Risking It All On Love
The Reverend Will Wauters
Chair, National Executive Council
Episcopal Peace Fellowship
Oftentimes, opponents of capital punishment become vexed when dealing with individuals who do not share our opinion. It's essential to remember that in order to see the other side of the death penalty argument, it is absolutely necessary to be able to envision the enduring potential that exists in every child of God and the ability to see the hand of God at work in human history. The story of Amy Biehl and her parents illustrates the transformative gift and power of God's love and forgiveness within the context of the wrenching brokenness of real human lives.
Amy Biehl, a graduate student on a Fulbright Fellowship from Stanford University, was living among the Black residents of South Africa in 1993 to determine whether they were being allowed to participate fully under the country's constitution adopted after the demise of apartheid. Even though she was white, she was well integrated into the lives of many Blacks in the townships. She had spent over a year in South Africa and was preparing to return to California, when in the heat of the political struggles that burned fiercely in this transitional time, the car in which she was traveling was attacked by a mob of young Blacks from the township of Guguletu.
Amy was hit by a brick, dragged from the car, beaten and stabbed to death. Her killers only saw the color of her skin and were fueled by the horrific memories of the atrocities perpetrated by whites in South Africa under apartheid. It was a tragic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Eventually four young men were arrested and put on trial for Amy's death. The trial concluded that since the crime was committed in the context of a political demonstration, rather than as a premeditated murder, that a lengthy term in prison was the appropriate sentence.
In 1996, in an effort to heal the wounds of apartheid on the national soul of his both Black and white South Africans, Nelson Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Commission heard the stories of Amy's work, the grief of her family and the stories of the young men. Prior to the verdict being rendered, Peter and Linda Biehl, Amy's parents, had flown to South Africa to personally see what their daughter had loved so deeply in the lives of the people of South Africa and to understand the context in which she had lost the great potential of her life's work.
Face to face with the four young convicted killers, the Biehl's dramatically and graciously spoke words of forgiveness. The Commission offered amnesty, after they served five years of their sentence. As one of the young men said afterwards, "it wasn't the amnesty that freed me; it was the offer of genuine forgiveness from Peter and Linda that gave me a free soul."
An even more remarkable aspect of this story is that two of Amy's killers, Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation established by her parents with the unsolicited donations that came to them from around the world as the story of Amy's life and death spread. The work of the foundation is to continue Amy's interests in job training, education and the arts. Linda Biehl has noted that though she has yet to inquire from Easy and Ntobeko the details of their role in her daughter's death, she has come to have an authentic love for these young men and the good work they do in the Guguletu community.
It should be noted that the other two men convicted of Amy's murder have since been arrested and convicted of rape following their amnesty from the Commission and their release from prison. We don't live in a perfect world.
Though Hebrew Scriptures consistently call for the death penalty for a wide range of crimes ranging from murder to disrespecting the honor of one's parents--all emanating from the "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" theory--Jesus offers a radically different commandment.
Jesus' new paradigm is to love your enemy, forgive those who do you harm, and respect the dignity of each person's life. The incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, knows full-well the tragic and sinful nature of the world we live in. These are not just palliative and na´ve words. They are the opening for the glory of God to be made manifest.
The death penalty takes into our collective hands, as the state, the dubious responsibility of putting to death people whom we believe have abdicated their divine gift of life by the crimes they have committed. We deny God the opportunity to work through human beings to transform our sinful acts into redemptive lives that impact many others.
The story of Peter and Linda Biehl's forgiveness of the young men who brutally murdered their precious daughter did three things: first, in the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work, it placed Amy's death alongside the deaths of countless South Africans, mostly Black, who were brutally killed in the racist rage under the law of apartheid in South Africa. Amy's life and death was no more or less significant in terms of the suffering of families, friends, and whole communities. All needed and righteously deserved to be restored by the new justice of love mandated by Jesus.
Secondly, the forgiveness, beyond the legalisms of amnesty, is what healed the hearts of all involved. As Easy Nofemela noted, he was filled with hatred he had learned from the vicious, indiscriminate and widespread racial violence perpetrated under the veil of law and governance by the imposition of apartheid that pitted Blacks against whites. The justice system didn't heal and change his perspective. It was the firm grasp of Peter Biehl's hand and the integrity of his words, "I forgive you." This is God's work!
Finally, Easy and Ntobeko now use their story to bring peace to many in the townships. The educational work, job training, and the arts that they promote are all extensions of their new lives. Again, the authenticity of their transformation is the glory of God at work.
The death penalty negates the hard, often painful, process of restoring a real sense of justice to wounds experienced by victims, perpetrators, families and communities when horrific crimes occur. It is in the process of healing that the work of God's Spirit becomes manifest in the personal stories of redemption. To be certain, we live in an increasingly violent world in which capital crimes are senselessly committed on a daily basis.
Jesus offers us the hard work of loving even the most despicable of criminals. There is no cheap grace in forgiveness, or in love. Not if we are to love and respect those who have been the victims of crime. They are precious children of God, endowed with all of God's abundant gifts. Nor is there cheap grace in the transformation of criminals. Love is the only answer. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are testimony to God's willingness to bet on love. May we, too, get rid of the death penalty and risk it all on love.
So, on this twenty-first anniversary of Amy Biehl's death, let her memory serve as a reminder of the power of hope, redemption, love, and forgiveness.
The Reverend Will Wauters, TSSF, is the Vicar of Santa Fe Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas. He has been a Chaplain in many jails and prisons in numerous cities across the U.S. and has served for 34 years in many churches in the inner city barrios.