More than half of surveyed Americans now support the death penalty for murder and similar crimes. This is a modest increase from an all-time low recorded in 2016. But numbers alone don’t determine the moral content of actions by individuals or governments. Right and wrong exist whether popular opinion approves or not.
In late July the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reinstituted capital punishment for persons on federal death row. As a result, five individuals are scheduled for execution in the coming months. In a sense, the DOJ is simply carrying out the consequences of a law — the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 — that successive administrations and congresses, dominated by both political parties, have failed to change. But this makes these judicial killings no less egregious. U.S. bishops were quick to express their dismay at the decision, and having written and spoken against the death penalty for nearly 50 years, I emphatically join my voice to theirs.
I drafted some of the key materials for the U.S. bishops’ Respect Life Month in 2005, which focused on the death penalty. At the time I noted the following:
On the surface, the case for capital punishment can seem persuasive. Most people live honestly, act decently and want communities governed by justice — both for the innocent and the guilty. Decent people understandably fear the violence in society. They need to defend their children and themselves. The death penalty has a biblical quality of balance: grievous punishment for grievous crime. Many good people see it as a deterrent to grave evil, and even when the deterrent fails, they reason, at least it can bring justice and emotional closure for the relatives of murder victims.
This is a powerful argument, especially in light of the brutality in our daily headlines. But it’s wrong, and we need to turn away from it, both to protect our own God-given human dignity, and also for the sake of the convicted criminal whose life hangs in the balance. The reasons are simple.
The evidence against capital punishment shows that it rarely works as a deterrent — but let’s imagine it does.
The evidence against capital punishment demonstrates that innocent people are sometimes convicted and executed; that our legal system discriminates against minorities and the poor; and that defendants in many states get disastrous legal counsel unless they can afford otherwise. All these things seem to be true — but let’s ignore them.
Instead, let’s assume that a defendant is genuinely guilty of a brutal and premeditated murder; that he or she gets excellent legal counsel with correct due process; and that a fair jury convicts our defendant after careful and intelligent deliberation.
Killing the guilty is still the wrong choice for a civilized nation. Why? Because it accomplishes nothing. It does not bring back or even honor the dead. It does not ennoble the living. And while it may satisfy society’s anger for awhile, it cannot even release the murder victim’s loved ones from their sorrow, because only forgiveness can do that.
What the death penalty does achieve is closure through bloodletting, and violence against violence — which is not really closure at all, because murder will continue as long as humans sin, and capital punishment can never, by its nature, strike at murder’s root. Only love can do that.
Executions in Texas averaged nearly two a month in 2004. Ponder that through the eyes of a young person reading the newspaper. Is this how we define ourselves as a God-fearing people? Is this really a fitting monument to murder victims? In “sending a signal” to would-be murderers, do we realize that we are also teaching a message of state-endorsed violence to our own children?
The reality of any homicide is heart-breaking beyond words. We cannot presume to understand the deep and bitter personal wounds suffered by those who lose their loved ones through murder. As a people, we must never allow ourselves the luxury of forgetting the injustice done to victims of murder who cannot speak for themselves—or our obligation to bring the guilty to full accounting.
But as Jesus showed again and again by his words and in his actions, the only true road to justice passes through mercy. Justice cannot be served by more violence. In the world of 2005, capital punishment has become just another narcotic we Americans use to ease other, much deeper anxieties about the direction of our culture. Executions may take away some of the symptoms for a time (living, human “symptoms” who have names and their own stories before God), but the underlying illness — today’s contempt for human life — remains and grows worse.
In Genesis 4:10-16, humanity’s first murderer — Cain, the man who brought bloodletting into the world — was spared by the God of justice. We should remember that. God’s ways are not our ways; they are wiser and better. God’s heart, unlike ours, is driven by love, not anger. A culture ultimately defines its moral character by the value it places on each human life, particularly those lives that seem most burdensome, inconsequential or unworthy. Violent criminals present an especially harsh moral challenge for us, because their own cruelty has forced them to the margins of society. Recognizing a criminal’s humanity is bitterly difficult when our hearts are clouded by pain.
But the same needle that poisons the killer in every [execution] also poisons us as a culture. Repaying cruelty with cruelty does not equate to justice.
Nothing of substance has changed in 2019. Killing persons in the name of justice is needless and wrong.
The Department of Justice is simply enforcing the law, our law, passed by our elected representatives. Which means that all of us, as citizens, are implicated in the coming executions. We can do better as a nation. For the sake of our own moral integrity, we need to do better. We need to abolish the death penalty now.
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