Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Capital Punishment

Some random thoughts on the recent execution...

I spent most of my formative years and adult life as a pacifist. I registered as a concientious objector during the Vietnam War and was ready to head to Canada if my lottery number came up. I was anti war, anti self defense, anti death penalty. I can't really put a finger on when my views started shifting. The concrete shift happened when I took street fighting classes at a karate studio when I ran a residential treatment center for severely disturbed boys who had inclinations toward wanton mayhem. Being beaten with a baseball bat by a 180 pound "hyperactive" (as they were called back then) kid with no concience was not an option for running an effective treatment program. It might make good classroom arm chair philosophizing about non-violence, but broken teeth and bones and 12 other kids and my wife and child in the path of blind rage are not abstracts, they are real.

So...I know that does not illumine the question of restraint versus retribution and punishment. Life in prison restrains the evil doer. But then so does death. Which biblically and according to the Fathers of the Church, death IS indeed the ultimate constraint on evil. Death is actually the blessed curse, it cuts short the days of man so he cannot wax grossly evil. Death is also referred to in our readings for the Saints during the Vigil services as a blessing: God takes the righteous early so that they will be spared the evil days to come. So the question is not "death or no death" the question is "death by whose hands"? Capital punishment was exacted under the theocracy of Judaism. Yes it was a shadow of the Gospel. But the Theocracy of Judaism is fulfilled in the Church, not the State. No one who supports capital punishment believes the Church should execute its sinners and heretics or apostates. But the State is not the Church.
The Church exists for the redemption of the human being, an agent of the Gospel of forgiveness, the giver of the sacraments, the bearer of grace to the fallen race. What the Church cannot do is undo the temporal consequences of the actions of the human being. It may forgive the sin of embezzlement, but it does not forgive the debt or pay it for the embezzler.
It forgives adultery, but it does not pay the child support of the adulterer. It forgives the negligent homicide but it does not substitutionarily give one of its members to serve the prison sentence for the drunken driver who ran over the child on the sidewalk. While the Church can affirm life, repentance and forgiveness, it cannot legislate it. "The state does not bear the sword for naught", St. Paul says to the evildoer AND to good-doer. Do good and fear not the State and its sword he advises. Of course you've all heard this before. This is nothing new under the sun.

The tension is both theological and emotional. How does a finite human being perfectly join justice and mercy? Can we legitimately call on God, and God's ordained State authority to mete out justice to the evildoer, crush those who are enemies of life, peace and goodness? Is it wrong to cry to God to send SOMEONE to punish the men of a village in Afghanistan who are repeatedly raping 12 year old orphan girls...or whatever heinous crime sticks in YOUR head. Is fire and brimstone from heaven too good for them? What about fire and a bullet from an authorized agent of the State? Should they be given time to repent? Should we let them live to find God? What about the time they've already had? How have they used it? Opportunity for repentance abounds every minute of the day. Will a few more minutes make any difference? Perhaps knowing the minutes are about to end will be more motivating to repentance than the prospect of unlimited minutes in solitary confinement. I don't know.

Is the death penalty inhuman? No, it is ultimately human. Is it ungodly? No, God required it of His people. Is it effective? Depends on how you define effectiveness. Is it a restraint on those who might do evil? Maybe. Maybe not. Does it restrain the one who has done evil. You bet, once and for all. Can he be restrained by confinement? Maybe.

But, ultimately it may not be about restraint alone. It might be more about bringing the inhumanity of humanity left without God up front and personal to the evil doer and the ones who are executing him. If balancing the books of body counts is all its about then what are we about? If its about the violation of something greater than one materialistically determined biological unit doing something to make another biological unit to cease functioning, then we have whole 'nother thing going on here. Justice is about love. We kill the killer because we know more than mere biology has been violated. Love has been violated. No love, no life. The killer exhibits no love and kills someone who is loved by someone else. "Society"...what is society? amalgam of beings that join together in a community mutually respecting and affirming life: love at a primeaval level, I suppose.... society condemns and kills the ones who refuse to submit to love. What if they've learned to love? All the better, then they are prepared to meet their Lover on good terms, and if that is the case, then they are better off than we who are left behind and have to continue the struggle to repent and prepare to meet our God.

Can someone be about grace, love and repentance and still believe in the death penalty. I think so. I am. I pray Tookie Williams or whatever his name was, repented and is forgiven. I even think "society" can forgive him and still take his life, because God would have sooner or later anyway whether he was ready or not... and perhaps this is merely the way God decides to do it by ordaining civil authority to carry the sword.

1 comment:

Meg said...

Interesting and thoughtful commentary. We seem to have taken opposite paths, in that I was "pro-war" (well, really, who the heck is pro-war?! That was shorthand for "support the guys on the battlefield"!), and have now become anti-death-penalty, albeit recently. Your post makes me take a second look at the death penalty, and that's a good thing. Thanks!