Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hate Crimes and Death Penalties

Governor Niki Haley, of South Carolina has called for Dylann Storm Roof, the 21 year old who shot and killed nine people in the AME church in Charleston, SC to face the death penalty. Whether he is tried under South Carolina law or under Federal law the death penalty is a possibility.

This tragic situation presents us with an opportunity to consider two questions: 1) what is the source of this “evil” that causes a man to kill in cold blood and 2) what is accomplished by formally executing the perpetrator of such a crime?

Several of those who have commented on this and other recent incidents of similar character have identified at least the actions taken by the killers, if not the killers themselves, as “evil.”

Evil is defined rather blandly in the dictionary as “morally objectionable behavior.” Most of us feel it more viscerally than that, as something dark, sinister, threatening and unsettling; something that must be stamped out even at risk of our own well being, like a venomous snake. Shakespeare’s words – put in the mouth of Anthony as he eulogized Caesar, the dead emperor – “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” comes close to expressing both our fear of evil’s lasting power, and our helplessness in the face of it.

But the question we wrestle with is whether men are evil or if they merely become – through mental illness, environmental influences, or demon possession – capable of committing deeds we call evil. Or does Evil exist as a living entity, independent of, but capable of influencing sentient creatures like ourselves? Is it a Devil in our midst or is it merely a description of behavior that goes beyond the pale of human acceptance? Can human beings become “evil” any more than a volcano or a hurricane can become evil?

Regardless of where we come down on the issues discussed above there is still the question of what to do about evil – or Evil, if you please. Insisting on the death penalty for those who commit our idea of the most heinous varieties of evil – murder being the most prevalent example – seems to say “the evil that men do” can indeed be “interred with their bones.” Something in us knows, though, that such is not the case. Executing a twenty-one year-old mass killer neither, erases the pain inflicted by his deeds, ends mass killings, brings back to life those he slaughtered, nor repays him “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” – he does not have enough eyes and teeth. All it seems to do is to wreak some degree of vengeance on the “evil person.” It has not proven to be a deterrent to future evil deeds by other “evil” persons.

I suppose, since I have started this conversation, it is incumbent upon me to take a position. So I will attempt to do that as succinctly as I can. To begin, I do believe in Evil, and not just because it is a “tenant” of my Christian faith – although it is notably not explicit in the Apostle’s Creed. I believe in evil because I see it at work in all living things around me; anomalies exist that are inimical to life itself, and I must conclude that just as there must be an Author of Life and Goodness, so there must be an author of Evil – of death itself. Further, I conclude that, just as humans have no innate goodness in themselves but rather are made right-eous (good) by the inspiration (inbreathing) of God their creator, so the evil that possesses all of us to some degree – some tragically to a degree that drives them beyond the pale of human acceptance – is the result of inspiration (inbreathing) of the Evil One. It is these twin beliefs – that humans can be inspired (breathed into) by both God and Satan – that makes me hesitant to call any man (or creature) evil. If a criminal, hanging on a cross next to our dying Savior could, in an instant, receive forgiveness from Jesus Christ, and the promise of everlasting life, who am I to conclude that any modern murderer might not also be that close to the kingdom of God? And who am I to demand that his life be snuffed out?

So, is the death penalty demanded in cases like the one we are considering here? I believe not. Can the Evil that caused this tragedy be snuffed out by killing the killer? Never. That is beyond human power to accomplish. Are there things we can do to rescue humans from the cycles of poverty, deprivation, ignorance, hatred, violence, etc., that cause them to become tools of Satan? Certainly. We can help to alleviate the social conditions that breed evil AND we can promote the Gospel of Christ which brings men and women into a relationship with God that, rightly understood, forbids such inhumanity of man to man.

There are several reasons I oppose the death penalty: 1) it does not seem to deter evil deeds, 2) it makes killers of us all even as we profess to abhor killing, 3) it assumes in most cases more knowledge of guilt than can ever be proven, 4) it impacts the poor far more negatively than the affluent who can afford the legal assistance that the poor cannot, 5) our legal system is not devised to administer “justice” but rather to award “convictions” and “acquittals” to those who can make the cleverest arguments, 6) it satisfies a base (evil) desire in the human heart for revenge, 7) it takes the one who is executed beyond the hearing of the saving grace of God.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy has pointed out recently, we have not yet devised an acceptable human system of incarceration for those whose crimes require long-term sentences. We need to address that problem so that those who must serve indefinite – or life-time – sentences are neither provided with posh conditions nor deprived of their humanity. It seems too often we make prison life a living death. Many inmates, under those conditions become their own executioners, taking their own lives.

We need to abolish the death penalty. We need to reform our prison systems. We need to convert our penal system into a correctional system. The first is easy, requiring only a change in our laws. The rest requires all the ingenuity available to us. Meanwhile we need to do everything in our power to deprive evil of a place to put down its roots.

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