Death Sentences

I WAS thinking this week of the Terri Schiavo case, a case that bothered me for one simple reason. I mean no disrespect by the analogy, but if Ms. Schiavo had been a cat or a dog, somebody would have been legally charged with wrongdoing for allowing her to die of dehydration. In the simple case, it would have been neglect. In the case of doing it on purpose, it would have been abuse and cruelty. I mentioned this to somebody a few months ago, and they dismissively remarked, as though my point was not germane, “Well, if it had been a cat or dog, they just would have put it to sleep.” To which I said, exactly.

Apparently Ms. Schiavo could not be granted that favor of mercy. It would have been a crime to end her life mercifully and on purpose, and so it was decided to end her life slowly—in discomfort at least formidable enough that the medical staff provided morphine in response to her moans and groans. How one decides, exactly, that refusing to hydrate a person and predicting that she will die within two weeks as a result is not killing on purpose, I have no idea. But I have a very definite idea that of all conceivable courses of action in Ms. Schiavo’s ordeal, the worst one of all was pursued.

When Ms. Schiavo was still alive, a politician in favor of keeping her alive addressed the fact that her medical condition was an issue of contention, but that when we cannot know, we must err on the side of life. I have to say, I love this statement. I cannot argue with it. And now I remember why Ms. Schiavo’s case reminds me of the death penalty issue.

I WANT to be honest about the death penalty, and I can only do so by trying to place myself in a horrible place. I have three children who are more precious to me than my own breath. If I were to catch a person in the act of trying to gravely harm one of them, and if it took death to stop that person, then either that person or myself, or both, would die. I have absolutely no compunction of heart about this. I am a peaceful person, but in an instant I would kill to save my kids. No questions. No arguments. Maybe that makes me morally bankrupt, but for my children I’m willing to go broke. As far as I’m concerned, this is already a signed contract between God and myself, with motions for any required mercy and understanding on God’s part already placed on file.

Furthermore, if a person committed such an act against one my kids, and I was not present or able to stop him or her, then I would desire, with an inferno of passion, to make him or her pay dearly. And if the crime involved violation, torture, imposition of fear and terror and the like, then… well, my feeling would be that that person had better learn to pray to God to help them, because if I had anything to say about it, nobody else would be given a chance to do so. I would have a desire to find the guilty one and make absolutely certain that with deafening screams of pain and guttural cries of agony, he or she would regret their day of birth. A part of me would want this, very badly. It is one of the sobering and frightening things about being human.

But I pray I would do better. I pray, and tend to believe, that there is one thing I would want much more. I have an unspeakably deep faith. I have profoundly felt the grace of God. And I pray that I would want my child’s tormentor to know the glory of that grace.

I would not be able to know, of course, if he or she would ever, in a hundred years, find this grace and experience its beauty within his or her soul. Perhaps not. But then again, perhaps so. Just maybe. And if so, then the two of us would know what true justice is: True regret, true sorrow, and true forgiveness in the light of God’s love. Regret, sorrow, and forgiveness; for both of us. It might not happen, but it might, just maybe—unless the guilty was first executed by the state. Then all my hope for the guilty, all my hope for me, and all my hope for anything good at all to come from an evil act which destroyed my life, would be gone.

This is why I do not support the death penalty. To associate it with justice is a falsehood. It removes the last hope of true justice: The action of God’s infinite grace bringing love, healing and salvation to the lives of the broken.

It might not happen. But it might. We cannot know.

And when we cannot know, we must err on the side of life.

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