Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Faithful Discussion About the Death Penalty

I was recently invited to an event discussing the death penalty, with the same title as this post.  There would be a screening of a film, a panel discussion, and some free form discussion on the topic.  I was urged strongly to come by my friend Jeff, who was moderating the event.

This isn't a topic I've thought much about until recently.  As you may have read, my recent post entitled A New Command I Give You discussed the implications of the death penalty and revenge against criminals as a whole.  I also recounted my experience as a juror in this post, which is my still my most influencing experience with the justice system.

Going into the event, I considered myself quite clearly against the death penalty for no other reason than I thought it wrong.  I vaguely recognized that the death penalty put blood on our hands ('our' being the jurors, the judge and attorneys, the legislature, and the citizens of the state whom these people all represent), and I didn't like this.  I knew that I supported forgiveness over retribution (in principal, at least, if not in practice).  But these ideas were unformed and generic.

I was intrigued to hear these ideas fleshed out, as well as new ideas that hadn't come to me before this event.

1. The death penalty is expensive

The standard statistic is that a death row inmate costs 3 times what a life prisoner does.  The statistics are slightly more significant in Texas, although each state varies.

Does this convict me to oppose the death penalty?  Not really, but it's an important issue to discuss when considering a change in law.

2. The death penalty doesn't work

To punish a killer by killing is irrational.  To teach the community that killing is wrong by killing the killer is backwards.  There may be an argument that the death penalty keeps the killer from killing again, but life in prison accomplishes the same goal without the destruction.

This is a little more convincing.  I believe punishment should have a heart of discipline, which produces change instead of resentment.  We can't help a person overcome their shortcomings to reach a better life if we just kill them off.  I would much rather see them learn, grow, be healed, and mature during the course of their life.

3. Family of victims who are avenged by the death penalty rarely move on

This is a soft statistic, but it's demonstrated in the film screened at the event.  Victims (or families of victims) deserve to move on from their tragedy.  If they don't move on, they become trapped in a life of resentment and bitterness, tainting the entire world around them through the lense of their tragedy.  Those who forgive the criminal to the point where they don't seek revenge seem to move on to a more productive, happy life much easier than those who seek revenge through the death penalty.

Now we're getting somewhere.  I know most people don't care much about the criminal, since "he made his choice," but now we're talking about the benefit of the victims.  There's still some trouble with this argument, though, since many people don't put much stock in intangible ideas like forgiving and "moving on."  But I think common sense supports the far and wide benefit of a joyful life over a resentful one.

4. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind

A point was raised by a panelist about the original "eye-for-an-eye" laws found in the early chapters of the Bible.  He said that this principal isn't in line with our gut instincts.  That our gut instincts would say "he took my eye, so I'll take both of his eyes, steal his wife, and burn his house down."  So to tell an early culture that you should just take what they took from you was revolutionary!  It demonstrated control and consideration, rather than raw vengeance.  Today, we even consider "eye-for-an-eye" to be barbaric because of how we've learned the principal of control and consideration in our culture.

This blows me away, partly because I learned something new about one of the oldest 'rules' in the world.  But mostly, it starts to put a voice to what I believe.  We may think we've moved miles past the olden days of "eye-for-an-eye," but the death penalty shows that our animalistic tendencies still push us toward flagrant revenge.  Once we recognize this, we can see the death penalty for what it is: murder by the state.  Whether just or unjust, it is, most basically, revenge for what they did to us.

5. We are all human, and we are all broken

This sums up the entire issue for me.  It also cuts to the heart of racism, homophobia, nationalism, and many other major issues in our world.  When we see people as people, it becomes much harder to mistreat them.

But that's just it.  We don't see all people as people.  Black people have been identified as sub-human, undeserving of the rights white people claim.  Foreigners have been dubbed barbarians, their lifestyle fit to be destroyed.  Gay people have been called mentally unbalanced, making it ok to treat their identity like a disease that should be eradicated through drugs.  And people who have made mistakes different from our own have been called criminals, allowing us to treat them as scum rather than trying to help them work through their wounds that took them so far off track in the first place.

I'll leave your conclusions to you, but my decision is to oppose the death penalty.  I would be interested to hear any opposing arguments if you would like to share them.

Always moving forward,