John Shea shares this story: He once invited a renowned storyteller, Reuven Gold, to meet with his students. During that visit, one of the students, a young priest facing a painful transition in ministry, poured out his anxiety to the classroom, especially his fear of failure.
After listening awhile to the young priest, Reuven made a comment that seemed designed to actually increase the priest’s anxiety. The priest was momentarily flustered, but suddenly grasped Reuven’s deeper point, stopped abruptly, smiled, and said: “Thanks, I feel better.” Then in a loud voice, but devoid of anger, Reuven said: “Don’t worship your emotions.”
That’s sound advice for all of us, especially as we examine our attitudes towards the issue of capital punishment, the death penalty. We need to stop worshipping our emotions. No easy task.
If we’re honest, we have to admit there’s something inside of us that wants the death penalty, needs it, and cannot help but feel a certain vindication and glee when a murderer, especially one who is cold and unrepentant, receives the death penalty. The itch for justice is too deeply written into our DNA. That’s why so many popular movies and novels end not just with the triumph of good over evil, but with good crushing and killing evil. Something inside of us feels vindicated and whole again when evil is crushed and brought to its knees by sheer force so that the playground bully can be arrogant no longer and must finally eat his own violence. We want that and feel a deep release whenever it actually happens.
And so there’s always an argument for the death penalty: It’s necessary as a deterrent, it brings a needed closure to the families of the victims, it’s a demand of justice itself.
But, in the end, those arguments are more emotional than logical. This is feeling, not faith, speaking.
First of all, as most studies show, the death penalty doesn’t act as a deterrent. Nor does it bring closure for the victim’s loved ones. It brings instead catharsis, that wonderful (though ephemeral) feeling of release and vindication that we experience at the end of a movie when the bad guys finally get shot. And, while justice seemingly does demand the death penalty, there’s a morality (and a logic) higher than that of strict justice. Only forgiveness is ultimately a deterrent and only it brings real closure.
And for a Christian the issue is clear: the death penalty is always wrong, not because it isn’t a deterrent and doesn’t bring closure, but because it goes against the very heart of the gospel. The one thing that Jesus asks us to do that sets us apart as Christians, more than anything else, is to love those who hate us, to do good to those who curse us, to not give back in kind, murder for murder, but to forgive our enemies, including murderers.
Jesus witnessed to this in his own death (“Forgive them for they know not what they do!”) and he challenged us to the same by telling us that our virtue needs to go deeper than that of the scribes and the pharisees, that is, the virtue of strict justice which, precisely, prescribed the death penalty in the name of fairness and in the name of God.
The renowned anthropologist, Rene Girard, asserts that the cross of Jesus is the single most revolutionary moral event ever in history, but that it is like a capsule whose power is being released slowly (in terms of our understanding and absorption) through the centuries. Simply put, as the centuries go on, slowly, more and more, we are grasping its deeper moral demands.
John Paul II was a testimony to this. It took 2000 years before finally a pope stood up and pronounced unequivocally that the death penalty was wrong, not because it was ineffective as a deterrent, but because it goes against the center of the gospel. No pope again, ever, will affirm the contrary. We’ve absorbed the meaning of the cross a little more deeply and part of that understanding is that capital punishment is not God’s way and, ultimately, not our way either.
Still that doesn’t make it easier for us to emotionally move away from the idea of the death penalty. It’s one thing to believe something in faith, it’s quite another to have one’s heart and emotions onside. And so, generally, we’re lying if we say that it is easy to forgive and to move beyond our need for justice. Our emotions demand strict justice, especially for those who are stubborn, cold, callous, unrepentant. At the level of our feelings, we want to see the arrogant broken by justice, by death if necessary.
But, but, let’s not worship our emotions. We’re meant instead to worship a God whose son, Jesus, tells us that the highest moral and spiritual demand of all is forgiveness. What distinguishes a Christian from others is, in the end, the willingness and the capacity to not give back in kind, even to murderers.