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Death Penalty Moratorium

On Catholic Social Justice doctrines
and why Californians - Catholics or not - should be asking for a Death Penalty Moratorium now


Very early on December 13, 2005, the State of California executed one man. It was done in a very calm and calculated way, in a deliberate and meticulous fashion - and with my tax dollars - and he was dead within minutes. Whether the man was really guilty and whether his execution was truly needed is still being debated since he maintained his innocence to the end and since he had a large supporting crowd who did not believe in his guilt or believed he had already expiated his crime of more than 20 years ago by repudiating his early life-style and that he was now a changed man. They tried tirelessly to fight his execution. His only and last resource to avoid the death penalty was to receive clemency from the Governor and clemency was denied.

I had sent the Governor an email asking for clemency for this man in San Quentin and I had listed all the reasons why he should do it. Apparently the Governor agonized over this issue and listened to every side and finally decided that Tookie Williams was not really sorry for his crimes. (I personally don't see how a man can be truly sorry for something he says he did not do - but that's just my logical mind). I also wonder if Tookie Williams' strong and loud personality, if his very vocal and defiant supporters did not end up clouding the issue and working against him. But if that is the case, we will know soon enough, since the next prisoner scheduled to be executed by the State of California is coming up within weeks and he is a completely different case: an unknown and quiet 70 year old man, blind and in a wheel chair. I certainly hope that Governor Schwartznegger will grant him clemency.

But what we truly need, in California, is actually a moratorium on the death penalty. The time has come for a public debate on the validity and efficacy of capital punishment and the call for a moratorium is extremely fitting. This is an issue where the need for education is great and public perception could be changed if all the facts were known. It is not a partisan issue since both parties are publicly pro-death penalty. Rather than bemoaning this, I see it as a good opportunity to build bridges between various groups and to be truly and literally torch-bearer of the culture of life.

It is very interesting to me that there is a body of arguments that have rung true to both unbelievers and believers alike and this fact underlines the universality of the Church's teachings for the common good. These arguments have to do with the "social justice" aspect of capital punishment and the fact that, in practicality, poor, uneducated and black (or Hispanic) convicts get the death penalty much more often than anyone else … Many Catholic social justice associations and other secular non-profit organizations say that poverty is one of the main determinants in the application of the death penalty, that the poor again and again do not have access to adequate judicial representation and that there is a race factor in the dishing out of the death penalty.

Along the same appeal to "justice", there is the argument that errors in the judicial systems are always a possibility and that within the last 30 years, 115 convictions were later overturned. It implies that the machine of the State (which we all support and maintain) can end up killing an innocent person. Even if it happens rarely, once is too many and changing the system to refuse state-sponsored killing is the right moral thing to do, as the USCCB (the American Bishops) have promised to campaign for (1). Speaking a very similar language of justice for all, the ACLU says that the death penalty is the greatest denial of civil liberties and they are right. This is such an interesting window of opportunity for us to grab and work together for the common good.

One of the main reasons advanced to keep the death penalty is the argument of "an eye for an eye" as was mentioned in so many blogs on Tookie Williams. It implies that if the criminal has killed, then killing him is an appropriate punishment. But we do not use this logic for any other types of crimes: no one thinks that a rapist should be raped by the State or a burglar should have his apartment burglarized by the police… And although many people state that "an eye for an eye" is a fair deal, I wonder in what imaginary world they live! You could not go through a whole day without turning it into complete chaos if this was really your main rule of ethics. Whether we are driving to work or waiting in line at the cash register, whether we are late for picking up our children or whether a co-worker is late for a business meeting, we are confronted a thousand times a day with the possibility of rising above our own selfishness, bad temper and the mean spirited temptation of revenge and retaliation. How well would we fare if we insisted on applying the Law of the Talion in our daily lives… You cut in front of me so I'll push you out of the way; you were abrupt to me so I'll scream in your face; you bumped me with your backpack so I'll shove my umbrella in your legs… Even from a secular viewpoint, it is easy to see that we need to do better than that. And especially as Christians, we are definitively asked to rise above this. Remember the 77 times of exercising forgiveness? Jesus always raised the bar! And this is why, in the issue of capital punishment, Christians have a duty to promote Christian values and to address specifically Christian concerns such as forgiveness, the conversion of souls and salvation.

I have complete trust that a moratorium would give us the time to think more deeply about this important issue, that many hearts could be turned around and that we could improve our approach to a consistent ethic of life, from one end of the life spectrum to the other end. So much of Christ's teaching is about forgiveness and mercy. He asked us to rise above the reactive level of punishing to a higher level of compassion. He is always stretching our hearts! When Catholics say that their stand is justified because of the guilt involved, then I wonder what do they do when the parable of the adultery woman is read at the homily. Do they take a quick nap or do they actually get up and leave?

