Sunday, November 8, 2009

Getting Away With Murder

“Off with his head!”

Like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, that’s what we should be shouting when we execute criminals in America. Derived from the Latin, capitalis, “ regarding the head ”, the death penalty is capital punishment and was originally a severing of the head.

According to Amnesty International, as of December 2008, more than two thirds of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Much to my unhappy surprise, Christians are divided on the death penalty. Some quote Leviticus 24: 17-22 “ And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death”, while others quote Exodus 20: 13 “ Thou shalt not kill”. In this country, we favor Leviticus and kill those convicted of killing others. Methinks we’re getting away with murder.

The recent execution of Max Payne ( the 6th execution in the first 10 months of 2009 in Alabama!), reminded me how we trifle with human life in this country. We discard embryos we don’t need and destroy unborn children we don’t want.

The heinous nature of Mr. Payne’s crime was undoubtedly the reason the penalty was carried out. But, none of us gave him life, so none of us is allowed to take it away. Christians, of all people, should know that.

It was arrogant of us, in fact, to award ourselves this divine ability by attaching it as punishment for the violation of a law. Our desire to avenge a murder blinds us to the realization that we are not the givers of life. Execution is not punishment, it would seem, but revenge. And we all know what Christ said about revenge.

There has been some discussion, however, about ending the death penalty. In recent years the Supreme Court has voted to forbid the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded, and it banned using the death penalty for crimes that did not involve killings. But, to my mind, that’s no different than the Nazis choosing who would go to the gas chambers and who would not. We still put people to death.

I’m no constitutional scholar, but, in my view, the Eighth Amendment implicitly forbids the death penalty.

Consider it was written by men who fled a country where punishments, such as public whipping or exposure in the stocks, were designed largely to shame the offender, and where the only death penalty was the brutal and also shameful hanging. Presumably, they wanted no more whippings, stocks or hangings in their new life and is probably what they had in mind when they wrote “cruel and unusual”.

The tone of the 8th Amendment, I feel, is concern for the convicted. Go easy on the bail and fines and, for heaven’s sake, don’t torture.That being the case, why would they want death as punishment?

OK. It’s the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens. How then, you may ask, can the state maintain peace and order in society unless it rids us of those who commit awful crimes? Well, the punishment handed down for crime should restore that peace and order. Catholic teaching is clear on this issue and makes perfect sense: if there are non-lethal means sufficient to defend and protect the public while punishing for the crime, the state should limit itself to such means (such as life without parole). In that way, we are also respecting the dignity of the person who committed the crime.

God made man in His image and that is why life is sacred, whether it’s microscopic, cradled in a womb or spent making bad choices.

It troubles me that not much has changed since the days, 2,000 years ago, when people screamed, “ Crucify Him, crucify Him.”

Till next time...