On April 21, 2022, the state of Texas executed 78-year-old Carl Buntion, who shot and killed police officer James Irby in 1990.
But Buntion wasn’t alone when he died. Beyond the usual prison staff, his spiritual adviser Barbara Laubenthal was also in attendance at his execution. She had come to know “Carl” as the man he became after serving three decades behind bars.
Later, Laubenthal admits she felt deeply affected by her experience. In a statement on Twitter, the political activist said: “After witnessing tonight how a human being was killed in front of our eyes, we are convinced more than ever that the death penalty is inhumane and has no place in a democracy in the 21st century.”
Her shock is not unique—even among those who support the death penalty. And with a recent Supreme Court decision, this traumatic experience will soon be shared by many other faith leaders across the nation.
Thanks to the March 24, 2022, ruling in Ramirez v. Collier, death row inmates will now have more access to a spiritual adviser of their choosing in their final moments.
As a pastor of 17 years, I have witnessed death firsthand in hospitals and homes. The ministerial calling often requires going into uncomfortable or difficult situations that I will never forget. The moment I read about the religious liberty victory of the Ramirez ruling I was conflicted. What if I was asked to be there?
In 2004, Texas inmate John Henry Ramirez robbed and then stabbed convenience store cashier Pablo Castro 29 times. Texas law has fluctuated regarding access to chaplains, but the Ramirez case was unique in that he requested his pastor maintain physical contact with him as he passed. He won.
The case is widely hailed as a victory for the religious liberty of the condemned. And yet few are talking about the negative effects this case will have on the many faith leaders who will increasingly be called upon in these situations. Experiences like Laubenthal’s will surely take a psychological toll on an already burdened pastoral profession.
A recent Barna Group study cited “the immense stress of the job” as the reason 56 percent of pastors considered leaving full-time ministry in the past year. The personal impact of seeing someone executed will greatly add to this stress for those who experience it.
However, this is hardly a new debate.
The historical church has had a long and complicated relationship with capital punishment. The early church was typically against the practice, but views evolved as Christianity became more mainstream in the culture.
Icon of medieval theology Thomas Aquinas famously defended the practice as a biblical response to injustice stating: “If any individual becomes a danger to society and if his sin is contagious to others, it is laudable and beneficial to put him to death on behalf of the common good.” His statement summarizes most Christian defenses of the practice today.
Modern Christian ethicists continue to debate the issue—including former Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission leader Russell Moore, who famously defended the practice against Pope Francis’s opposition in 2016.
Regardless of their views on the ethics of the practice itself, Christian leaders have been regularly present in the final moments of those about to be executed. And there is no question that the final minutes of one’s life is a unique opportunity for appealing to faith.
In some cases, a priest or pastor will invite the condemned to repent, convert, or recant. Others will spend hours in prayer with and for them. Often, these faith figures are entrusted with the inmate’s final words to be recorded for history or passed on to their loved ones.
With executions generally rare, these few faith leaders with increased access often form an isolated fraternity. It is difficult to find others who share their experiences with whom to discuss potential trauma. In this aspect, they have more in common with the experiences of prison staff, many of whom report never being comfortable with the execution process.
“Guards can feel mentally tortured by their participation in executions, both before and after,” wrote Dr. Robert T Muller, a trauma treatment specialists and educator who addressed the psychological impact of executions on the executioners themselves.
“Complicating matters, human connections are frequently formed between guards and prisoners,” he adds. Muller then goes on describe the instances of PTSD reported and treated among prison staff.
These issues raise similar questions regarding faith leaders and the burden of participation. Does being present signal their approval of capital punishment? Most faith leaders do not think so.
I interviewed Pastor Shane Claiborne, who leads non-violent direct action against the death penalty and says he sees a role for faith leaders in even the worst situations.
“I have not personally witnessed an execution, but I have been with many people who have, before and after,” said Claiborne in response to my question about the Ramirez ruling. “I have accompanied many death row prisoners leading up to the execution. I do not believe being present in the execution is a form of endorsement.”
