I like the comics in the newspapers. I worry about Funky Winkerbean's marriage, wish that Charlie Brown would stop trusting Lucy not to move that football, and see myself more often than I'd like in Marcy and Joe in "Jump Start." And I often admire the way in which cartoonist Johnny Hart inserts Christian values into "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id."
But I do think he's dead wrong on the death penalty. Over and over he has the little king making jokes about people being put to death. A Sunday strip last month, for example, has the king at first worried because three hangings are scheduled and the gallows have been vandalized. Then he's relieved to learn that the moat monsters are starving to death. "Now, is that providence, or what?" he grins.
The truth is, the death penalty is not funny. The Sunday comics don't joke about abortion or slavery or incest. Capital punishment should join that list. Portraying it as a joke nurtures the notion that state-sponsored killing is a normal part of life. But worldwide, it's not. In 1998, there were 1,625 known executions in 37 countries; 80 percent of these took place in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the USA. Is that funny?
In Florida, in 1997 Pedro Medina's face caught on fire while he was being electrocuted. Is that funny?
In Texas, in 1998 Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer who had repented, become a Christian and turned her life around, and whose victims' siblings urged clemency for her, was executed anyway. Is that funny?
In Oklahoma, this year Wanda Jean Allen, with frontal lobe brain damage and a low IQ, was executed anyway. Is that funny?
In May, the nation may face the possibility of a publicly-televised execution of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Is that funny?
Across the country, an increasing number of persons are being set free after having been falsely convicted of murder and having spent years on death row. Is that funny?
The Bible urges us to choose life. It tells us that God sent us a son that we might know life more abundantly. Then the state executed that son on a cross. Is that funny?
Now the Christian world is observing the season of Lent, 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter that we mark with penitence. Society originally jailed criminals in penitentiaries so they could repent from their sins and see the error of their ways. Today that repentance makes no difference, as Karla Faye Tucker's execution demonstrates. Today it is we who need to repent our sin in insisting that the state kill in our name.
Last fall, a Cleveland judge reluctantly sentenced a man to death—only because the law required it. In doing so, he asked, "Why do we kill people to show people that killing people is wrong?" More and more people are asking that question. They realize that the death penalty is not fair, it is not a deterrent and it is not Christian. And it certainly is not funny.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.