Saturday, January 14, 2006

Everything I Know About the Death Penalty, I Learned from Pope John Paul II

Last Wednesday, NJ lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to suspend executions while a task force studies the ethical issues and costs associated with imposing capital punishment. When Gov. Codey signs the measure on Monday, NJ becomes the third state behind Illinois and NY to suspend executions, but the first to do so through legislation. (the others were done by executive order.) The bill had bipartisam support in Trenton. Said Democrat Sen. Joseph Roberts, "The injustice of the current system, the steep price tag as well, means we ought to take a look at it." His Republican colleague Sen. Diane Allen went further, "We've heard about people who were put to death and (later) found innocent. We've looked at the cost, which is enormously more for someone on death row than for a person who's imprisoned for life without parole. In New Jersey, there has been a sea change in how people view the death penalty." While I appreciate that lawmakers need to factor the cost of any program into their decisions, I did find it curious that both Senators cited economic factors in their decision. I believe the most persuasive argument against the death penalty is a moral one.

I am against capital punishment and I feel it should be abolished. But that hasn't always been the case. Until a few years ago, I believed the state reserved the right to impose the death penalty on offenders who commit the most henious types of crimes. It wasn't until about three years ago when I heard a speech made by the late Pontiff John Paul II, that I began to re-evaluate my own position on this compicated matter.

At the time the Pope weighed in, I was skeptical that there would be much common ground between a liberal queer activist like me and the leader of the Catholic Church. I should note that I was raised Catholic and I always took a dim view of their rigid dogma, particularly concerning issues of sexuality. But when I heard Pope John Paul II discuss the death penalty in the context of forgiveness and vengance, I was moved to revisit the issue (and my own ideas of forgiveness.)

The Pope mentioned that support for the death penalty is generally rooted in desire for revenge. He acknowlegded the legitimate urge for justice, but suggested that justice can never be achieved through vengance. He admonished those who cite Biblical scripture to justify a pro-death penalty stance. According the the Pope, the oft-repeated proverb "an eye for an eye...." (Lev. 24:20) was not a recipe for vengance, rather to meant to serve as a cautionary tale against the escalation of violence in general. The Pope also pointed out that Jesus' position on the death penalty was clear: rather that reltaliation, we should "turn the other cheek" and extend our hand in healing, blessing, and forgiveness. (Matthew 5:38-55)

Rather that relying on a second-hand account of stuff I heard John Paul II say three years ago, I wanted to find some actual quotes from the Pope which support the values I've just described. It wasn't difficult. A Google search on the words "Pope John Paul + death penalty" turns up 641,ooo hits. The Vatican has its own website complete with an archive of transcripts from many Papal speeches and masses. (Who knew?) From paragraph 56 of Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life) Pope John Paul II states:
It's clear that for punishment to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought to not go to the extreme of executing the offender except when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, such cases are practically non-existent.
The Pope advanced the argument that when a prisoner (who poses no threat to society) is executed, it sends the message that life is worthless, thus we can view the death penalty as an injustice to the sanctity of life. I share the Pope's belief that execution does not end with the death of the criminal, but affects each and every one of us living in a society which justifies capital punishment. I admit it's instinctively pleasing to jugde those who commit henoius crimes as worthless or "less-than" but we should resist this temptation. If we convince ourselves that some among us deserve death, then we forget that all of us deserve forgiveness and the grace to ammend our lives. Fighting violence with violence for the sake of vengance does not serve a useful role in this country. Nor does it allow society to cultivate less vengeful methods of dealing with violent crime.

A 1994 piece entitled Confronting a Culture of Corruption: A Catholic Framework for Action the American Conference of Catholic Bishops states:
Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems...including increased reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime. Violence is not the solution; is it the most clear sign of our failures. We can not teach that killing is wrong by killing.
As I mentioned, I spent a long time believing that capital punishment is justified in some cases. My change of heart occured when I heard the Pope issue a pretty bold and compelling statement condeming the death penalty. He basically suggested that those who take a pro-death penalty stance are generally folks who suffer from issues related to forgiveness. The fact is, at the time I was an angry young man with no ability to forgive others (or myself) for anything. Not that there were all these things to forgive, but I tended to err on the side of vengance whenever I felt threatened or slighted. In my case, the Pope was right: when I addressed my inablitiy to forgive, my feelings regarding the death penalty simply changed. I believe there is a strong correlation there.

Thinking back, I'm surprised I didn't respond defensively to the Pope's assertion, instead somehow managed to take his words to heart. I said earlier that my relationship with the Catholic Church is hardly a cozy one. That might have made it easy to dismiss the Pope out of hand. Instead, I had a "teachable moment" which has led me to a greater understanding of my own values.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Raised a Catholic
but I didn't learn everything I know about the death penalty from the Pope :>. I first broke with the Church during a sermon delivered some 16 years ago, after the birth of my 2nd daughter.