He believes that there is a place for pastors in this tragic moment even as he fights to end the practice entirely.
Claiborne’s experiences echo many others who come to know inmates for more than their offense. And just as prison staff often comment on the relationship built over time with these long-term residents of death row, faith leaders’ experiences can often go even deeper.
A big part of being a spiritual adviser is building a relationship with their parishioner. They must get to know them to truly care for their soul. The Bible often compares church members to sheep within a flock.
In the death chamber, the shepherd must watch one of their sheep be killed. This experience is traumatic—even if they believe the convicted is executed with just cause.
In 2015, The Week highlighted the psychological impact of witnessing executions. They profiled reporter and spokesperson Michelle Lyons, who spent a decade watching 278 executions. Lyons reported a wearing down over time as she got to know the inmates.
In their survey of San Quentin State Prison employees, many reported anxiety and said they “felt estranged or detached from other people.” Data published by The American Journal of Psychiatry also showed that witnessing an execution had a strong psychological impact on journalists—and could “cause symptoms of dissociative disorder… in the weeks following.”
These journalists often had no close connection to the condemned and actively tried to remain detached throughout the process. They also had no physical contact with the individual, and yet they still showed the same signs of social detachment afterwards.
This means that without the proper care, spiritual advisers will see an impact in the very area that is most required of their ministry: connecting with people. Ironically, that sense of human connection—which causes them pain in watching their parishioner executed—is the very thing that could undermine their ability to be effective in that role in the future.
Death already takes a major toll on faith leaders. Where the average layperson deals with the grief of a lost loved one once every few years, the faith leader may walk through this process multiple times in a single month. One of the traits of a good faith leader is to learn how to deeply love all those under one’s care—including the guilty and hard to love. The depression that can come from losing so many of one’s parishioners is very real.
In Muller’s article, one prison executioner confessed: “You can’t tell me I can take the life of people and go home and be normal.” Neither can someone go home normal after holding their hand and watching them die—and yet caring for the dying is seen as an integral part of the pastoral calling in all faith traditions.
It is fair to argue that this is what faith leaders agreed to when they signed up for the role. And indeed, they are responsible to be there on the good days and the hard days. In fact, most pastors have been in the presence of the dying many times.
And yet the intentional and calculated nature of a scheduled execution adds a deeper level of ethical confusion.
Faith leaders have witnessed the execution of their parishioners countless times in premodern eras. However, there is an increasing debate about what it means to be “pro-life,” whether the faith leader’s personal views on the act matter, and how rare executions should be. All these factors have been building toward a new cultural moment in light of this 8-1 court decision.
Few pastors who walk into the chamber pro-death penalty will leave it with the same clarity.
As Michelle Lyons, the woman who witnessed 278 executions, acknowledged: “There is a difference between supporting the death penalty as a concept and being the person who actually watches its application.” This verifies a 1995 study that showed witnessing an execution moved 57 percent of people toward opposition.
John Henry Ramirez himself found reprieve after the case delayed his original execution date in the fall of 2021. The District Attorney of Nueces County Mark Gonzalez withdrew the death warrant citing a personal objection to capital punishment. Ramirez remains on death row, and his sentence could be reinstated if a future officeholder feels differently.
Political activists like Barbara Laubenthal continue to be outspoken voices against capital punishment, just as pastors like Shane Claiborne remain resolute in their efforts to end all executions.
Modern execution policy is almost always decided by people who are not present in the execution room themselves. They send others to represent law enforcement, the courts, and lawmakers. Now another group will be increasingly called to represent God himself—and if their right hand is on the dying, who will hold their left to support them afterwards?
While this is a victory for religious freedom, the aftermath of the Ramirez v. Collier case will forever change the pastors who walk out of the death chamber and back to the pulpit.
As far as answering my own instigating question? Yes. I would be there if asked. The calling is to compassion. It is to care for the hurting and dying. I would go, but I would go counting the cost, knowing that I would never be the same.
Mark Fugitt holds a PhD in Historical Theology and is a pastor and adjunct professor of religion, ethics, and history for Missouri State University and Spurgeon College.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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