death penalty

[OPINION] The narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and the death penalty

Kevin Stephon Centeno

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[OPINION] The narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and the death penalty
'The poor Filipinos are our crucified peoples. They are crucified because of unjust laws and state-sanctioned violence. They are crucified because of dehumanizing deeds by the military and the police.'

In his 5th SONA, the populist president, who never shied away from threatening to kill criminals, said, “I reiterate the swift passage of a law reviving the death penalty by lethal injection for crimes specified under the Comprehensive Dangerous [Drugs] Act of 2002.”

After uttering this horrible statement, the populist president was taken aback because of the minimal applause.

“I did not hear so much clapping so I presume that they are not interested. Someday I will tell you the story of what happened in the Philippines,” he said.

As expected, the audience then clapped their hands – an ominous sight, indeed. 

The restoration of the death penalty is one of the cherished agendas of the current President. He once vowed “to litter Manila Bay with the bodies of criminals.” His so-called “war on drugs” has, if the government’s numbers are trustworthy, caused the death of 5,722 drug suspects nationwide, according to the latest count of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and RealNumbersPH. But, the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in the Philippines published last June 4 presents a much worse scenario:

“OHCHR ultimately cannot verify the number of extrajudicial killings without further investigation. On the basis of information reviewed, the drug campaign-related killings appear to have a widespread and systematic character. The most conservative figure, based on Government data, suggests that since July 2016, 8,663 people have been killed – with other estimates of up to triple that number. This clearly illustrates the need for a transparent and comprehensive reporting system for data on killings by State and non-State actors.”

The phenomenon of rampant EJK’s is already de facto a form of death penalty. The innocent poor and the marginalized accused of being drug-peddlers and drug users are dying without achieving justice. The never-ending “nanlaban” narrative perpetrates a culture of death and impunity in the Philippines. How much more if these killings are legalized? (READ: Binay on death penalty: Why now, when people are already dying?)

With all these grim events, how can the narrative of Jesus’ Crucifixion shed light on the proposed death penalty and our unjust situation?

Jesus, victim of an unjust death penalty

The historical Jesus lived in Palestine, which was colonized by the vicious and oppressive Roman Empire. Starting in 64 BC, the Romans brought suffering to the life of the Jews by establishing imperial control over the whole territory. Kings by means of tax collectors collected very burdensome taxes from the peasants and ordinary Jews, while enjoying the support of a strong military. The situation has parallels in the unforgettable past of most Latin American countries: military dictatorship. Tagged rebels and anti-Rome Jews are given the worst punishment in history: CRUCIFIXION. It was the death penalty at that time and Rome didn’t hesitate to display crucified people along the paths and streets to instill fear among the subjugated populace. 

Jesus Christ, the revered figure of Christianity, was a victim of an unjust death penalty. His main message was the coming of the Kingdom of God, a “kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17) A utopia wherein the poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted are blessed (Luke 6:20-22) and the “first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30) In a nutshell, an all-encompassing society of justice. 

Jesus, by giving voice to the poor and the oppressed, sided with the victims of anti-poor policies of the government of his time. He subverted the ungodly and inhuman values of Rome! He lived out his message; he was the Kingdom of God personified. His life and ministry caused him his ignominious death on the cross.

The unjust execution of Jesus as a “judicial murder” is well-explained by the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in his classic work Passion of Christ, Passion of the World:

“Jesus’ death was JUDICIAL MURDER, and not some kind of judicial error. Far from being a mistake of any kind, it was the fruit of malevolent interest, and evil will. Were we to wish to define the crime more precisely, we might say it was a religio-political murder via an abuse of justice.”

The crucified people in our times

What is the connection between the historical execution of Jesus and the death penalty? Are there any parallels in our society right now?

The crucifixion of Jesus discloses to us how the law can be wielded against the poor and dissenters. In the context of the death penalty, usually, if not most of the time, the victims are the poor. Have you witnessed a drug lord executed? The chances are very minimal. Even the “war on drugs” is called by critics as a “war on the poor,” which is true.

We need not be blind to what’s happening in our unjust society. The poor quarantine violators are treated harshly compared to the treatment the rich and the elite receive. A concrete example is when a senator outrightly violated quarantine protocols, and the Department of Justice defended the offender by stating that “the DOJ will temper the rigor of the law with human compassion.” How about the poor who violated the law in obedience to a higher need – the basic needs which the government must be providing in the first place?

No law is created in a vacuum. If the death penalty will be reinstated, then more executions will follow. The poor are the first casualties of an unjust law! In similarity with the historical context of Jesus, the prospects of “judicial murder” is detectable.

Borrowing from the metaphor of the Jesuit theologian Ignacio Ellacuria, the poor Filipinos are our “crucified peoples.” They are crucified because of unjust laws and state-sanctioned violence. They are crucified because of dehumanizing deeds by the military and the police. They are crucified because of social indifference. They are crucified because of their condition as the poor. 

The crucifixion of Jesus is a vehement protest against the ongoing crucifixion of the victims, especially the victims of de facto death penalties. Our task is to bring down the crucified from their crosses! –

Kevin Stephon R. Centeno is seminarian who recently graduated AB Philosophy at St. Augustine Seminary, Calapan City, Oriental Mindoro.

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