Thursday, November 29, 2007

Favorite in the Narnia Series?

Over at the Touchstone Magazine blog, David Mills has started a discussion on which book in the Chronicles of Narnia series is one's favorite and which one the least favorite. It's good, clean fun, and it got me to thinking.

When I was very young, I liked The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe best. Now that I'm old, I like The Last Battle and Voyage of the Dawn Treader best. Of course.

Actually, now that I'm old and have a better understanding of my own sin and the corruption of the world around me, I may appreciate Till We Have Faces more than any of the Narnia books, but I'll need to ponder that one awhile.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ultimate Punishment

As a lawyer who has been appointed by the federal courts on death penalty cases, I was particularly engaged by the intellectual and moral odyssey Scott Turow charts in his 2003 book, Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing the Death Penalty. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Turow is both a veteran writer and a seasoned lawyer. Over twenty years ago, his first book, One L: The Turbulent Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School (another personal account of an earlier odyssey, published by Putnam in 1977), served me as a primer on the law school experience. Having found his insights there to be instructive, I undertook the reading of this work with a high level of expectation.

Like politics and religion, however, the question of the death penalty nearly always polarizes people. This adverse effect is often largely due to the conflagration of both political and religious ideologies as they are advanced in efforts to form the policy and direct the practice of capital punishment by governments seeking to uphold twenty-first-century ideals of a democratic society where the rights of individuals are constitutionally protected. To his credit, Turow's approach ameliorates these confrontational and sometimes caustic attitudes that are brought to bear upon this issue.

Within the pages of his self-styled "reflections," Turow invites the reader along on his journey of experiences with the death penalty, early as a prosecuting attorney, later as a pro bono defense counsel and, most centrally, as a member of Governor George Ryan's Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment. Throughout his work, he intertwines compelling, personal stories of both those accused and victims of capital crimes portraying a full spectrum of uses and abuses of the ultimate punishment in the American criminal justice system.

Turow's storytelling reveals the profound humanness of crime as well as the often stark limitations of our legal system to mete out just punishments. The accounts of his experiences prosecuting the guilty, like Hector Reuben Sanchez, and defending the innocent, like Alejandro Hernandez, open the reader to a much boarder awareness of the complexities inherent in the issue that is, all too often, narrowly presented as simple as black and white--pro or con--for it or against it. Turow takes time to tell us about Anthony Porter who was one of the many wrongfully convicted on death row, but, happily, one of the few who was permitted to escape an unjust death at the hands of his government through the persistent efforts of his appellate lawyers.

The authenticity of his own internal struggle to come to a reasoned position on the question of capital punishment is exemplified by Turow's efforts in an appeal on behalf of Christopher Thomas whose prosecution was fraught with errors and abuse. Although Thomas was indeed guilty as an accomplice, the reversal of his death penalty and the subsequent hearing on his re-sentence to life imprisonment provided Thomas the opportunity to express an unreserved admission of responsibility for his role in the crime, his remorse for the immeasurable loss to the victim's family and his humble appeal for their forgiveness.

Prior to Turow's appointment by George Ryan to the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment, his views on the death penalty had swung from one extreme to another. During his days at university, he, like the majority of students in the late 1960s and early 1970s, adamantly opposed capital punishment. After law school and then six years an Assistant United States Attorney prosecuting crime, however, Turow had no qualms about seeking the death penalty for senseless murders like those committed by Hector Sanchez, or even worse, John Wayne Gacy: "My job as a prosecutor-and the sensible first response of society-was to make sure they didn't do bad things again. And I could see that a sentence of death was the most certain means to accomplish that goal in extreme cases" (13).

Subsequent to his service as a federal prosecutor and while in private practice with one of Chicago's largest law firms, he volunteered on the death penalty appeals of Alex Hernandez and Christopher Thomas. By that time, Turow described himself as "a death penalty agnostic." He writes, "Every time I thought I was prepared to stake out a position, something would drive me back in the other direction." (14). So when he was introduced with the other thirteen members of Governor Ryan's Commission in March 2000, he was not among the four who stated their principled opposition to capital punishment from the outset of the Commission's work.

With his fellow commissioners, Turow was charged with the job of determining for the State of Illinois what reforms, if any, would make application of the death penalty fair, just, and accurate: "Our foremost task was pragmatic: identify problems and propose solutions. The big issues [i.e. retain or abolish capital punishment] would come at the end" (27-28). The bulk of his book recounts the scope and substance of the Commission's investigations, findings, and ultimate recommendations that occupied its attention for the next two years. First, they examined in detail the thirteen out of twenty-seven cases where the convicted capital offenders were later exonerated after exposure, through the process of appeal, of forced confessions, false testimony by accomplices or jail-house snitches, or what even was worse, bad faith and out-right knowing and intentional prosecutorial misconduct, such as willful withholding of evidence known to the prosecutor that would prove the defendant's innocence.

Turow astutely observes that while the multiple layers of state and federal appellate review in death cases are often viewed by the public as "today's version of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, unfathomably complex and unbearably protracted.. The reason there is always further review is because there has to be; although over the years, I've sensed that the inevitability of additional scrutiny has a natural tendency to occasionally make judges and lawyers less scrupulous than the stakes would seem to require" (78).

