At Christmas, we Christians commemorate the birth of the Saviour and celebrate a season of hope. Yet when Christians support and exercise the death penalty, as California did 2 weeks ago, we deny hope and play God. To do so is as unnecessary as it is un-Christian.This Christmas season we have just been confronted with the execution of the co-founder of the Crips Gang, a certain Stan Tookie Williams. He was convicted of four murders in 1979. His advocates pointed to his reform (if not redemption) in prison, while death-penalty proponents considered him a manipulative conman, who got what he deserved.
However, even if Williams and other convicted murderers are guilty, the death penalty is no way to punish them; nor does it necessarily deter crime or protect others.
Further, pro-life Christians are being intellectually dishonest to denounce abortion while supporting the death penalty, even for capital offenses.
The turning point for me came when our son was selected to play the lead role of Matthew Poncelet, in Tim Robbin’s play Dead Man Walking, based on the book of that same name by Sister Helen Prejean.
Since there was little we could do as a stage-parents, I read Sister Helen’s book.
Sister Helen Prejean came to her ministry, as we all might, somewhat reluctantly. Most of the men on death row are not very lovable and no one excuses their crimes.
However, her case against capital punishment begins with some fairly simple observations:
1. Most inmates on death row are poor; poor in earthly goods, poor in education and poor in judgment. (You might even say they are the stupid ones.)
2. A disproportionate number are Black.
3. And few receive very good legal counsel when their cases are first adjudicated (no offense to legal aid, but there seldom seems time or resources to test evidence and build a case).
This means that if ever mistakes are made proving guilt, the chances are much greater for the poor and the mentally impaired to end up convicted of these crimes. And it would follow, that some might, in fact, be innocent.
So what public benefit is served by execution?
Probably not cost, since once on death row appeals can be long and expensive.
Correction professionals assure us there are ample brick and mortar remedies, (short of execution) to secure the truly psychotic from running amok.
Or is it vengeance? The terrible swift sword of the state exacting the ultimate penalty?
What about the victims? Their families? Will they really find closure by taking another life?
Vengeance is incompatible with Christian teachings. A public policy supporting the death penalty should be no less abhorrent to observant Christians than abortion.
Commuting a death sentence to life without parole is not necessarily clemency, its just not playing God. After all what is so wrong with having the guilty spend the rest of their natural lives in contemplation of their crime?
Christian philosophy encompasses a continuum of life: from conception of the soul to its redemption after death.
Commuting sentences on death row does not forget or forgive the crime, it merely extends appropriate punishment while leaving terminal judgment to God.
Our imperfect court system, with its human precedents and laws and its all too human judges and juries, may convict and incarcerate, but should never kill. As it is written, Jesus cautioned that only he without sin should cast the first stone, (or approve the fatal injection).
As Christians at Christmas invoke His name, let us also mind His teachings.
P. Barton DeLacy, a Portland real estate consultant, helped site youth prisons after passage of Ballot Measure 11 in the 1990’s. The father of four and a practicing Catholic, he serves on the Board of the Abbey Foundation of Oregon