I’m a Christian and there are two subjects that are a frequent part of our daily discourse – life and death. Abortion is obviously always a hot topic, but a subject that comes up less frequently is the death penalty.
I was raised by a baby boomer mom. Make love, not war and all that. Growing up I felt strongly that the death penalty was not the right of man’s to impose. As a young adult I read “Dead Man Walking”, a book by Sister Helen Prejean that changed the way I looked at the justice and efficacy of the death penalty.
The movie was just okay.
I’m not Catholic but my point of view mirrored that of my Catholic brethren – all life is God’s to give and his to take. Man doesn’t have the moral clarity or authority to do God’s job. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. Besides, isn’t it a worse fate to let a monster languish in prison and live on the receiving end of that notorious prison justice for the rest of his life?
When I became a mother, a lot of things changed for me. I went from being pro-choice (hey, I’m against abortion but every woman should make her own choice) to pro-life (HELLO! Its a person in there, its where we all start!) and I went from “I’ll never feed my kid McDonalds” to “Here, have this hamburger and stop asking me about dinner. I’m exhausted.”
I also realized I did believe in the death penalty. There is nothing that opens your eyes more to the vulnerability of the human race than becoming a parent. You suddenly realize what it means to literally be tasked with keeping someone alive. It becomes profoundly clear just how sick and depraved a person has to be to intentionally harm a child. It goes against the very concept of humanity.
That is why the death penalty is a moral imperative of civilized society.
Take a case like that of Benjamin Taylor, who raped and beat 10-month-old Emmaleigh Barringer to death.
He raped a baby.
Any normal human being wants to see a man like Taylor suffer but the death penalty is not about quenching our own need for retribution. Vengeance belongs to the Lord – this is true and its Biblical. The death penalty is not about vengeance or even deterring brutal murders.
I have come to understand over the years that the death penalty is a buffer between humanity and inhumanity. Humanity isn’t all that great but there are some crimes that are especially egregious because they target the weakest and most fragile among us.
I have a friend who’s senior citizen parents were brutally tortured and beaten in their own home before being dragged into the woods and murdered. The two young thugs took their car and some jewelry. The crime would have been awful no matter who the victims were but it was especially heinous because those victims were so vulnerable. They are the people civilized society has been charged with caring for. Like babies.
For someone to not only end those lives, but do it so sadistically takes a level of depravity that cannot be tolerated in what we refer to as “humanity”. Even the most hardened of criminals sense this. In prison, a child rapist stands about as much chance as a bucket of KFC. That person will be devoured. There is something extraordinarily disturbing about a person who would prey on a child or a weak senior citizen.
Many people feel the death penalty is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ values but this is not the case. Christ was not all peace and love all the time. Of course, there’s the incident with the money changers in the temple, but also when the Roman guards came for Jesus to lead him to his crucifixion Peter sliced off the ear of one guard. It is relevant that Peter was even carrying a sword in the first place. Christ and his disciples understood the concept of self-preservation. They understood that sometimes violence must be met with violence.
We needn’t get into all of the incidents where God commanded the Israelites to slaughter entire communities of people. He also put a lot of disobedient people to death himself (RIP Lot’s wife).
God is no pacifist.
The death penalty is the acknowledgement that there are some very basic requirements to being considered a part of the human race. There are some very basic qualities that define humanity in a person. One of those things is a natural disgust for preying on the vulnerable, particularly children. When we impose the death penalty on a person like a Timothy McVeigh, it is society collectively saying that this person has not met the basic requirements of humanity.
A tank full of goldfish cannot tolerate the presence of salt water. It kills. Civilized society cannot tolerate the presence of those who refuse to observe the simplest, most rudimentary form of compassion – don’t rape kids, don’t kill kids.
It is us clearly defining the difference between being man and being evil. We may be fallible in our assessments sometimes, but there are many times when there is no question of evil or depravity. As with poor, sweet baby Emmaleigh.
God is the only judge of a person’s heart. It is not our place as mankind to sentence anyone to eternal damnation, nor rescue them for that matter. That’s all Jesus and we’re just the messengers. However, it is our place to make sure the most wanton among us do not stay among us. We have the moral authority to send a vile rapist-murderer like Taylor to meet the Maker.
The rest is up to God.