I've been thinking about the death penalty a little bit since the execution of that Georgia woman coincided so recently with the Pope's visit here. (Confession, I've also being going to church more regularly than I used to.) In any event, I hadn't heard anything about this woman before yesterday, so she was just a name. Apparently, she killed her husband or something. In any event, Georgia gave her the death penalty last night.
I thought about a verse from Romans 12:19-21.
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good
It's an old debate, I know. For as long as I can remember, I've always been in favor of the death penalty.
I'm not sure I still am.
I've never supported the death penalty for deterrence. That's never been a valid reason for me. If you support the death penalty for the deterrent effect, then you would have to say that the Islamic practice of chopping off a thief's hand is okay because of the great deterrent effect. Obviously, that's a penalty that is vastly out of balance with the crime.
For me, I guess my support of the death penalty was a gut-sense of justice or retribution. Not revenge, but more of the idea that there are some crimes that carry the penalty of death simply as a matter of balancing accounts. If you do X, then you get Y. We as a society have decided that certain crimes warrant the death penalty. It's kind of the idea that you know what you're getting into when you decide to go on a killing spree. There's a cost that we have decided to impose for certain crimes - your life is forfeit.
However, spending a lifetime in prison is still a form of losing your life in a certain kind of way. You could almost say it's worse. Being sentenced to a life of imprisonment is a long, slow way to die. It gives that person a lifetime to forfeit their own life, rather than meeting with a quick end. There's no blaze of glory or martyrdom. You're just kind of forgotten. There is obviously the possibility of the criminal justice system erring, but that's not really what moves me. I guess I'm just not as sure about the whole idea of balancing accounts as I used to be.
Maybe I would feel differently if someone I loved were the victim of a horrible crime - I don't know. Hopefully, I never face that. However, the families of the Charleston Nine expressed their forgiveness to the person that killed their loved ones. Deep down, I know that's the right path. It's the harder path, but it's the right one. It's easy to get all Inigo Montoya and tell yourself that you're gonna go exact revenge against the six-fingered man. Isn't it harder to not?
There's also the idea that we leave room for God's wrath, as the passage from Paul's letter to the Romans tells us. Imposing the death penalty doesn't leave any room for God to carry out his sentence. Perhaps I'm growing older and losing some of my youthful bravado - a mellowing, if you will. Because now, I have a hard time seeing myself as the instrument of carrying out a punishment that leaves no room for God to work.
Anyway, I think I've changed my mind about the death penatly, or at least I'm less sure of myself than I used to be.