There has been some amazing coverage surrounding this morning's execution of convicted murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams. The gang leader, who killed four people in two separate robberies in 1979, unsuccessfully tried to receive clemency from various courts and Gov. Schwarzennegger. With many Christian churches and other religious groups taking different positions on whether the state has the right to enact the death penalty, all capital punishment stories invite religious angles. But I can't recall such an open embrace of religious terminology as what we saw in headlines and copy today. The first few stories I read pounded the themes of redemption, mercy, and atonement. I wasn't sure if I was in church or reading the news.
Many of these "redemption" stories gave second or third billing to redemption's sidekick: repentance. The stories that did mention atonement, such as this one from the San Francisco Chronicle, used an unlikely source:
"Clemency cases are always difficult, and this one is no exception," Schwarzenegger wrote in a six-page statement rejecting Williams' bid to have his sentence commuted to life without the possibility of parole. "After studying the evidence, searching the history, listening to the arguments and wrestling with the profound consequences, I could find no justification for granting clemency. The facts do not justify overturning the jury's verdict or the decisions of the courts in this case."
Williams said he was a changed man and of value to society because of his anti-gang writings from behind bars. Schwarzenegger noted, however, that Williams had never apologized for the murders. Williams maintained he did not commit them.
"Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption," Schwarzenegger said. "In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do.''
The Governator articulating an understanding of the relationship between repentance and forgiveness is not what I expect when opening my California papers. What a day.
Reporters also managed to include the religious motivations of many of the death-penalty opponents. For instance, Washington Post writer Evelyn Nieves quoted these Williams supporters:
"The first thing you learn from the Bible is about forgiveness," actor Jamie Foxx told CNN in criticizing Schwarzenegger's decision. Foxx portrayed Williams in "Redemption," a made-for-television movie.
"Schwarzenegger could have called for a moratorium today," said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who is co-sponsoring a bill that would impose a moratorium on executions until January 2009 to review the fairness of how the state imposes the death penalty. The bill was introduced in August and is scheduled to be heard in committee next month.
"It would be refreshing to see the state articulate the values of grace, mercy and redemption," Leno said. "Unfortunately, the governor has missed an opportunity to do just that."
The idea that the state, traditionally the arm of justice and law, should take over the church's work, traditionally that of forgiveness of sins, is a radical idea. And yet almost every source quoted -- from Leno here to Schwarzenneger -- engaged the idea. The lack of quotes arguing against such mingling of church and state was striking. When some Christians advocate for a ban on abortion or resolutions against same-sex marriage, the media is quick to identify opponents who claim church-state violations. Do they not see the state taking over the work of forgiveness of sins, dispension of grace, etc., as a mingling of church and state? Surely there are folks who could speak to this. Where were they in the stories?