Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Aluminum Cans

I don't know how else to approach the topic of capital punishment, other than, I don't like it. I've stewed over this post for the last few days, and I can simmer no more.

Whoa! Can of worms! Did you hear it being opened? I did from a mile away.

You know how people often cherry-pick Bible verses? Within the Catholic Church (and other Christians of the pro-life movement), I feel that abortion is almost always "cherry picked" over other issues related to the sanctity of life, like abolishing capital punishment. I don't know the official definition of pro-life, but when I hear that word and apply it to my life and my beliefs, it encompasses more than just abortion.

A quick Google search of "pro-life" turned up nothing related to capital punishment. Nothing! Maybe it is hidden away in some obscure page of the websites I perused, but I simply don't have the time to go through everything. Which brings me back to the point...why is there no highly visible presence for abolishing the death penalty? The only time I ever hear anything about it is when someone on death row in Tennessee is getting ready to be executed...the local stations usually report about the flood of last minute appeals and shout-outs to the governor to grant clemency.

But outside of those few moments, I honestly cannot recall a time when I heard about someone advocating for the end of capital punishment. All the time, all year round, I hear a constant stream of anti-abortion news, both triumphs and failures. Some days, I get a little annoyed with the flood. I think that my slight annoyance stems from my confusion as to why no one floods the media and our world with abolishing the death penalty.

I also realize that capital punishment is its own minefield.

Let's be frank. At this particular moment in time and in my life, I feel more connected to abolishing the death penalty than I feel connected to the "pro-life" movement. I don't know why, but I do. If feeling this way makes me less of a Christian, less of a Catholic, too bad. I don't want to keep hiding behind the curtain because I'm afraid of what people will think and say because I'm not overly-excited about anti-abortion. Because I'm not. I can't keep lying to myself. My energy is directed towards abolishing the death penalty.

Within the last 48-ish hours, I heard talk of ending abortion on at least 2 separate occasions. I heard about making moral choices and decisions. I listened as individuals spoke about the value of life. I listened as they stressed the importance of prayer and seeking God's guidance. Within those last 48-ish hours, I heard not a word about abolishing the death penalty. I heard nothing about how all life is sacred, including the lives of those on death-row.

Right about now arrives the "well, they deserve to die for what they did" point. And it is a very valid one. It is. Acts of unspeakable horror should never be committed against any living human being (and animal, but that's another topic for another day). No one's last look or feeling or memory on this earth should be one of immense pain and terror and sadness. No one. Families and friends don't deserve the pain, sadness, and suffering that comes with the sudden, brutal loss of a loved one.

And you're probably right when you say that they deserve it. But several years ago, by the grace of God I came across a quote that had finally articulated what I had always felt about the death penalty, which is
"Be against the death penalty. Yes, they deserve it. But thank God, 'that for your grace I don't get what I deserve.'" -Mother Antonia Brenner
Yet again, God chose to strengthen my heart and my resolve. On Friday I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Sister Helen Prejean speak. What an incredible woman and inspiration! She came to campus as part of human rights week, and I did my best to take notes in the hopes that I will remember her words as time passes. Here are some of my favorites/highlights:

"Do you know what they write down on the death certificate as cause of death? It's legal homicide. Legal homicide." I had no idea. Actually, I never gave any thought to what was written down.

On the expensive enterprise of capital punishment: "Do you want to keep using resources for the machinery of death?" No! I certainly don't want to. Allocate money and time and effort into other areas that are actually worthy causes, not death.

She also spoke heavily about the social and racial side of capital punishment. From her many years in the cause for abolishing the death penalty, she's discovered that with many cases, the race of the victim was a huge determining factor in whether capital punishment was sought by prosecutors. People (of any race, but especially black) who murder a white person are more likely to be put on death-row.

Sister Prejean also noted that our culture keeps us from questioning the inhumanity of capital punishment. It is especially troublesome for victims' families because if they don't seek/want the death penalty, they are perceived as being weak...that they didn't really love the victim. Which is a total BS call. Once I had finally figured out how I felt about capital punishment, I broached the subject with my family. I told them that if something were ever to happen to me (no matter the atrocity), I hope that they will honor my wish that the death penalty not be sought. If my family, or any family of any murdered loved one, didn't seek the death penalty, that does not mean that they didn't love the person.

That being said...forgiveness, Sister noted, is seen as weak. If we forgive the murderer or rapist, then surely we must be weak. I can't fathom how forgiveness is weakness...it is sometimes the hardest thing we ever do. It makes us stronger. She also added that forgiveness isn't just a gift that you give to another, but that it is a way to save and preserve yourself. Forgiveness allows us to keep bitterness from taking hold in our hearts. If we never forgave our trespasses, I think we would all be pretty ugly inside, and we'd probably act ugly too.

It all boils down to dignity. Each person has the right to be treated as a human being. Not being treated as a human being just sucks, to put it simply. Out of her entire talk, what resonates the most with me was this, that "We recycle aluminum cans, but we just throw people away." Sister Prejean nailed it.

To me it seems that in our self-centered, culture of instant gratification and aspirations of wealth and fame, it is easy to forget our humanness. We become objects. Once you become an object and not a breathing living loving human person, you are easier to throw away. Sure, we recycle paper, plastic, cans, and the like. But we really do throw people away. Once I sin, the first time you sin, the millionth time she/he sins, yer out! You get tossed on the heap of garbage which everyone thinks you belong in.

But, nobody deserves to be thrown away. Even the ugliest of us deserves the right to live. People wanted to throw Jesus away. And they did, on a cross.

If all life truly is precious and valuable, then how can a person be anti-abortion but pro-capital punishment? How can one advocate for the rights of one but not the other?

Murderers don't have the right to take away life, and neither do we. Because if we think that we have the right to take away their life, then, "Killing the killers makes killers of us all." -my Uncle, Dana Cole

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