Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Death Penalty or not

Last week I was involved with a group of people discussing pros and cons of the death penalty. After that discussion, I came home to find the headline in our local newspaper - Death penalty divides local law enforcers. Then on page 2, there was an article from a global news resource announcing that John Allen Muhammad, better known as the Washington, D.C. sniper mastermind, was to be put to death. A couple of days later when I switched on the news, Larry King was interviewing the brother of the man that the sniper had been convicted of killing. Seldom watching this show, I paused before changing channels to hear the succession of King's questions to the brother.

"Did you witness the execution; how did you feel; does this bring closure to your brother's death?"

The brother replied that he had seen "bedside" deaths of relatives before but that he had never been witness to the "sucking of life" from a live and healthy person before. He found the event chilling and it made him very sad. Sad to know that two men's lives had ended so tragically - one man, his brother, the other man his murderer. He did not feel closure. His brother remained gone and the murderer was no more.

King asked him, "Have you forgiven the killer?" And the man replied softly but clearly that he had forgiven the shooter that being a Christian required that he forgive even the worst of crimes. He was reconciled to that forgiveness and then he repeated that he just, most of all, felt sad.

I grew up in a small town bumping up against Oklahoma City so when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Administration building was blown up in April 1995, even though not living there at the time, it was a "real event" for me. It wasn't a far off, foreign place that I would never see. It was "real life" for me. The murderer, Timothy McVeigh cruelly, apparently without regret, planned and executed the crime, the act of violence against the government. But he didn't hurt the government; just moms, dads, grandpas, grandmas, babies, toddlers, all innocent of any sleight that McVeigh felt the US Government had inflicted on others. McVeigh was subsequently caught, convicted and put to death. McVeigh put to death - and what did that accomplish - he's dead, but who cares.? Does it minimize the loss of all those loved ones that we mourned individually and as a nation.

My question to myself is - how can I not want revenge for these monstrous killers, why do I still feel strongly about eliminating the death penalty, why do I not believe that the threat of dying does not decrease the incidence of killing? Why do I believe in forgiveness for these madmen? I, too, am a Christian that knows I'm expected to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to wish for life rather than death - but still I wonder at my strong revulsion at killing to avenge killing.

Does the cost of supporting criminals merit our doing away with them rather than spend the money incarcerating them? Do we think any potential killer ever thinks "I better not do this or someone will kill me? I can actually feel my mind confused over this issue.

The subject remains fresh in my mind these past few days with the news coverage of an accused attacker/accused mastermind/accused criminal who is to be tried in New York City for his masterminding the massive Twin Towers event of September 11, 2000. The questions are from the news media - can he receive a fair trial in NYC, can you imagine the expense of security to actually keep this attacker "safe", can this man get a fair trial anywhere in the world, have his "rights" as we Americans expect in court been violated, is it possible that this man could go free after his alleged abominable act? Do I want a fair trial, do I want him to be acquitted, do I want him to be killed - will it change the lives and memories of those beloved citizens that he and his comrades killed? Again, do I believe in the death penalty? How about you?
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  1. I don't believe in the death penalty or in Life without possibility of parole (the without possibility part is awfully cruel). I also am chilled by a small part of the prayer I say 5 times daily and what that portends,,,, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who....

    I have come to read this as asking God to do unto us as we do, act in the same manner, give the same rewards and punishments that we dole out to those around us.

    Having said that however I am also aware of the confusion that exists when we are faced with such large, often seemingly overwhelming presences of evil. Should Hitler have been assassinated would his killer or killers have been saints or sinners? (I use that phrase only as an over simplified contrast) Hero or damned by their own actions?

    And how many other ways do we as a society impose a sentence of death on those around us? daunting questions all.

    Thanks for the hard questions

  2. The Chinese execute a lot of convicted prisoners. Even more than Texas. They do it quickly, efficiently and without recourse to appeal (so I'm told). They do not appear to execute as a form of revenge or from a sense of moral justice. It's just a simple matter of getting rid of people they don't want to have to deal with anymore. Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, offered a similar argument, and, according to the movies, it's the primary reason the Mafia terminates persons. It's just a matter of convenient disposal of inconvenient human beings.

    Does that sound morally right? Where in Jesus' teachings would we find approval for it? And before one turns too quickly to Leviticus, may I suggest God's corrective made clear in Ezekiel 18:32.

  3. In her autobiography The Joy of the Snow, writer Elizabeth Goudge, who was a devout Christian, had words to say on this.

    I can't put my hand on the book right now so I'll have to paraphrase, but her concern also was with those whose duty it is to bring about the death. How can we ask someone to act as executioner? How can we expect that person to remain unbrutalised by the repeated taking of life in cold blood? How do we dare ask it?

  4. Bruno - thank you for your "additional" hard questions. Put in the light of "doing unto others as" and "forgiving us as we forgive" would seem to make it pretty simple for us; but it doesn't - I suppose being followers of Jesus we come by our feelings about the death penalty logically, yet others in favor of it seem so certain it is the only way. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments.

  5. CP - convenient disposal - now that's a phrase that is chilling isn't it? Ezekiel's quote is the reassurance of God's love. At least as far as E is concerned. I'll go with E against Leviticus any day!

  6. Tess, Thanks for the heads up on Elizabeth Goudge's work re capital punishment. Her words will be helpful in discussions (they do come up from time to time) about capital punishment. I so agree with her!