The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Death Penalty and the Vinyard Owner

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you...You were with me, and I was not with you...You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” -- St. Augustine
Decades ago if anyone had asked me if I supported capital punishment, I would have given an unequivocal positive answer. I saw no reason not to execute a criminal who'd been convicted of first-degree murder, especially if the circumstances of the crime were especially horrendous. And as a naval officer and naval aviator who had lost many friends in times of both war and peace, I felt the same about egregious acts of treason. These beliefs were unshakable, or so I thought, although I suppose I'd never seriously questioned them.

Earlier this week, on Wednesday morning, as I proclaimed the Gospel at daily Mass, I could not help but recall another morning, perhaps 25 years ago, when that same Gospel passage (Mt 20:1-16) was proclaimed at Sunday Mass. 

Even then I'd probably heard or read this passage about the generous vineyard owner a hundred times. I'd studied it years before in a New Testament course. And I'm sure I'd discussed it on several occasions with others. But I'd never considered that it had anything to do with capital punishment. Indeed, as the visiting priest began to preach on that long-ago Sunday morning, he focused entirely on social justice and the need to ensure working people received a living wage. I remember thinking he was certainly correct in that a living wage was a just wage, but I also found it curious that he said not a word about the "Kingdom of Heaven" which, at least according to Jesus, was the central theme of the parable. 

Anyhow, once I realized where the homilist was headed and that he intended to take some time to reach his destination, my mind began to wander. In my defense, my wanderings didn't stray too far from the subject at hand. In fact, I found myself thinking about the parable in a quite different way.

My thoughts that morning centered on all those last-hour hired hands in the parable, the ones who'd worked for only one hour and had yet received the full daily wage. I realized how merciful God is, how His justice is so different from the world's justice, how He continues to call us to repentance, and how He offers forgiveness and eternal life to all. If only we could be like God. If only we could be perfect as the Father is perfect. But because we so often insist on equating fairness with equality, God's generosity just doesn't make sense to us.

As I mulled this over my thoughts inexplicably turned to the death penalty, our most extreme punishment, a punishment designed effectively to shorten the lives of men or women convicted of serious crimes. And yet through capital punishment society quite possibly prevents those sinners most in need of God's saving mercy from experiencing the last-hour salvation God offers. God, of course, can and will act regardless of the designs and schemes of human beings. But we should not be testing God, in effect challenging Him to overcome the obstacles we place in the path of His holy will.

Yes, God will always prevail, but how arrogant of us to presume we can just trash God's greatest gift, the gift of life itself. The desired end of both murder and capital punishment is the destruction of life. It is this end, among other things, that makes murder sinful. By taking the life of another person the murderer attempts to usurp that which belongs to God alone, life and death. The use of deadly force in both self-defense and just war is, of course, a moral exception since its desired end is the protection of life and because all other means are either impractical or ineffective. 

Some consider the death penalty a societal form of self-defense from the most violent and depraved among us. This might make some sense if we were unable to incarcerate criminals safely and indefinitely. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) addresses this clearly when it states:

"The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent'" [John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56].
Others call for the need to provide "closure" for the families and friends of victims, as if the death of a murderer will somehow restore the victim's life. Closure, of course, is simply a convenient euphemism for vengeance, and we should call it what it is, because vengeance is antithetical to Christian belief. After all, how can we pray daily the only prayer Jesus taught us, in which we say, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" [Mt 6:12] -- how can we pray this and still accept the legitimacy of vengeance?

By listening only to the proclamation of the Gospel that Sunday morning, and disregarding a rather boring homily, I had experienced an epiphany, one that forced me to challenge my own opinions regarding capital punishment. I didn't experience an instant change of opinion, and this internal challenging continued for some time, ultimately leading me to question my earlier, strongly held beliefs.

A few years later -- actually on February 3, 1998 -- the state of Texas executed a woman by the name of Karla Faye Tucker. She had participated in two ghastly murders and was the first woman executed by the state of Texas in 135 years.
Karla Faye Tucker

Not long after her incarceration Tucker had experienced a total conversion to Christianity, and spent the next 15 years on death row. Although some questioned the sincerity of her religious beliefs, her final words to those who would witness her execution convinced all but the most cynical -- which, sadly, included then Texas Governor George W. Bush -- of the reality of her conversion. Her words:
"Yes sir, I would like to say to all of you — the Thornton family and Jerry Dean’s family — that I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this. [She looked at her husband.] Baby, I love you. [She looked at Ronald Carlson.] Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. [She looked at all present weeping and smiling.] Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I am going to be face to face with Jesus now. Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you."
With Tucker's execution I experienced another epiphany of sorts. It caused me to question the stated purpose of our so-called correctional institutions. What exactly is their purpose? Do they aim to correct, to rehabilitate those who have committed serious crimes? Or are they institutions determined only to mete out punishment according to the latest societal or political whim? If a prisoner, regardless of the seriousness of the crime, truly repents, reforms, and becomes a new person in Jesus Christ, what do we do with him? And if this reformed prisoner -- one who has actually experienced the "correction" advertised by the institution -- is on death row, do we execute him anyway? Is this justice? Or is this simply vengeance?

Such questions lead one to make comparisons, to examine man's justice in light of God's justice. Should we be content as we crawl through life aware that we are more often than not acting unjustly? Or should we strive for the perfect justice God desires of us?

From the Christian perspective, Karla Faye Tucker was very fortunate. She experienced a conversion early in her incarceration, continued along the rocky path of repentance and forgiveness for the next fifteen years, but went to her death fully aware that she was loved by God. Because she had accepted God's forgiveness, she was able to forgive herself. It is noteworthy that she did not beg for forgiveness from the families of the man and woman whose lives she had taken. I'm sure she knew that forgiving her at that moment might be a hard thing for them, and a failure to forgive could even present an obstacle to their own salvation. No, she instead hoped God might give them His peace.

Still another concern related to the exercise of capital punishment by the state involves government's tendency to expand its influence and control over virtually all aspects of society. This is clearly evidenced in totalitarian regimes which try to control not only the actions and words, but even the thoughts of the people. And the most severe method of exercising such control is through the expansion of the death penalty as a punishment for so-called "crimes against the state."

We encounter this as well in some Muslim-majority states where sharia law is established as the law of the land or accepted as a legitimate alternative to a nation's constitutional law. Sharia, of course, rejects the concept of religious freedom and calls for capital punishment for those guilty of such religious wrongs as apostasy and blasphemy. I suppose in an Islamic theocracy, in which religious teachings pervade every aspect of the society and the state functions as Allah's agent, these "crimes" are considered crimes against both Allah and the state.

The citizens of constitutional republics in which capital punishment is permitted must remain vigilant. As the people allow their government to expand and become increasingly authoritarian, they can expect to encounter changes too in the application of capital punishment.

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