Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, and Blood Atonement

Recently, an article by Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune was picked up by The Huffington Post. Stack’s article concerns the forthcoming execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who has been convicted of the murder of a man during a failed prison escape, 25 years ago. Gardner is petitioning to be executed by firing squad, citing his “Mormon heritage,” and Stack’s article connects Gardner’s request to the 19th century LDS doctrine of blood atonement.

Judging from the comments left by HuffPost readers, the whole matter of blood atonement seems quite strange to modern American ears. Some Latter-day Saints may have some pointed questions directed their way regarding this matter by their non-LDS friends and acquaintances. Below, I mention a few points of fact that may help to clarify this matter.

  1. Since the time I was baptized a Latter-day Saint (LDS) in 1975 at college in Pennsylvania, I have never once heard blood atonement taught in an LDS Church class or preached from an LDS pulpit. Teachings about blood atonement are much more alive in anti-Mormon literature than they are in the LDS Church today.
  2. At its heart, the doctrine of blood atonement states that some offenses against humanity (especially murder) are so heinous that the offender’s death is required to atone for it. One may disagree with the idea of capital punishment, but it is not inherently outrageous.
  3. The shedding of the murderer’s blood seems to be meant to parallel the atonement of Jesus Christ, where Jesus’ blood was shed. The doctrine that Christ’s blood was shed to atone for the sins of the world has been a central aspect of traditional Christian theology for twenty centuries, and is clearly stated in the New Testament.
  4. The LDS doctrine of blood atonement was taught by Brigham Young at a time when many of the Latter-Day Saints had recently been murdered by anti-Mormons (particularly in Missouri). LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith is mentioned in the Stack article as having once authored a pamphlet on blood atonement; President Smith’s grandfather and granduncle (the Patriarch Hyrum and the Prophet Joseph) had both been shot by an anti-Mormon mob of assassins. In that context, murder and its consequences, quite understandably, were on the minds of many of the Saints who lived in the latter half of the 19th century. In later years, these concerns have faded.
  5. The punishment of blood atonement was never inflicted by LDS authorities as a punishment for apostasy or any such.

The modern LDS Church does not focus on blood atonement because it is not a central part of the LDS Christian Gospel message. It is simply not important enough to teach. However, these points above may help to put the whole matter in some context.

(This post expands on a comment of mine on a news item in The Huffington Post. The original news article is available here. An archive of all my comments on The Huffington Post is available here. Readers of this blog are welcome to become “fans” of mine on The Huffington Post.)

Copyright 2010 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

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