Giving Pause

Boston has long been my favorite American city — yes, it surpasses San Francisco. Graduate study at the Boston Theological Union remain four of the happiest years of my life. My affection is bolstered by the fact that my maternal grandmother, Annie Elizabeth Casey, was born there. Currently, a nephew and his wife are raising their two daughters in the metro area.

A nephew from South Dakota will be fulfilling a bucket-list dream of running the Boston Marathon in a couple of weeks. Back in grad school it was still possible for weekend runners like me to jump into the race without an official registration. I did just that at the beginning of Heartbreak Hill to pace a housemate in his quest for a personal best time. So, I’ve had the thrill of crossing the finish line in Copley Square even though I’d run only six of the 26.2 miles!

As a nation we were all traumatized by the tragic bombing at the finish line two years ago. Personal association with the city as well as my years as a runner made me feel the pain in an acute way. Remember how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended after being found hiding under the tarp of a boat in someone’s driveway? Well, that all occurred at the family home of my niece-in-law’s best friend from college.

Now 21 years of age, Tsarnaev has been found guilty on thirty counts associated with the bombing, seventeen of which carry the possibility of capital punishment. The young man’s defense never contested his participation in the bombing that ultimately killed four and seriously injured hundreds more. Having been convicted of his crimes, the jury now turns this next week to consideration of his sentencing.

Last week the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts came out strongly in opposition to imposition of the death penalty in this case. Citing the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2267), they remind us that cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are “rare, if practically nonexistent.” [link]

Church teaching allows using force to stop an aggressor, and accepts that such force might sometimes be lethal. Nevertheless, this argument cannot be invoked to defend the death penalty. The reason is simple: with the death penalty, people are being killed not for current acts of aggression, but for something that happened in the past —  they are already held within circumstances that prevent them from doing more harm!

Longtime readers of this blog know of my strong opposition to the death penalty as well as our family’s personal association — my cousin’s son was sentenced to death for murder.  Here is a [link] to my earlier post.

All that aside, evidence is incontrovertible that capital punishment simply does not serve as a deterrent. It is clearly applied in an arbitrary manner with people of color and poor people bearing that disproportionate cost. Lists of innocent people whom we have executed — before exonerating evidence or judicial malfeasance has come to light — are staggering.

Yes, a big part of my heart remains in Boston and I proudly tout my family associations. I have reveled in the Boston Marathon for decades and remain outraged by the death and injury caused by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s self-acknowledged actions. All this having been said, I am left with two nagging questions:

How can there be any social value in the death of another young man? How would his state-sanctioned execution be anything more than retaliation and revenge? To my mind, it is a sick sort of reasoning that concludes yet another death constitutes restitution or can in any way be restorative.  Such is a pretty base perversion of “justice.”

Finally, a group of 400 Evangelical Christian and Catholic leaders issued a joint moral condemnation of the death penalty during Holy Week [link]. My final question: Does it make any difference that the one whose Resurrection we have so recently celebrated, as the source and promise of our salvation, was the subject of a state-sanctioned execution?

Should this not give us pause?

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