The Common Good
July-August 1998

To Die For

by Carol Fennelly | July-August 1998

The death penalty is nothing more than revenge.

Recently the world looked on in horror as 22 Rwandans were executed for their roles in the African nation’s 1994 massacres that killed at least 500,000. Even more disturbing to the international community was the dancing, clapping, and whooping of the nearly 10,000 onlookers who turned out for the spectacle. The United States was among the nations speaking out against the punishment.

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That same week the U.N. Human Rights Commission issued a stinging report that called for the United States to suspend all executions, saying, "A significant degree of unfairness and arbitrariness in the administration of the death penalty...still prevails." The report rebukes the United States for executing people for crimes committed as juveniles and people who are mentally retarded. It also found that race and economics play a major role in determining the severity of sentences. Religious leaders and human rights activists who have long called for doing away with capital punishment hailed the report.

Last year 74 executions were carried out in the United States. Consider this:

  • Recently in Virginia the execution of a Paraguayan man was carried out in spite of the protests of the World Court, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and appeals from around the world. At the time of his arrest the man had been denied his right to counsel from his embassy.
  • In an Arizona case, a Honduran man who had been denied similar rights was executed despite appeals from the president of Honduras.
  • A Texas state legislator has introduced legislation that would make children as young as 11 death-penalty eligible. In Pontiac, Michigan, a 12-year-old boy is being tried as an adult for a murder he committed at age 11.
  • In Denver, a local radio station called for listeners to drive by the station and honk if they wanted to "fry" Timothy McVeigh. Twenty-four thousand Coloradans did so. A Detroit News columnist hoped he’d catch fire in the chair, writing that "nothing smells better than a well-done mass murderer."

IT WAS THE RECENT highly publicized execution of Karla Faye Tucker, however, that finally put a sympathetic face to the issue of capital punishment and caused many Americans, including religious leaders who have been outspoken advocates of the death penalty, to raise their voices in protest. Tucker’s evidently rehabilitated, redeemed, and repentant life illustrated to many for the first time that the death penalty is about nothing more than revenge.

Subsequent executions, including that of another woman, have been met for the most part with a ringing silence from many of those same religious leaders who were so outspoken over Tucker’s death. However, for some Christians who traditionally have been supportive of the death penalty, difficult questions have persisted long after the issue left the front pages. For instance, the April 6 issue of Christianity Today, the flagship of mainstream evangelicalism, editorialized against capital punishment for the first time in its history. The CT editors wrote, "Jesus’ teaching of non-resistance is difficult to live out on a societal level. Not all evangelicals agree on how to apply Jesus’ teaching of non-resistance to public policy. But it seems clear that the gospel demands that in ministry, Christians work more for reconciliation than for retribution."

In a political climate that seldom plays to the noblest of our inclinations, "get tough on crime" is a much easier sell than redemption, reconciliation, and rehabilitation. In fact, 84 percent of Americans favor the death penalty under certain circumstances, according to a recent Newsweek poll.

Finding justice in the midst of evil can be difficult. Revenge is a much easier emotion to manage. The Catholic archbishop of Denver said recently, "The only true road to justice passes through mercy. Justice cannot be served by more violence." It is increasingly evident that the whole world is watching what we do on this question. Our moral capacity to speak to human rights issues internationally is compromised when we cannot quench our own blood thirst right here at home.

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