitalism and slave trading,” he writes. “John Wesley also said little about slaveholding and did even less.”
Some philosophers, like Kant, insisted that ethics belonged to the private and inner realm of human existence. Any public ethic that exists is simply the spillover of the individual conscience.
Within this compartmentalized tradition, a dichotomy between the Christian as individual and the Christian as public servant emerges.
For example, a Christian may be inclined to follow God’s commandment prohibiting killing. He may, in fact, desire to offer the enemy his other cheek in obedience to Christ. Still, the Christian must remain responsible to the duty of the office placed upon his or her shoulder.
As a soldier, they have a duty to kill in order to preserve the overall social structure. Individual feelings must be put aside for the administration of this duty. The duty of obedience by the individual is so binding, even when the magistrate is not necessarily just, that the citizen should be willing to suffer death, rather than rebel. Their duty ensures that the government can continue to keep a check on the wickedness brought forth by human nature.
What reformers like Luther and Calvin ignored was that for the disenfranchised, it is the government, preserving the rights of the privileged, that usually perpetuates wickedness.
In such cases, the duty of the citizen may well be to reject the duality of responsibility established to maintain the status quo, and rebel against it.
Compartmentalizing Christian definitions of justice or morality into two cities or two swords–one spiritual and the other civil–places the former under the authority of the gospel message, while it unbinds the latter from following the same set of precepts.
The results: an ethical understanding, especially prevalent within the United States, which is highly privatized with little commitment to transform the social injustices. Hence a president who claims to be a born-again Christian can battle Congress for the right to torture other human beings. While torture is immoral for the individual, it is acceptable for the state.
To do ethics from the margins, however, is to insist that while the two realms may be distinct, they are in fact related. The morality advocated for the private life are the same as advocated for the public life, hence collapsing the prevailing dichotomy created by the dominant culture which serves to protect their position of power and privilege.
The maintenance of this false dichotomy has facilitated the justification of some of the worst atrocities within Christian history, from the crusades, to the inquisition, to our very own “peculiar” institution of slavery, to the horrors we are presently committing in Iraq.
A dichotomy in Eurocentric thought develops between the private and public life, where moral purity is sought for the private life but not for the public, under the conviction that the public life is incapable of obtaining the purity that only the private life can obtain.
Justice, while desirable for earth, is in fact reserved for heaven, so the only hope offered the oppressed is a spiritual liberation from their individual sins.
Christians on the margins of power and privilege reject this dominant culture’s interpretation, which suggests the biblical text’s intent is to liberate the soul, but not necessarily the body.
Reinhold Niebuhr illustrates the fallacy of Martin Luther’s severance between the experience of grace and the possibility for justice, which reduces liberation to nothing more than liberation from God’s everlasting wrath toward human sin. However, he continues the spiritual compartmentalization of Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Kant by relegating love to the private sphere and social justice to the public realm.
Niebuhr’s commitment to Christian realism leads him to conclude that the ideal of love, as the basis for public action, is simply impractical and unable to deal with the complexity of modern life.
Nations, multi-national corporations and other collective entities, unlike humans, are simply incapable of moral behavior. In fact, he maintained that certain inequalities are necessary for society to function properly.
The impracticality Niebuhr feared is specifically the type of radical commitment to Christ those from the margins demand from themselves and from those who benefit from the present social structures.
Can a Christian who is committed to turning the other cheek go off to war and kill Muslims to ensure the flow of oil to the United States? Can a Christian who is commanded to give their cloak as well as their tunic to the person who asks be entitled to bring a suit against anyone?
Can a Christian who is commanded to walk an extra mile for the one that asks, be content simply to leave the “colored” urban centers after five in the afternoon for the secluded vanilla suburbs where their children can receive a superior education? And they can rest easy at night due to beefed-up security?
And in the case of Stanley Tookie Williams, can a society which calls itself Christian deny mercy to a redeemed man whose present fruit is helping to establish justice?
Compartmentalizing love and justice to two separate spheres of human existence allows a person to claim to be a Christian (hence full of love) while supporting public policies that perpetuate mechanisms of death, especially for marginalized persons.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.