The sermon dealt with the issue of abortion. I have always been, and remain pro-choice as well as pro-birth control. While I would never have an abortion myself, I don't believe government belongs in the wombs of women (I do have some limits). In any event, the Father told the congregation that day that if you were for abortion (which I really am not, but this included choice), then you could not be a Catholic.

On the other end of the spectrum, I came to my opposition the long way around as it related toward the death penalty. First I opposed it, because worried about those who were innocent being put to death; then I supported it for the most henious of crimes; and now I simply oppose it after having concluded that the death penalty is government sanctioned murder

Anonymous said...

Batfish says:
My argument is based totally on fairness. Either you execute all murderers or none. Justice cannot be a lottery. We take a few people out of thousands convicted of murder and kill them. If the Government decided to give 1 in 5000 speeders 5 years in jail instead of a $100 fine, would you think that was a fair thing? Justice is about applying general standards to kinds of crime, not picking out individuals capriciously (no matter how it is dressed up) to die when thousands of others live. The same is true of drug-related crimes. Do peopel just not understand the concept of Justice?

jay lassiter said...

Waiting for Lefty:

Some may find the conversion of mine a little ludicrous, but I too recall being vehemently for the death penalty as a teenager.

Then one evening, there was a TV movie showing titled "Kill Me If You Can", starring Alan Alda as the condemned man Caryl Chessman, someone I had never heard of before. Chessman was of course ultimately executed, but his story moved me.

I went to my local library and found a copy of Chessman's book "Cell 2455 Death Row" there. I read it cover to cover. When done, I realized I had to rethink my opinions on capital punishment.

In time, I came to reject the death penalty utterly. And a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to meet Sister Helen Prejean (author of "Dead Man Walking", who looks nothing like Susan Sarandon, by the way), who was traveling in my area promoting her books. Her speech was powerful and inspiring.

I cannot imagine changing my views back to support of capital punishment. Just goes to show you that people can be changed with enough time and the proper argument at the right time

Anonymous said...

Waiting for Lefty:

Some may find the conversion of mine a little ludicrous, but I too recall being vehemently for the death penalty as a teenager.

Then one evening, there was a TV movie showing titled "Kill Me If You Can", starring Alan Alda as the condemned man Caryl Chessman, someone I had never heard of before. Chessman was of course ultimately executed, but his story moved me.

I went to my local library and found a copy of Chessman's book "Cell 2455 Death Row" there. I read it cover to cover. When done, I realized I had to rethink my opinions on capital punishment.

In time, I came to reject the death penalty utterly. And a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to meet Sister Helen Prejean (author of "Dead Man Walking", who looks nothing like Susan Sarandon, by the way), who was traveling in my area promoting her books. Her speech was powerful and inspiring.

I cannot imagine changing my views back to support of capital punishment. Just goes to show you that people can be changed with enough time and the proper argument at the right time

Moonbeam said...

Interesting, though I'm not sure that I agree with your conclusion on this issue. What about a criminal such as, say, Jeffrey Dahmer? You think he should live despite the fact that he brutally murdered and cannibalized multiple victims and despite the fact that there is absolutely no ambiguity as to whether he actually committed those heinous crimes?
I'd like to share something that my Goddess once told my coveners and I about justice and this issue in particular. These are Her words:

"A man cried out to me in utter emptiness and he said, "Mother, save me! Set me free!"
And I asked him, "Why have you wrapped yourself in chains?"
He replied, "These chains have been put upon me by my brothers, for I have murdered a man."
And I said to him, "My beloved, when you are able to remove the chains of death from him whom you killed, then I will remove from you the chains of justice. Find your freedom in your soul, and I will meet you there and we will rejoice together."

Her words reminded me that I worship a Goddess of justice....not of mercy. There was no forgiveness for the man who had committed murder; he was expected to pay the price for the crime that he committed, and no amount of remorse could rectify what he had done. Although She loves us unconditionally, she requires that we take responsibility for the injustices that we participate in, no matter how painful the consequences may be. You advocate forgiveness; you think murderers should be absolved of their crimes and set free, allowed to wander the streets and most likely continue to terrorize and kill other innocent victims? Or am I simply misunderstanding something here?

jay lassiter said...

..........perhaps i am not stating it very well. in any event, i reckon starting dialogue is 1/2 the battle.

No i do not believe that murders should be set free allowed to wander the street. i think they should be taken out of society. hopefully in prison, the criminal can accept responnsibility and try to ammend their life. to suggest that i advicate letting killers run the street is a little salty of you. i am still kinda wondering where that came from.
forgiveness is a powerful tool, especially for the person doing the forgiving. in my case, when i was able to forgive the person who infected me with HIV, i didn't do it for him,i did it for me. otherwise i'd have a heart full of bitterness and anger like i used to. it wasn;t until i learned forgiveness that i was able to reach that level of serenity. am i still mad? you betcha, but i am not driven by that anger any longer.

i advance the agrument that executing someone deprives those involved to forgive and be forgiven. that is what i was trying to say.
apart from the fact that
- the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime
-nor does it allieviate the fear of violent crime or better safe guard the people.
-death penalty does not restore the social order that was breached by the original offense
-the death penalty is not enforced fairly, falling disproportionately on the poor
-it's really expensive
add to that the forgiveness issue, and you see why this issue is a "no brainer" in my mind.
don't forget that executions prevent the opportunity to accept responsibility as your Goddess rightly advocates.
i appreciate your thoughtful reply. i should note that i do not agree with you.