In the public discourse that we are going to have, sooner or later, regarding the validity of capital punishment in our own wealthy, free and open societies of the West, the secularists will use the angle of race or poverty or human rights but Catholics have a responsibility to push for a bigger picture by phrasing it as a culture of life issue and by stressing the inherent dignity of the human person. Nothing matters more than choosing life - even when death is deserved. When faith illumines our lives, we do not see death as the ultimate punishment anymore but rather we understand better that the ultimate threat is to be cut off from God. Nothing matters more than the love of God and repairing our relationship to God when it has been hurt. Very little repair is allowed once "rigor mortis" has set in.

When the US Bishops say that abolishing the death penalty would break the cycle of violence and affirms the recognition of the human dignity of all people "even the ones who have failed to respect the dignity of others", they are raising the bar for the common good. When a theologian said recently in the "San Francisco Catholic" that a life ought to be spared not because it is useful or meritorious or influential but because we are "all made in the image of God, and that all other reasons are secondary", he was right on target. And that's the standard that we should be aiming for: the dignity of our neighbor, even our fallen neighbor.

A moratorium would give us the time to articulate and promote every reason (secular and Christian) against capital punishment in California. I have checked articles and blogs on this subject and you can easily find may comments screaming for punishment and revenge in the most aggressive manners, as in "Kill the bastard, get rid of this vermin!". This is not the "Christian" way. Jesus was confronted with outcasts and adulterers and thieves. Even if repentance was not present, at least not yet (as in the case of the cheating woman ready to be stoned). As I mentioned above, forgiveness and prayers are key components of the Christian faith.

Prayer is (among many other things) a growth process and this is what changed my own position toward the death penalty. A few years ago, in a Contemplative Outreach Conference, a woman asked if I liked to pray and I said Yes, then she handed me 3 little cards and asked me to pray for 3 California death-row inmates. I felt uncomfortable taking the little cards but I thought I could not refuse to pray. So I took them home and looked at them every night and said a short prayer. Each card had the name of a prisoner and asked to pray first for their victim, second for the victim's family, third for the family of the prisoner and finally for the prisoner himself (or herself - one of the name on the cards bing a female name). I have to admit that I started praying for them with a certain reluctance and I was wondering if I were doing the right thing. But slowly by slowly, my timidity went away. A couple of months later, as I was getting the little cards out of my prayer book, I remember thinking that they were still confined to their cell and if there was any way that my prayer could bring them one inch closer to God, then it was the most appropriate thing to do.… The longer I prayed (I did it for 3 years), the more confirmed I was of doing the right thing, asking - every night - for a blessing on the family of the ones they had hurt (coping with their grief and their loss), and for a blessing on their own families (coping with their absence and the shame of incarceration).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who died in 1945 in a concentration camp) once wrote: "When I pray for a brother, despite anything he has done that annoys me, I cannot condemn him nor hate him anymore. No matter how upsetting or unbearable his face is to me, he will acquire during the intercessory prayer the face of the brother for whom Christ died, the face of the forgiven sinner".

Copyright ©2005 Michele Szekely - December 27, 2005

References:

(1) The American Bishops on Capital Punishment - see their very informative site: here .

(2) A Consistent Ethic of Life Joseph Cardinal Bernardin March 11, 1984: A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life. It is not necessary or possible for every person to engage in each issue, but it is both possible and necessary for the Church as a whole to cultivate a conscious explicit connection among the several issues. And it is very necessary for preserving a systemic vision that individuals and groups who seek to witness to life at one point of the spectrum of life not be seen as insensitive to or even opposed to other moral claims on the overall spectrum of life. Consistency does rule out contradictory moral positions about the unique value of human life. No one is called to do everything, but each of us can do something. And we can strive not to stand against each other when the protection and the promotion of life are at stake.

(3) Fr. Coleman in "San Francisco Catholic" December 8 2005

(4) Dietrich Bonhoeffer "De la vie communautaire", collection "l'actualité protestante", 1947. "It is because intercession is nothing else than the act of presenting our brother to God, trying to see him under the cross of Christ, as a sinner needing His grace. Under this perspective, whatever was appalling to me about him disappears, I see him now in all his misery, his distress and his poverty, and I take over his sins as mines, so that I cannot do anything else than pray: Lord, take care of him, according to your judgment and your mercy.… Intercessory prayer is a service that we owe to God and to our neighbor on a daily basis. To refuse it to our neighbor is to refuse to give him the most basic Christian service par excellence".


UPDATED LINKS IN 2011:
Every time there is an election, I think it is a good time to articulate clearly what we (Catholics) can do to add to the common good of our nation, so I'm reposting my arguments against the death penalty.
Check this link: the SF Archdiocese has a very good section on this topic here .
If you only check one link, check this one: http://old.usccb.org/sdwp/national/101reasons.shtml , it's a good one!





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