Death Penalty

Death Penalty--Who Cares?

What is it that actually interests and moves people in our society? At 9:21 AM yesterday, September 24th, a once proud newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, sent out a breaking alert that Lindsay Lohan was being sent back to jail. Nine hours later, at 6:17 PM, the same paper sent out a second alert that another judge overturned the jail sentence setting a $300,000 bail. Please forgive me, but who really gives a damn? What is it that makes American society so shallow that we obsess over the adolescent, one might even say infantile, behavior of celebrities? Maybe it is commonplace in other countries, as well. Certainly British society long ago surrendered itself to sensational tabloids, nearly forsaking anything close to journalism.

But back to the Los Angeles Times. Between the two inane Lohan stories, the paper also issued another alert that a federal judge denied a stay of execution for Albert Greenwood Brown, thereby enabling the state of California to execute a convicted criminal for the first time in almost five years. Of course, once one clicked on the newspaper's website, there were numerous lead stories about Lohan. It took a bit of searching to find the stories about the upcoming execution of Albert Greenwood Brown, and the paper did little justice to his impending death.

I suppose in the same way that I suggest no one should care about the penal fate of Lindsay Lohan, others might say that we should not care about the penal fate of Mr. Brown. He is, after all, a convicted criminal. However, both of the these stories approach an American problem from opposite ends of the same spectrum. In truth, there are very few serious issues that Americans are actually willing to commit their intellects to. I presume, of course, that I am not being overly generous in the use of the word intellect. Even when it comes to government, the general population is more interested in themselves, in their own pocketbooks and in the sex lives of politicians than in any principles they may stand for. And since, on virtually every issue we are inundated with sound bites instead of in-depth analysis, the seriousness of crime and punishment and the moral questions surrounding capital punishment are left to those who win the sound bite wars. Is it any wonder then that the moral character of America is in a deadly decline?

There may be no more appropriate issue to begin the process of moral ascent than capital punishment, for it touches the deepest elements of pain, sorrow and revenge. It also reaches into the deepest recesses of the human heart and helps us to define what it means to be both human and God-like. In my last blog about Iran and its practice of stoning, I suggested that an accurate interpretation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights should outlaw capital punishment in every nation. But the UN does not have that kind of power, and the arrogance of the U.S. implies that we are above anyone else's judgments or principles, in spite of the fact that we also signed onto the UN declaration.

Both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, state that all people possess a right to life. The U.S. Declaration of Independence even claims that the right to life is bestowed by God. And yet, when it comes to capital punishment, we seem to have little problem setting aside, indeed stripping from others, a God-given right and over which God alone should have control. It has been noted before that capital punishment also causes us to slide into the grossest and most debased of double standards: We claim life is so valuable and precious, that if you take a life, we will take yours in return. That does not even make for good common sense.

Still, it is not the double standard of capital punishment that sinks the aspirations and diminishes the moral integrity of a great people. It is the seeming inability and, worse, the complete lack of desire to rise above our animal instincts of revenge and reach for the highest levels of human idealism and existence; to actually attempt to achieve a common good. Such idealism is initially rooted in the fundamental reality of being human. For this reason, humanists, atheists and agnostics are among the strongest supporters of moral values. For believers, this same idealism is rooted in our call to become more God-like, which makes it more than just a little embarrassing that believers lag so far behind in this pursuit. Perhaps part of the problem is that there are so many different and competing understandings of God in our society. Let me then, as a Catholic priest, speak to the Christian God.

The four Gospels that begin the New Testament are remarkable not just for the various ways they present the person of Jesus, but also for the equally various ways that Jesus gives us insight into God and what it means to be human. There exist many similarities among the Gospels, particularly the three that scholars refer to as "synoptic" precisely because of their similarities: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Yet all four Gospels retain their own unique character.

Mark's Gospel is the earliest, and is filled with short, quick sentences, that are designed to get people moving and ready for Jesus' return. Many of those sentences involve Jesus scandalizing people by forgiving sins and eating with sinners and outcasts (the kind of people we dismiss to death row and forget about until we can kill them). Jesus responds that he has the power to forgive sins. As to his dining with the outcasts, he points out the obvious: "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners". Even more to the point, Jesus states explicitly that even the commands of God must be understood in the context of human life and well-being. One of the Ten Commandments is keeping holy the Lord's day, which, in Jesus' time at least, included avoiding any kind of work, even the preparation of food. But when the disciples are caught doing just that, Jesus responds: "The sabbath was make for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath."

Matthew is more direct and challenging in his Gospel. For he has Jesus telling us: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgments you give are the judgments you will get, and the standard you use will be the standard used for you." Even more stunning are these words: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust....So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."

John's Gospel is arguably the most inspiring for the way that Jesus identifies himself with God, and then goes on to identify us with him, thereby making us one with God. At the last supper he says: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing". He goes on to pray for his disciples in these words: "I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth. I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one".

Luke presents us with a truly compassionate Gospel. It is here that we find the most popular and beloved of Jesus' parables, that of "The Prodigal Son". Since the central figure in the story is the father, a more appropriate title might be "The Forgiving Father". Be that as it may, the central action in the story is forgiveness. Note that when the younger son, who had turned his back on his father returns, he does so without any contrition in his heart and never asks forgiveness. He returns only because he is hungry. Nonetheless, the father rushes out to meet him, embraces and kisses him, and restores him to his place in the family. The older son, as self-centered as the younger, and clearly more self-righteous, refuses to join the celebration. So the father addresses this recalcitrant older son in these words: " we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."

This may all sound theoretical and others interpret differently than I and choose to disagree. That is the foundation of dialogue and the building of consensus. So let me conclude with these two brief links that are anything but theoretical. The first is from a woman whose husband was killed in Minnesota. The second is from the parents of a daughter who was killed in California.

I remain deeply saddened that so-called Christians seem unable or unwilling to embrace the truth and challenge of the Gospel. But my passion pales in comparison to the personal and compelling statements of these two families. One thing remains clear. It is time for us to abandon the death penalty once and for all. For reasons of humanity and for reasons of faith.