Moonbeam said...

First of all, when I somewhat sardonically suggested that you were in favor of allowing murderers to roam the streets, it was only because at no point in your article did you discuss what you would prefer as an alternative to the death penalty. You simply criticized capital punishment without offering a vision of what should be done in its place, other than to rather vaguely say that we should practice forgiveness. Now in your latest post you say that they should be kept in prison, but not killed. Do you really think that keeping somebody in a tiny cell 23 hours a day with hardly any social or intellectual stimulation for years and years (oftentimes the remainder of their lives) is more humane/compassionate/forgiving than simply quickly killing them via injection (which, by the way, is probably a far better way to die than the brutal acts that they perpetuated upon their victims)?
Personally, if given the option of spending 40 years of hell in prison and having a quick death, it would be a no-brainer to me.

Moonbeam said...

- the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime

*Oh? Got anything to back that up? ;-) Some researchers would heartily disagree.
-nor does it allieviate the fear of violent crime or better safe guard the people.

*It alleviates my fear to know that I don't have to worry about the likes of psychos such as Timothy McVeigh and his ilk.

-death penalty does not restore the social order that was breached by the original offense

*Nor does your alternative of keeping the murderer in jail.
-the death penalty is not enforced fairly, falling disproportionately on the poor

*That's true of just about any crime or punishment. Not that that makes it right, but those who are in prison for drugs, violence, and other sundry crimes are also disproportionately poor.
-it's really expensive

*Weren't you the one who said that economic issues shouldn't play a major role in this discussion? I don't give a rat's ass if "it's really expensive"; I want justice to be done, and I don't place a price tag on that.

Janet said...

Death penalty or not, I think the problem lies in the justice system itself. There's no justice in it. So many misguided souls get off on good behavior and even manage to sell the movie rights to their stories. Ironically, the actors that play them are also examples of people who are above the law.

jay lassiter said...

my alternative to the death penalty is.......
NOT having a death penalty.

Moonbeam said...

Jay said: my alternative to the death penalty is.......
NOT having a death penalty.

And I *know* that you can think of and write a better response than that, my friend. By the way, I wasn't trying to disparage your article, I enjoyed it and thought it was written admirably and with heartfelt altruism. I just thought that this thread could benefit from some lively debate, and I've checked in several times today to see what everyone has to say.
By the way, I do hope you're planning on attending the luau party that I sent you the invite for; I've not heard back from you about that and hope that you recieved it.
Cheers,
Moonbeam

Euian said...

Thank you for joining this weeks New Jersey Carnival and you're welcome!

Pat said...

This is the most beautiful writing I've seen on your blog to date (not that I haven't enjoyed the rest of it). America should be leading by example on this fundamental human rights/dignity issue. Thank you for your thoughtful efforts.

Anonymous said...

Jay, this commentary hits close to home since just last month the Mississippi judicial system condemned the murderer of my cousin, her husband and 4 yr old son to death. Although this was a brutal and senseless act, over a land inheritance, the ending of yet another life does nothing to bring healing or peace. It only brings suffering and loss to yet another group of innocent beings, those people who have loved and still do the one condemned. What agony for them to have to endure. I believe in the sanctity of all life and think that vengence should be left to God. Thanks for your insight into this very sensitive subject. Maybe other hearts will be changed.

littlewing said...

Robbie: I can only say that while vengance is not mine, being a mother of two, I would much rather give the murderer death than pay for 3 hots and a cot if I were a grieving mother.
Interestingly, Oregon has just upheld a suicide assit law, allowing Dr's to help the terminally ill die. I also believe in this choice.
While a criminal might not want to die. Knowing that his actions are punishable by death, he makes that choice when he commits a henious crime.
I think it comes down to a decision that is ultimately the individuals right to choose, given an informed decision.
We all have to make hard decisions and even criminals have the right to choose.

Tim said...

Does anyone else here feel that putting a man/woman in prison with no hope of parole borders on a form of cruel and unusual punishment? Personally I think putting a convicted murderer to death is a lot more merciful than locking him up in a 8 x 8 cell for the rest of his life.

Matty the Damned said...

Hey Lassiter! Nice blog, we need more progressives and you do good work. I think I wrote something on the death penalty once. Oh yeah, here it is: http://thespincycle.blogspot.com/2005/11/long-drop_28.html

MtD
(Who is a shameless self promoter)

Anonymous said...

The death penalty was abolished in the Philippines few days ago and the filipino president talked about this in Rome with the pope! Read this: http://www.agi.it/english/news.pl?doc=200606261734-1227-RT1-CRO-0-NF11&page=0&id=agionline-eng.oggitalia