[I apologize for these ‘heavy’ posts recently – the subject of injustice has been pressing heavily on me.]
This paragraph from a previous post:
But of course the punishment isn’t the whole story. Those people being punished are real people. What about rescuing, restoring, rekindling, rehabilitating? What about the people who are being punished: does it end with punishment; is punishment the end-game in itself? Do we have any responsibility to participate in helping those who break our rules? Where do Christian tenets of forgiveness and grace enter the story? Do we even want them to?
Probably about thirty years ago somebody in our church had the bright idea (unfortunately I think it was mine) to have a series of Sunday evening debates about culturally relevant topics. When the subject of the death penalty surfaced I took the position of ‘pro’ death penalty against someone who was ‘anti’ and in my opinion I more than held my own. At various times through the debate I remember emphasizing that this was about justice, not revenge.
At the end of the time we opened the floor to questions and the first person who spoke said something like, ‘When someone takes a person’s life, they deserve to be killed as punishment’, thereby missing my whole point about revenge and justice. And teaching me an important truth about humans and their idol of punishment (or is it revenge?)
There were 2,715 death row inmates in the United States in the same 2013 year quoted last time. Here in Canada there is no death penalty so there are obviously no people awaiting the ultimate punishment but there are certainly those here who would love to see it return.
The 1996 movie Dead Man Walking starred Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon and was based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean. It is her true experience of befriending death row inmate Patrick Sonnier, a convicted killer sentenced to die in the electric chair in Louisiana and the life-changing events the relationship brought to her.
I met Sr. Prejean a few years ago at Queen’s Theological College. As expected, she was strong, opinionated but humble, compassionate and very dedicated against the death penalty. She moved me from a position of neutral, leaning left, to a position of opposed.
In her second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions she provided evidence that two men whose executions she attended were innocent. There are many reasons for the flaws in the system but she is known for this quote:
“In sorting out my feelings and beliefs, there is, however, one piece of moral ground of which I am absolutely certain: if I were to be murdered I would not want my murderer executed. I would not want my death avenged. Especially by government–which can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.
Christianity believes that we do have a part to play in helping and healing the broken, the transgressors, the troubled, the sinful. Christian organizations are traditionally on the front lines of reaching out, whether in prison, behind closed doors, on the street, with the poor, in other countries. However there has always been the opposing side of our personality that focuses heavily on law and punishment, often at the expense of the humans involved, both victim and perpetrator.
There are those who are over-eager to worship the idol of punishment and oddly, holding Christian belief doesn’t seem to make a philosophical difference.
As I’ve said before, perhaps that’s why Christians like hell; it’s our ultimate ‘win’ when people don’t act like we want them to.
Or maybe, conversely, it’s our doctrine of hell that teaches us to relish punishment so much here on earth.
In any case, look around and also look inside for awhile before making those assumptions.
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NOTE: Ironically, the same day I wrote this post CNN broadcast a documentary about the American prison system. I almost didn’t watch it but then felt like it might add to my information here on the subject. I was right!
It was very, very educational and shone a light into a system that is legally stacked against people who serve jail time and into why prisoners find it almost impossible to recover their lives even after a minor arrest.
If you get nothing else from my post today, please, please, please pour a drink, sit down and watch the full CNN program. You owe it to yourself and our world to have your opinions challenged or confirmed about what we call justice.
I’m not sure when it is being replayed but you can find American Jail online at go.cnn.com – go to ‘Shows‘ and click on ‘American Jail‘.