by Fr. John Dear, S.J.
The death penalty--our national barbarity--strikes me most sharply whenever I travel to Europe. There the people I meet loquaciously express dismay at American notions of justice. Especially in Italy. Catholic groups in Italy regularly hold conferences and prayer vigils against our capital punishment. Every time someone is executed, the lights of the Coliseum in Rome are illuminated all night. Here is a symbolic gesture to set us blushing, a censure lighting the dark: namely, American jurisprudence bears resemblance to the savage Roman Caesars'.
With their dour appraisal, I readily subscribe. Capital punishment can claim nothing to commend it. It will not bring healing or justice or restitution. It offers no hope for a nonviolent society. It reinforces the heart-rending cycle of violence; it lays the burden of yet another murder. Execution gives death as social purpose ever greater sway. When a nation decides who lives, who dies, it becomes small potatoes indeed for it to manipulate who enjoys full civil rights, who doesn't, who partakes of the fat of the suburbs, who subsists in the crumbling cities. And of course who goes off to war to fatten the American way of life, and who remains home to pluck the fat fruit and pursue affluent careers.
More, capital punishment is freighted with inconsistencies. Behind it lies an illogical maxim: we kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong. If we really believed that killing was wrong, the state would set an example; official killing would be banished.
Capital punishment is freighted too with the burden of racism. Nationally, 50 percent of murder victims are white. But in cases in which the murderer was found and executed, about 80 percent of the murder victims were white. There emerges a chilling picture. The whiter one's victim, the more likely the court will consign the murderer to death row.
The need for revenge and closure, some insist, makes execution necessary. Victims' families will rest easier, they say, when the murderer breathes his last. But such a notion is not widely true. Many families of victims see no use in putting the assailant to death, and many oppose executions publicly.
The group Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation tours the nation regularly, points out inconsistencies and speaks out against capital punishment. They declare that killing those who killed their loved ones will not end the violence. It will, they say, mitigate violence not a bit.
Jesus opposed all killings. He taught forgiveness, justice and reconciliation. When religious leaders condemned a woman in the court of the Temple (a condemnation according to the Law, no less), a frenzied mob formed, reaching for stones, ravenous for blood. Jesus intervened, the air charged with peril, and dared say to them: "Let the one without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."
The spell broken, they drifted away. We're inclined to say admiringly, Jesus saved her life. But more, with a sentence, he destroyed capital punishment's legitimacy. He struck the stone--the pyre, the noose, the chair, the firing squad, the death chamber -- from authority's hands.
But authorities, those who deploy death in service to their lofty status, do not abandon their trump card so easily. Jesus sided with the condemned, and in the end was forced to join them. He himself was led off to the via dolorosa of capital punishment. And as for the law, there was nothing irregular in the legality of the proceedings. Not many troubled consciences. An open and shut case.
As Jesus' followers, we should be able to take the unvarnished look. We should be able to regard matters without ambiguity and to declare some patent truisms: God sides with all victims; God does not want us to execute one another; God calls us to be people of nonviolence; God invites us to live and let live.
We, like Jesus, should feel free to side with the condemned, forgive those who hurt us, who injure or kill those we love, and in this way put an end to wheel of violence that keeps going around. And as Christians we should feel free to utter: the death penalty is immoral, evil and sinful.
: Fr. John Dear
is a worldwide advocate for peace and non-violence. Nominated by Bishop Tutu for the Nobel Peace Prize, Fr. Dear is a lecturer, columnist, peace activist, and author. He has written 28 books, including his newest work, The Non-Violent Life, slated to be published this month.)