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The Switch

Jun 26, 2013

Pastor Steve Hickey explained why the death penalty should be abolished in a recent sermon.

Steve Hickey is a pastor, a Republican, a legislator and an occasional blogger. Since our entry into the South Dakota blogosphere, the good Rev. Rep. Hickey and I have disagreed on the death penalty.

But not anymore. He's changed his mind. Rep. Hickey now agrees with me that South Dakota should abolish the death penalty. He has decided the death penalty in modern America is neither Christian nor good policy. He plans to introduce a bill in the 2014 Legislature to abolish South Dakota's death penalty.

To fight my own sinful, prideful urge to gloat, I yield the floor to Reverend Hickey. He explained his switch in something he calls a "Hot Potato" sermon in his Sioux Falls church on June 23. The audio of this 48-minute sermon is available online; I offer my own selective summary, with minor commentary.

Hickey's firmly Christian case against killing prisoners is not all warm fuzzy love-thy-neighbor talk. He notes early in his sermon that we all deserve death. Those who disagree, Hickey tells his parishioners, "have an inadequate concept of your sinful nature." God could kill us all, for darn good reason, but He relents. (Yes, sometimes atheism is a more comfortable worldview.)

Jesus on the Cross, says Hickey, should have been the last execution. That one act of "substitutionary atonement" paid the price for all sins. Our continued executions thus do nothing additional to restore justice; they only punish. We can make a case for punishing killers, but Hickey says God is testing our ability to extend mercy to others.

Mid-sermon, Hickey shows his flock a chart of executions by country. The U.S. ranks fifth for killing convicts, behind China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen. Hickey rattles of a list of Muslim countries below us and asks "What are we doing in league with those nations?" We should all pause before an argument that says we should change a policy to avoid acting like those bad Muslims. Fortunately, Hickey broadens the picture for folks who don't see themselves at war with Islam: "We are the only developed predominantly Christian democracy in the world that still retains the death penalty. Two-thirds of the countries of the world have abolished it."

Hickey says that majority of modern nations have abolished the death penalty because it doesn't do much. He dismantles five main reasons given for the death penalty:

    1. Retribution: yes, but the Gospel, says Hickey, invites us to the higher spirituality of mercy, not judgment.
    2. Deterrence: Nope. In the U.S., higher execution rates correlate with higher murder rates. Hickey says the death penalty would deter crime if it were "swift, painful, ugly, and public," but a nation that abides by Christian principles, due process, and the 8th Amendment can't go there. 
    3. Safety: Hickey treads carefully here, acknowledging the murder of guard Ron Johnson at the South Dakota Penitentiary two years ago. But he notes that the Pen has implemented policies to reduce such danger from convicts. And besides, the prisoners who killed Johnson were not on death row. 
    4. Closure: Death penalty proponents profess that killing killers does victims' families a favor, putting their suffering to an end, helping them move on. Hickey says that victims' families report no such emotional benefit. Their loved ones are still dead. The Reverend says we learn more from the stories of victims' families who forgive and even reach out to the killer.  
    5. Economics: The main way to make the death penalty cheaper would be to shorten the appeals process. Again, Hickey says swift justice is poor justice. As long as we respect due process, especially in the case of irreversible punishment, it will always be cheaper to house criminals for the rest of their lives than to try to execute them.

Hickey ends with the modern church-in-a-nutshell question: "What would Jesus do?" Faced with a convicted killer, "Would He flip the switch, or would He switch places with the person?" (In case you missed it, Jesus already answered that question.)

Hickey still wants to punish killers. But he says the New Testament calls a restorative system, not retribution. "If we went for redemption, reformation and transformation, we'd be following the higher road to which the Bible calls us."

I'm still not putting my faith in the Bible on which Reverend Hickey bases his new position against the death penalty. But I'll be happy to walk that higher road with Representative Hickey as he makes his case to the Legislature to end South Dakota's death penalty.

P.S.: On Monday, South Dakota announced it will kill Ron Johnson's other murderer in the dead of winter, sometime between January 12 and 18, 2014. The Legislature opens its 2014 session the same week.


Editor's Note: Cory Heidelberger is our political columnist from the left. For a right-wing perspective on politics, please look for columns by Dr. Ken Blanchard every other Monday on this site.

Cory Allen Heidelberger writes the Madville Times political blog. He grew up on the shores of Lake Herman. He studied math and history at SDSU and information systems at DSU, and is currently teaching French at Spearfish High School. A longtime country dweller, Cory is enjoying "urban" living with his family in Spearfish.


