January 5th, 2010


Life and death in uniform

To continue the discussion on the death penalty from a different angle, I'd like to bring up something that's bothered me for years: members of the Armed Forces on death row.

When a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine in active service commits a crime, he or she is tried under the UCMJ. The military has prisons, and the military has a death penalty for certain crimes. So far, military law is just like civilian law.

But there's one major exception: any penalty given under the UCMJ must be signed off on by the convicted person's commanding officer. In the case of the death penalty, that extends all the way up to the Commander-in-Chief. Yep, the President must personally order the execution to be carried out, or the fellow winds up cooling his heels on death row indefinitely.

The last President to authorize execution of a capital sentence was John F. Kennedy. In the meantime, military death row has filled up in the normal course of things. But nobody is ever executed, probably because no President since Kennedy wants to have to order it done. Squeamish? Wary of bad press? Who knows?

But you see the difference, I hope. Under civilian law, the Governor or President has the option of extending clemency, but can choose not to, and things will simply proceed to the conclusion ordered by the courts. Oh, the Governor's signature may be required on the death warrant, but he can't just put it off without defying the courts: the only real option he has to carrying out the sentence is to grant clemency -- and face the gaff for that. It's easier to just let it roll by. But without the Commander-in-Chief's signature, the prisoner is in limbo, and just rots on death row.

So, which is better? If every Governor had to actively decide to carry out an execution (with the option of leaving the guy to cool his heels for the rest of his life), would that mean fewer executions? Would that be more just? Or if the President didn't have to order an execution, would the backlog on military death row be cleared out, and would that be more just?

And would making every Governor have to choose to carry out an execution unbalance the separation of powers by diminishing the authority of the judiciary? This doesn't apply to the Armed Forces, since they have their own courts, which function under the authority of the Commander-in-Chief. Both Congress's role in creating the rules under which the military operates and the President's responsibility as Commander-in-Chief are specified in the Constitution. This is also why the President has the power to create military commissions and the whole judicial process for them, if need arises. In effect, the ordinary judiciary is held at arm's length because people in uniform are in a special relationship to the government that the free citizen is not. So, would making Governors have to confirm judicial sentences place the free citizens of a State in a lesser position vis-a-vis their governments?

Hey, it's easier than Greek

And þæt is Iohannes gewitnes:

Ða þa Iudeas sendon hyra sacerdas and hyra diaconas fram Ierusalem to him þæt hi axsodon hine and þus cwædon, ‘Hwæt eart þu?’ And he cyðde and ne wiðsoc, and þus cwæð, ‘Ne eom ic na Crist.’

And hig axsodon hine and þus cwædon, ‘Eart ðu Elias?’ And he cwæð, ‘Ne eom ic hit.’ Ða cwædon hi, ‘Eart ðu witega?’ And he andwyrde and cwæð, ‘Nic.’

Hig cwædon to him. ‘Hwæt eart þu? Þæt we andwyrde bringon þam ðe us to þe sendon. Hwæt segst þu be þe sylfum?’

He cwæð, ‘Ic eom clypiendes stefn on westene. Gerihtað Drihtnes weg, swa se witega Isaias cwæð.’

And þa þe þær asende wæron, þa wæron of sundorhalgon. And hig axsodon hine and cwædon to him, ‘Hwi fullast þu, gif þu ne eart [Crist], ne Elias, ne witega?’

Iohannes him andswarode, ‘Ic fullige on wætere; tomiddes eow stod þe ge ne cunnon. He is þe æfter me toweard is, se wæs geworden beforan me; ne eom ic wyrðe þæt ic unbinde his sceoþwang.’

Ðas þing wæron gewordene on Bethania begeondan Iordanen þær Iohannes fullode.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will*

Tomorrow is Epiphany, which, among other things in Eastern Orthodoxy, is the remembrance of Jesus's baptism. Western Christianity usually commemorates Christ's baptism the Sunday after the Epiphany.

I'm starting a Bible study on the Gospel of John tomorrow, so I've been mugging up the book. Today, I was outlining the whole thing (first step in the good ol' Inductive Bible Study method), and I spent a fair amount of time after that trying to get the chronology straight. John marks the passage of time by structuring his narrative around a lot of feasts.

In John 2:13, he says the Passover was "at hand," meaning in a few days. This is a "few days" after the wedding at Cana, which was the third day after John pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. That event is not Jesus's baptism; Jesus seems to have returned from the wilderness (40 days' temptation), plus had a few days to get his own digs in Capernaum. So, allowing for 40 days of temptation, plus a few days at least to find a place to live, plus a few more days of gathering up disciples, plus a few days and the Passover is just around the corner means my best guess was that Jesus couldn't have been baptized any later than, say, January 20-25.

Of course, he could have been baptized much earlier -- say, around the previous Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. He might have spent several weeks settling his Mother's care, etc., before taking off to figure his call out. So, let's say he was baptized sometime between, oh, September 15 and January 15, just for grins.

And there is this ancient commemoration on or shortly after January 6. Spooky. Somebody's done this set of calculations before, I think. The Epiphany isn't just an arbitrary, "made-up" festival to give the faithful a happy holiday in the bleak midwinter. No doubt many traditions coalesced around Christmas and Epiphany, but things weren't just drug in from anywhere. The thing hangs together in a pleasing fashion, and no great violence is done to the chronology, either.

Traditionally, Jesus had 3 years of ministry. If we start with mid-winter, we can count three Passovers in John's gospel. The first is associated with the cleansing of the Temple. The second is out in the boonies, but contains the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus's teaching on the bread of life vis-a-vis the manna in the wilderness. The third is right after his triumphant entry.

So, two and a half years of ministry. Close enough.

BTW, the unnamed "Festival of the Jews" mentioned in 5:1 looks like either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur to me. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world, and would be an apposite time for Jesus to say, "my Father is working still, and so am I" (5:17). On the other hand, Yom Kippur is the time of atonement and judgment, and Jesus's teaching is all about judgment in 5:22-29.

* To coin a phrase. *cough-cough*