The Death Penalty in America – World Religion Essay
This week’s show involved asking religious persons about their perceptions of the death penalty. It is very interesting that religious language is used on both sides of such a discussion. New constitutional challenges have been fueled by DNA testing and this
technology is redefining what absolute evidence has come to mean.
The Catholic Church has come to condemn capital punishment as apart of it stance on the value of life throughout its natural course. The Southern Baptist Convention is the only religious body that still actively supports capital punishment. Their official comment on the issue is as follows: “All people including those guilty of capital crimes are created in the image of God and should be treated with dignity”. When this comment is looked at more carefully it is clear that it really doesn’t speak to the issue other to say that dying via a death sentence could be seen as a dignified death.
When Debbie Morris was 16 a young man named Robert Willy abducted her and her boyfriend. For two days he raped her and made her witness the brutal murder of her boyfriend. Robert Willy was sentenced to death but this did not put Morris’s heart at rest. She lived with a constant fear that he would escape and come find her. She believes that most people who are victims of a crime and the death penalty is an option seek it more out of fear than anything.
As time went on all she really wanted was to make things the way they were before; she sought peace. Her emotions preferred that he be dead however in the back of her mind she also feared that the day after he was killed she would not feel any better. She would have nothing left to hold on to or focus her anger on. In desperation she called out to God. She went through tough times, drinking to kill the pain. The death penalty was the end of the line. If this didn’t make her feel better then she was afraid that nothing would.
What is forgiveness like when you don’t ever hear or see the person you are in conflict with? She didn’t ask for forgiveness to make Willy feel better, she did it because she wanted to feel relief. Morris even states that her actions were somewhat selfish. The night she realized she needed to forgive Willy she realizes that it didn’t do him any good. He didn’t get let off any hook because of her forgiveness. However, she felt a sense of relief; however she says it is work. You have to forgive daily and ask for help from God everyday in regards to placing that pain in the past.
Trading away the hate and being filled up with something better is what forgiveness means. It doesn’t mean that Morris and Willy will have lunch; she had no desire to see Willy. He is still dangerous and she says that she would not go through the act of forgiving with him directly. Forgiveness is sometimes one sided. God says forgive, not forgive and wait for this person to come to you. There is never complete and total healing; it is a process that must be worked.
Rabbi Elie Spitz
Rabbi Spitz started his career as a criminal attorney only later to become a Rabbi. He talks about the meaning of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. This comment is found twice in the books of Moses. Spitz believes that this statement has been taken out of contest by the America legal system to justify horrible acts of revenge.
In the ancient world there were no prisons and no civil systems of justice. It was completely up to the family to resolve issues that we would think require the police or the court system. According to Spitz the Bible does give authority for capital punishment. It is however only performed in very special cases that involve having two eye witnesses to the crime. Perhaps DNA evidence is the modern day equivalent to having two eye witnesses.
The eye for an eye line was written to comment on fairness. It is meant to equalize the punishment for crime. So for example if someone steals from you, it is not fair to kill their whole family. In the same light if a one eyed thief takes the eye of a victim it is not fair to take the only remaining eye of the thief. Causing complete blindness would hurt the thief more then the thief taking the one eye of the victim.
Rabbi Spitz quotes the line “justice justice, you shall pursue”. Meaning, the end result must be as just as the means. Justice is pursued because the nature of it shows us that it is never fully captured. What is justice?
Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean is the author of the best selling book Dead Man Walking. Prejean believes that the individual’s perception of God greatly effects their belief regarding the death penalty. For example, if one believes that God is revengeful and a God we must fear then perhaps the death penalty fits that idea. However, if you believe that God is pure love that forgives all then this will affect your belief of the death penalty.
Prejean’s experience and studies of inmates has concluded that death row is generally made up of minority men that come from impoverished homes and have often been victims of violent abuse from an early age. She believes that the ability to hire a good attorney often separates who gets the death penalty from who spends life or less in jail. She references the Jim Crowe days when people would say “They don’t feel like we feel.” How many times throughout history do we have to be shown that once you dehumanize someone it is easy to justify whatever.
As love and truth grows inside of us then our perception of God gets larger as well. This seems to be an important theme for a good number of the issues we have discussed throughout the semester. At which time God believes the way you do on an issue there is going to be trouble because you are no longer allowing yourself to doubt enough or be in a place that accepts new information.