Thursday, June 17, 2010

Catholic And LDS Prison Chaplains Hold Forth On Utah's Upcoming Execution Of Ronnie Gardner; LDS Doctrine On The Fate Of Murderers

The execution of Ronnie Gardner by firing squad, scheduled to take place shortly after midnight early on Friday June 18th, 2010, has triggered a lot of commentary. The vast majority of those weighing in support the execution. Gardner tried to deter the execution at the last moment by claiming he was a "changed" man and wanted to live in order to deter young people from following his example. For those interested in learning more about Ronnie Gardner, a Deseret News archive is accessible HERE.

But is Gardner really a changed man? One retired chaplain who once worked at the Utah State Prison believes so. The Deseret News tells us that the retired Catholic chaplain, Rev. Reyes Rodriguez, has looked more than once into the cold stare of an evil man who had done terrible things, and says that Ronnie Gardner was not one of them. "He had a gentleness about him, a humanity about him," said Rodriguez, who worked in the Utah State Prison from 1989-96. "He wasn't a cold, calculating, ugly individual. He was a kind person." Rodriguez said he would pray for Gardner when the inmate is executed Friday.

Matt Fellows, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spent more than four years as a chaplain for maximum-security and death-row inmates. He does not specifically recall meeting with Gardner since he customarily avoided contact with death-row inmates unless they specifically requested him. But he said he believed the condemned killer had likely changed during his quarter century behind bars. "I think the problem is we have to get these guys executed much earlier if we're going to do it," Fellows said. "(Gardner is) probably a changed man. He's a different person. The person we're executing Friday is, in a very fundamental way, not the person who committed those crimes. Ask any John or Jane … if they're the same person they were 25 years ago and they would laugh at you. It's not practical to assume that the man who is going to walk the Green Mile, as it were, is the same person. He's had a lot of time to think."

Update: This April 23rd, 2010 Deseret News article indicates that Ronnie Gardner is a former member of the LDS Church, since he refers to his "Mormon heritage". Since this post, Gardner has now met with an LDS bishop who he has known for the past 16 years. The bishop sat on a chair outside Gardner's cell, in an observation port, while Gardner sat on his bunk. There was no word whether Gardner would be allowed any type of LDS blessing before his execution.

It's interesting that Matt Fellows would deliberately avoid death row inmates unless they specifically requested him. This may reflect Mormon doctrine about the eventual disposition of murderers in the spirit world. First, we go to the scriptures for guidance:

Doctrine & Covenants 132:19. And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them — Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths — then shall it be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.

Doctrine & Covenants 132:27. The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood, and assent unto my death, after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant, saith the Lord God; and he that abideth not this law can in nowise enter into my glory, but shall be damned, saith the Lord.

The key phrases in the two verses cited above are "new and everlasting covenant", and "murder [by] shedding innocent blood". And who is it who is covered by the "new and everlasting covenant"? Members of the LDS Church. So the verses above imply that a member of the LDS Church who has received all possible ordinances and who goes on to commit what we call premeditated murder (first-degree murder or capital murder) can never receive celestial glory. Since they also cannot come forth until the second resurrection, or the resurrection of the unjust, they also cannot receive terrestrial glory. So the most they can hope for is telestial glory, or the lowest of the three heavens. Doctrine & Covenants Section 76 and Chapter 36 of Gospel Fundamentals contain more information about the three degrees of glory, and who shall inherit them. also contains statements and scriptural cites by two past General Authorities describing the final disposition of murderers.

As for those murderers who are not LDS members, they can only be held accountable for the knowledge they have gained and for any lesser covenants they made. Even so, it would seem improbable that a murderer who wasn't LDS could inherit either celestial or terrestrial glory. That's because, according to page 27 of the 1998 LDS Handbook of Instructions, murderers cannot be baptized as Church members without the express permission of the President of the Church:

A person who has been convicted of, or who has confessed to, murder (even in private confessions to a priesthood leader) may not be baptized unless the First Presidency gives permission. The request for permission to baptize must include all pertinent details as determined during a personal interview by the mission president (if the person is seeking baptism for the first time) or bishop (if a former member is seeking readmission).

So if a person is barred from being baptized in this life, it is unlikely they can hope for more than telestial glory in the next life. The reason that we allow appeals to the President of the Church is so to distinguish between capital murder (shedding of innocent blood) vs. murder committed in the heat of passion or manslaughter (which is not necessarily the shedding of innocent blood). The President of the Church is entitled to discernment from the Holy Ghost as to whether a murderer should be baptized into the Church.

Oh, and one last thing. Since Ronnie Gardner is getting executed by firing squad, in which his blood will be spilled upon the ground, somebody's bound to resurrect that tired old bogeyman of "blood atonement". Yes, blood atonement was spasmodically and unofficially practiced during Utah's territorial days, but it never had sanction from the top, and the practice was never formally canonized. So getting shot will not give Ronnie Gardner a Get Out Of Hell For Free card. Read the truth about blood atonement HERE and HERE. Since this post, the LDS Church issued another statement on blood atonement after the execution of Gardner took place:

In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives.

However, so-called "blood atonement," by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.

The LDS Church takes no political position on capital punishment, stating that it "regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment."

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