The Commission then proceeded to convene, throughout Illinois, public and private hearings open to proponents and opponents alike. Turow and his colleagues, though, were particularly interested to hear from the surviving family members and friends of those who had been the victims of murders. Survivors seek a justice "embedded in the concept of restitution: the criminal ought not end up better off than his victim" (53). Yet, Turow was not persuaded that compensatory justice for the loss to loved ones was a compelling reason, in and of itself, to maintain capital punishment as it had been practiced by the State: "At the end of the day, if we are to subscribe to the death penalty, it must benefit the rest of us, as well" (56).

In this broader quest, the societal benefit of deterrence was explored by the Commission, but, from Turow's perspective, their review of empirical studies conducted over the past thirty years found that the reported evidence was inconclusive. Economic analyses proved equally indeterminate. He says, "I decided I wasn't going to find any definitive answers to the merits-or the failings-of the death penalty in the realm of social science" (62).

Something, though, continued to prevent Turow from moving over to join the minority four members who stood in complete opposition. That something was the extreme case-multiple murderers like John Wayne Gacy or Henry Brisbon. Unlike the notorious Gacy, Brisbon, the I-57 murderer of the early 1970s, is little known outside Illinois, but his crimes, although less numerous, were as deeply depraved. Brisbon, however, had been convicted of his gruesome crimes during that period in American constitutional history (1972-1976) when the imposition of the death penalty was for a short time deemed unconstitutional. Sentenced to 1,000 to 3,000 years of confinement, literally, Brisbon is incarcerated in the Tamms "CMAX" Correctional Center in southern Illinois.

While in prison, Brisbon murdered yet again. He now faces a death sentence. Turow and a few of his colleagues from the Commission obtained permission to visit the Tamms facility. The Brisbon case had brought him to a fundamental inquiry. He recalls:

"[T]he pivotal question for me was whether there were means beside execution to control the Brisbons of the world, the prisoners whose record suggests that they are so bad to the bone that they are clearly prone to murder again if give the opportunity. If the conditions of their confinement cannot reliably prevent this, the argument in favor of capital punishment in Brisbon's case, and others like it, seems overwhelming to me. "(84-85)

After a comprehensive tour of the facility and a lengthy interview with the warden, Turow left Tamms unable to conclude that the best technologies of confinement available in corrections today could guarantee that Henry Brisbon would not murder again.

The concluding chapters of Turow's book outline the eighty-five recommendations issued in the Commission report submitted to Governor Ryan on April 15, 2002. Principal among the changes urged were those aimed at reducing the risk of convicting the innocent, such as video-taping interrogations to prevent or at least expose forced confessions, line-up procedures that promoted more reliable eyewitness identifications, pre-trial hearings to determine the reliability of jail-house informants.

The most substantive of the reforms advocated by the Commission was the reduction of the eligibility criteria (statutory aggravating circumstances) for capital punishment from twenty to only five: multiple murders; murder of law enforcement or fire-fighting personnel; murder in prison; murder aimed at hindering the justice system and murder involving torture. Although some of the procedural recommendations were adopted by the Illinois Legislature, the substantive changes were not. In fact, the legislature expanded, rather than reduced, the number of death-qualifying circumstances, making death sentences more, not less, likely in Illinois murder prosecutions. Governor Ryan, before leaving office, responded to the legislature's acts by commuting the sentences of those remaining on death row to life imprisonment.

Turow's informal and conversational writing style, sprinkled with contractions and even an occasional split infinitive, renders his book quite accessible to the general public. For the scholar, though, he includes an extensive section at the end of his work presenting an extensive list of both formal legal citations to court reporters and URL's for those authorities he relies upon that are available on the Internet.

While not explicitly advancing a Judeo-Christian worldview, Turow and the Commission expressed ideas of justice in their recommendations that are implicitly consistent with such a view. For example, Turow notes that although the Commission did not recommend abolition of the death penalty by Illinois, it did suggest banning it as a punishment when the murder conviction is based solely on the uncorroborated testimony of a lone eyewitness or a single accomplice (91). This recommendation adheres to the requirement set forth by Moses that death may not be imposed as a penalty on the testimony of only one witness. (See Num. 35:30; Deut. 19:15.) On the whole, Turow's insights reveal the limitations of any human system of justice:

"Murder takes us to the Land's End of the law. Our horror and revulsion undermine our capacity to reason - and prove that justice alone will not make us whole. Only the attachments we have to each other, the antipodal experience of what goes on in the moment a murderer kills, can accomplish that. In the face of the cruelties we visit upon one another, murder being the gravest wrong among them, a sense of meaning and convection must come from outside the law." (109)

Acknowledging these very real limitations, and with a ready admission of his own fluctuations, Turow concludes with his response to the question posed by Senator Paul Simon at the summation of the Commission's work: Should Illinois retain capital punishment? Senator Simon had been one of the four Commission members who confessed his opposition from the outset of their task. Turow's book explains why he has now joined that number as he articulates a persuasive rationale for any who would undertake to consider this question seriously.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A New Favorite

Just a note to praise a new book from InterVarsity Press, Louis Markos' From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (IVP 2007). It's a gem.

