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Jewish World ReviewJan. 13, 2000 / 6 Shevat, 5760

David Corn

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Thou Shalt Not Heed? -- IF JESUS WERE ALIVE TODAY, would he be working as an executioner in a Texas prison?

That’s a question I’d like to see one of the local reporters put to George W. Bush during a presidential debate. Bush should be pushed on the smug answer he provided at an Iowa debate last month, when he was asked to name his favorite political philosopher.

“Christ,” Bush piped up, “because he changed my heart.” Pressed for an explanation, he petulantly said, If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.

And during last week’s GOP debate in New Hampshire, Bush called Jesus’ teachings the “foundation for how I live my life.” How precisely has the political philosophy of J.C. transformed George W.—especially on public policy matters? Jesus, after all, did have something to say about politics (boot those money-changers out of the temple!) and the treatment of the poor.

Regarding one of the most fundamental political issues—the right of the state to kill a person—the words of Jesus have had little impact on Bush. In the past two years, Gov. Bush has presided over 55 executions in Texas. That’s one-third of the nation’s total. Since he assumed office in 1995, his state has snuffed 112 people. In fact, one of Bush’s undeniable accomplishments as governor has been to restrict the appeals process so executions could proceed with more dispatch.

(In Florida, his brother Gov. Jeb—whose relationship to the carpenter-messiah is not as well-known—is attempting to copy George’s “success.”) What would Bush’s personal savior, who himself was executed, make of this?

Bush’s number-one political philosopher had some thoughts of his own on this topic. So says the United Methodist Church. That’s Bush’s church, for the born-again Bush has been a practicing Methodist since he married his wife Laura. In 1980, the United Methodist Church passed a resolution opposing capital punishment that noted, “In spite of a common assumption to the contrary, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ does not give justification for the imposing of the penalty of death. Jesus explicitly repudiated the lex talionis (Matthew 5:38-39), and the Talmud denies its literal meaning and holds that it refers to financial indemnities. When a woman was brought before Jesus having committed a crime for which the death penalty was commonly imposed, our Lord so persisted in questioning the moral authority of those who were ready to conduct the execution that they finally dismissed the charges. (John 8:31).” {Editor's note: The Methodist statement is not completely accurate regarding the Talmudic position the death penalty.}

As it happens, my office is next to the Washington office of a Christian denomination — Newt Gingrich lives on the floor below ours — and one of the workers there, Lisa Henderson, has long been my informal consultant on all matters biblical. I toss her questions such as, “Where do the religious conservatives get that line about wives being subservient to husbands?” In return, she shoots me queries about Judaism, such as, “Do Jews celebrate the Year 2000 New Year’s?”

So recently I popped my head in the door of her suite and said, “Jesus Christ and the death penalty — what do you got?” Within minutes, she had a slew of citations that ought to make Bush cringe. There’s Matthew 5:21, where Jesus is said to have said: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of judgment.” Two lines earlier, Bush’s greatest influence is quoted declaring, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least [Ten] commandments shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” In the Book of James, this sentiment is reiterated: “Do not kill...yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.” And there is the good ol’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus observed, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” That point is also made in James: “For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy.”

As the head of the state government that has killed more people than any other — the pace of execution increased 75 percent there from 1998 to 1999 — Bush has much blood on his hands. Regarding killing, Jesus’ philosophy seems clear. A question for the Governor: Why has the Son of G-d, who supposedly has brought you salvation, left your heart untouched on this issue of life and death?

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press ( His latest book is Deep Background.

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