“Conviction” is the title of a new film definitely deserving to be seen—even though it will hardly win Academy awards and has been panned by one critic as more of a TV drama than a big screen production. The title is a double entendre: an innocent man convicted of murder and given a life sentence and his sister’s conviction that the sentence must be vacated. The film is based on true life: a miscarriage of justice that occurred in Massachusetts in 1980.
The sister, one Betty Anne Waters, literally gives up her own existence in a singleminded effort—over eighteen years—to achieve the release of her brother Kenny, a tearaway with little to attract sympathy. Betty Anne, a waitress with no academic pretensions and no money to hire top-class counsel, attains a law degree so that she can achieve the necessary legal results. Whilst in law school, she learns that DNA evidence can be used to exculpate when (as in this case) the technique was not available at the time of the original investigation and conviction. Her studies result in the breakup of her marriage, her husband becoming sick-and-tired of her crusade. But ultimately she succeeds. Kenny is released and significant compensation is obtained for him owing to the prosecutorial misconduct of a female police officer interested only in obtaining a conviction.
The characters in the film show no religious orientation and the language employed will surely keep the film from appearing on the evangelical recommended lists. Why, then, should you see it? For some powerful theological reasons.
First: Conviction is a remarkable illustration of Jesus’ declaration: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Betty Anne literally gave up her own life in order to free her brother. Toward the end of the film she asks her sons if they would do this for each other; neither can unqualifiedly say he would. That kind of love is of the rarest quality. Only our Lord manifested it perfectly—and for the sins of the whole world.
Christians should be the paramount examples of self-giving love—living as “little Christs for their neighbour,” in Luther’s felicitous expression, so beautifully depicted in the “Charity” paintings of Reformation artist Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Secondly (and this will surely irritate those readers who are first of all political and social conservatives—and, then, to be sure, conservative evangelicals): Conviction is, indirectly, a powerful statement against the death penalty. At one point in the film, after Betty Anne has obtained the help of the (actually existent) Innocence Project which employs DNA evidence to reverse false convictions, the point is made that had the death penalty existed in Massachusetts, Kenny would have been executed before the evidence exonerating him had been discovered.
Original sin means judicial error—and there is no correcting it after the victim has been executed! It should be of more than routine interest that, as of 23 January 2011, 266 people convicted of serious crimes in the United States (25% of them murder convictions) have been exonerated by DNA testing.
And human fallibility is not by any means the only reason to oppose the death penalty. Here are other reasons to abolish it (as has been done in every European country, as required by the European Convention of Human Rights):
(1) The death penalty deters only the one executed. Because of the pride and arrogance of a fallen race, others do not stop actual or potential illegal activity owing to the possibility of being executed—since they are convinced that they are smarter and won’t get caught. When public executions took place at Tyburn (London, England), “cut-pursing” (pickpocketing) carried the death penalty—and the pickpockets regularly worked the crowds watching the hangings.
(2) Economically, it costs far more to execute than to keep the condemned individual incarcerated for life! Thus, in Texas (at the forefront of American States practicing capital punishment), the average legal execution costs approximately 2 million dollars—whereas only $30,000 a year is required to maintain a prisoner on death row.
(3) Evangelism is—or should be–of paramount importance to the Christian: Jesus’ Great Commission requires believers to “preach the gospel to every creature.” (Do we need to point out that the Old Testament civil legislation for Israel, though divinely revealed, has been abrogated by the New Covenant in Christ?) The dead cannot make a decision for Christ. We should therefore do all that we can to preserve life in order to facilitate conversions—whatever their likelihood. Chuck Colson and John DeLorean are examples of genuine decisions for Christ made in prison. And if we worry about not doing justice to the guilty, we might recall that (a) life in prison without possibility of parole may be worse than instant death by legal injection, and (b) everyone—including the convicted felon—will one day stand at the Great Assize, where God’s judgment will be perfectly just, unlike that of every human tribunal.
Finally, a suggestion for a good novelistic read on the death penalty (with a Lutheran pastor as hero!): John Grisham, The Confession (Random House, 2010).
Readers of the Global Journal will recall, in Vol. 8, No. 1, an article on Alvin Plantinga and the so-called “Reformed epistemology.” This apologetic approach—derived from the thought of Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and George Mavrodes—warrants (note the term!) further treatment, receiving, as it does, uncritical acceptance in some evangelical quarters. Our lead article in this number of the Global Journal takes issue with the effectiveness of the method: “Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology, Evidentialism, and Evangelical Apologetics” by John D. Laing of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. And, moving back to Reformation times, Jeff Fisher offers an analysis of “The Justification of John Oecolampadius: His Teaching on the Doctrine and a Revision of McGrath’s Portrayal of the Swiss Reformer.” Finally, the question of Jesus’ very existence is discussed by Tim Snyder—over against the German higher critical views of skeptic G. A. Wells—in his essay, “The Heart of Christianity: An Apologetic Critiquing the Jesus Myth Theory.”
Enjoy—and increase your theological sophistication level!
— John Warwick Montgomery
——————————————————————————– For those who read French: René Floriot, Les erreurs judiciaires (Paris: Flammarion, 1968) [from the legal standpoint]; Benôit Garnot (ed.), L’erreur judiciaire (Paris: Editions Imago, 2004) [sociological analysis].