I confess that much of my appreciation for this book is based on the fact that as an amateur lit teacher-- I teach literature to high schoolers in our local homeschool co-op-- I need all the help I can get in integrating sound Christian scholarship into my lessons. In fact, this book came out at just the time I was preparing to teach The Iliad for the first time in four years. This book is a real blessing to those of us who, without much formal training, are trying to help students gain an appreciation for classics of any kind.

But I recommend this book to anyone who has even the remotest love for literature or antiquity. Markos brings a real eloquence to the topic, drawing the reader into the pagan myths and stories in a way that both informs and edifies. His broad readings cast these works as pre-figurings of the great myth that is also fact. This theological journey through Homer, the Greek tragedians, and Virgil, is fascinating and instructive. At times, his discussions have an almost devotional quality, and more than once I was moved to deeper meditation on God's work in time and history.

At first I thought the subtitle was wrong: Markos doesn't provide a reasoned defense that leads to a conclusion that I should look into these pagan classics. Instead, he guides me through them, reading them in faithful Christian hindsight, filling up my former readings and informing and encouraging my future forays into these stories and plays. By the end of the book, I was indeed convinced that God has used these great pagans and their stories to show us truth and direct us to the One who works in human history to bring about his purposes. In short, I now know why I-- and my students-- should read the pagan classics.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Death Penalty and Imago Dei

Last month I had a very interesting conversation with Mirror of Justice blogger and law professor Susan Stabile about the death penalty. She was kind enough to respond on a variety of helpful levels and post the discussion (here and here) on MOJ. You can read the exchanges, but the upshot is that most of the legal scholarship that I've seen from a Christian (primarily Roman Catholic) perpsective rests its opposition to the death penalty in the fact that we are created in God's image, and as such, have an inherent dignity with which the death penalty is inconsistent.

As you can see from the discussion, God's delegation of the authority to humans to carry out the death penalty is itself rooted in the imago Dei (Genesis 9:6). It seems to me that since the death penalty was established to vindicate the inherent dignity of the human person as created in God's image, there is more to be proved by death penalty opponents than simply that we are created in God's image.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Gospel, Culture, and Power in the Evangelical Moment - Part 1

Introducing the Question

John Schmalzbauer’s Wall Street Journal (Oct 18 2007) review of Michael Lindsay’s new book Faith in the Halls of Power notes the significance of evangelical upward mobility. He writes: “… [A] funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. Buoyed by the upward mobility of postwar America, a critical mass of evangelicals made it into the elite.”

Once referred to as the “gaping primates of the upland valley,” (by H. L. Menken), evangelicals are now represented in leadership of government, the academy, and business. Lindsay’s book features two former presidents, one hundred executives, some two-dozen high-level government officials, and a dozen filmmakers and actors. Peter Gomes, chaplain of Harvard University, notes that there are more evangelicals at Harvard now than at anytime since the seventeenth century.

In response to this, some have warned of a looming theocracy. Lindsay notes that he found little evidence to support this concern. Why? Lindsay (and Schmalzbauer) note that this evangelical elite is not monolithic: there is a plurality of political and cultural views. In fact, notes Lindsay, many elite evangelicals distance themselves from the populist evangelicalism of the likes of Joel Osteen and other television preachers.

This “cosmopolitan evangelicalism” (Lindsay’s term) represents an evangelical theology informed and influenced by higher education and higher culture. If there is any risk, notes Lindsay, it is to the internal coherence of the evangelical movement. There is, to put it bluntly, a growing class divide within evangelicalism. Despite the growing differences within evangelicalism, a divergence that has produced some nasty battles, Lindsay’s book seems to have an optimistic tone. Evangelicals, it seems, are successfully engaging our culture in helpful and productive ways in various spheres.

Less optimistic is Charles Marsh’s analysis of evangelical political influence in Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity (Oxford 2007). Fundamental to Marsh’s reflections is the simple question: have evangelicals compromised the Gospel in order to attain political power in contemporary America?

A broader question arises both for Marsh and for Lindsay: does the attainment of culturally influential positions necessitate an abrogation or corruption of the centerpiece of the evangelical movement—the Gospel? The latter of these questions is abstractly answerable in the negative. The former questions, however, requires a theological interaction with the events of what Marsh calls “the evangelical moment,” the years 2000-2006. In short, Marsh claims that the evangelical moment was the result of a profound corruption of the classical Gospel message.

In a series of posts, I will be interacting with Marsh’s book chapter by chapter. My first post, probably next week, will interact with Marsh’s introduction of his project in his chapter, “On Being a Christian after Bush.” Thereafter I will be tracing the trajectory of Marsh’s argument interacting with it as I go. My goal will be to understand Marsh’s work and to seek to engage it critically from an evangelical perspective. Beyond understanding Marsh’s work, perhaps the discussion that ensues will be helpful in reflecting upon cultural engagement by evangelical Christians.