08:25 am - Wed, June 26 2013
Steve Sibson said:
Yes, now Pastor Hickey has played into the hands of those who use the chaos created by criminals to justify more government control of the law-abiding citizen.

Questions for the author:

Are you at all concerned that you are playing into the hands of the movement that is to create what you call a Christian Theocracy?

Are you still a French teacher at Spearfish High School?
05:28 pm - Wed, June 26 2013
Denny Davis said:
I too want to congratulate Pastor Hickey for his courage and integrity in his decision to support the repeal of the death penalty in South Dakota. The death penalty is not about what the person who kills does, or what God says or doesn't say. The death penalty is about what WE DO both as citizens of this state and as members of the Christian faith. We worship a God of Life, not death. Pastor Hickey is just doing his job as a Christian Pastor, and that is attempting to follow our leader, Jesus who came to call all of us to Life no mater who you are. To walk the extra mile takes courage and a willingness to take the flack no matter how hateful. Thank you Pastor for showing all of us the Way!

Denny Davis (South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty-SDADP)
01:03 pm - Thu, June 27 2013
Keep up the good work, Denny! I hope you will enjoy a good working relationship with Rep. Rev. Hickey on this issue.

Steve, I fail to see how Hickey's desire to remove capital punishment from the tools available to the state somehow plays into the hands of those who want more government control of its citizens. Nor do I see how a pastor adopting a position that weakens the conventional talking points of those inclined to theocracy somehow increases the risk of theocracy. That threat comes from people like Bob Ellis who think "God says so!" justifies his rage and bloodlust.
03:18 pm - Fri, June 28 2013
dave tunge said:
I'm not a proponent of the death penalty. However, there are still people in the world who are monsters that don't belong in the human race. People who will never change. I think the death penalty should not be taken off the table and judges/juries should have this option. That being said, the convicted murderer sentenced to death should be able to choose his destiny. Death or life imprisonment. Should they choose life it would be with the understanding that they can never appeal or apply for parole and they will die in that institution.
No legal games and they lose any and all "rights".
07:37 pm - Sun, June 30 2013
Jim Newcomb said:
I did not have to go far in my New Testament to find Jesus as Righteous and Loving. See the Beatitudes and following. He is giving us a higher righteousness and higher expectations for a loving and righteous living. People have not changed. Evil has not lost it fury. Sin is still here. Discipline, punishment and taking responsibility are workable principles to life on earth. Punishment by death has lost its effectiveness. It needs to be quick and just.
03:48 pm - Mon, July 1 2013
larry kurtz said:
We know he opposes reproductive rights for women; but, as Hickey comes out of the closet to oppose capital punishment, this interested party remains curious about his position on force-feeding detainees in occupied Guantanamo.
08:47 pm - Tue, July 2 2013
Dave, Pastor Hickey might respond that none of us sinners deserve to continue to belong to humanity. I will say that due process is not just some legal game. It is the heart of the rule of law.

Jim, Pastor Hickey agrees that sin is still here. He agrees that to be effective, the death penalty would have to be quicker. But he says it can't be quick and still be just. Do you think we can we do both in a way that overcomes Hickey's concerns about due process and decency?
02:55 pm - Sun, July 14 2013
Mike M said:
I think it is perfectly understandable for anyone to use their religious beliefs as a basis for discerning a personal position on a public policy, legal or political issue. I depend on my own sense of spirituality and religious understanding for personal decision-making. However, I think it is a disservice to both one's chosen faith tradition and to the principles of our Constitution to argue that civil code should be based on a particular religious code. Pastor Hickey: decide your position based on your personal spiritual path, but then in your role as an elected representative make your argument about civil law based on Constitutional and general moral principles. To argue for or against legislation from the position of aligning it with a particular religious authority is to disregard your oath of office. I am opposed to the death penalty. I am also opposed to christianist theocracy.
09:31 am - Mon, July 15 2013
Thanks for your thoughts, Mike. As an irreligious opponent of theocracy, I feel uneasy using the weight of a religious authority's argument to achieve my civil ends, since, as you say, that gives weight to the theocratic push on other issues. One challenge for me is finding the points in Hickey's argument that can reach across the religious divide and persuade non-Christians. Much of what Hickey says about deterrence, safety, closure, and retribution seem quite able to bridge that divide.

I wonder, though: does a committed Christian have to come up with a secular reason to vote against the death penalty? Or is it acceptable for a regular citizen to say, "The Bible says don't do it, so I don't want to do it through government"? (I know, Mike's point addresses oath-taking legislators, not just regular citizens, but let's grapple with that question for both.)

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