Until Death Do Us Part!

The botched execution in Oklahoma, in conjunction with a conservative estimate that 4% of current death row inmates are innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted [link], should ignite moral outrage. I am grateful to live in a state that does not resort to the death penalty. And, I’d be proud to compare Minnesota crime rates – or any state that does not impose the death sentence – with states that do at any time!

Sadly, nothing is likely to change. Too many seek revenge and retribution and tenaciously hold to disproven beliefs that the death sentence serves as a deterrence – it doesn’t! All it does is to give expression to a vindictive impulse within a fearful populace.

I admit personal interest in the topic – my cousin’s son Peter was sentenced to death for a contract murder I have no doubt he carried out. Only a minor fluke in Constitutional Law enabled his sentence – begrudgingly by Nebraska legal officials I might add – to be commuted to life in prison. My previous post on this topic is available [here].

Yet, with a persistent and perennial hope that things can actually change, that societies like individuals can mature and become more enlightened, I dust off “Ten Reasons to Oppose the Death Penalty” first published in 1982. Perhaps something in Mary Meehan’s collection of arguments will provide the tipping point for America to finally claim some civility and sanity in our execution of justice. 

1. There is no way to remedy the occasional mistake. 

2. There is racial and economic discrimination in application of the death penalty. 

3. Application of the death penalty tends to be arbitrary and capricious; for similar crimes, some are sentenced to death while others are not. 

4. The death penalty gives some of the worst offenders publicity that they do not deserve.  

5. The death penalty involves medical doctors, who are sworn to preserve life, in the act of killing. 

6. Executions have a corrupting effect on the public. 

7. The death penalty cannot be limited to the worst cases.

8. The death penalty is an expression of the absolute power of the state; abolition of that penalty is a much- needed limit on government power. 

9. There are strong religious reasons for many to oppose the death penalty. 

10. Even the guilty have a right to life.

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You may read Mary Meehan’s 1982 article in it entirety [here].

Life As It Should Be

Scooter season has finally returned to Minneapolis! My Kymco People 150 was polished, serviced and filled with gas when I retrieved it from storage at the Scooterville dealership yesterday. (Yes, that’s really the name.) Riding home felt like one of those “Ah, life as it should be!” kind of moments.

Although a ride to Scooterville had been offered, I deliberately wanted to take the bus. Yes, I love my “bike” for the sheer enjoyment riding provides.  But a big motivation is cost savings and energy conservation. So, why use the extra fossil fuels when a bus is going in that direction anyway! Besides, every time I ride a city bus it has proven to be a very enlightening reintroduction to the city on which we live. Yesterday did not disappoint.

You may have noticed that four presidents gathered in Austin, TX this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. This towering achievement of the Johnson administration ended legal racial segregation in public places. Again, it prohibited legal segregation by race in public places. The force of law can protect certain rights and proscribe some behaviors. It cannot change human hearts.

Charles M. Blow observes a really tragic fact. “Now we are facing another, worsening kind of segregation, one not codified but cultural: We are self-sorting, not only along racial lines but also along educational and income ones, particularly in our big cities. … Our cities are increasingly becoming vast outposts of homogeneity and advantage, arching ever upward, interspersed by deserts of despair, all of which produces in them some of the highest levels of income inequality ever seen in this country.” [link]

Blow cites a report by Stanford researchers: “The proportion of families living in affluent neighborhoods more than doubled from 7 percent in 1970 to 15 percent in 2009. Likewise, the proportion of families in poor neighborhoods doubled from 8 percent to 18 percent over the same period.”

According to a study published last year in the journal Education and Urban Society, “Students are more racially segregated in schools today than they were in the late 1960s and prior to the enforcement of court-ordered desegregation in school districts across the country.”

Riding the bus confirmed Blow’s contention: We need to see people other than ourselves in order to empathize. If we don’t live around others we do ourselves and our society damage because our ability to relate becomes impaired. It’s easy to demonize, or simply dismiss, people you don’t know or see. It’s in this context that we can keep having inane conversations about the “habits” and “culture” of the poor and “inner city” citizens. It’s nearly impossible to commiserate with the unseen and unknown.

Yes, I ride my scooter because it’s fun, saves me money and lessening my consumption of fossil fuels makes me feels socially responsible. Picking up my scooter yesterday taught me another lesson: I need to get off my scooter from time to time and ride the bus if I am truly to see the world in which we live!

I am inclined to suggest that we dispense with the overly ritualized washing of feet on Holy Thursday or the sanitized “reverencing” of the cross on Good Friday. Instead of going to church, ride a bus across town sometime this “holy” week. Sit for one hour with a community as much our own as our self-sorted congregations.  Get beyond “the law” and our domesticated “public” liturgies.

Whose face do we see?

Just People

Forty-nine years ago I was popping my buttons with pride.  High school was a tough time for me with peer pressure dampening any spontaneous expression of individuality. But inside I was exploding with satisfaction, pleasure, even a dash of adolescent smugness.  My big brother was marching in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King.  No one else at my elite, all-male, JESUIT Creighton Prep could share that distinction with me.

Lest we forget, it was illegal for whites to marry a black person or an Asian during my seemingly idyllic childhood in Nebraska.  That barrier fell two years before Selma but it was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all such prohibitions remaining in recalcitrant states.  Unjust laws were crumbling and a wave of much-needed reform was sweeping our nation.  My brother was atop that wave.  Not until last Sunday afternoon, March 7 was I reminded of the anniversary.  I regretted not having honored that momentous event on these pages.

This weekend provides another chance.  Today, March 14 is the anniversary of the death of a famous icon of the civil rights movement.  Fannie Lou Hamer died on this day in 1977 from breast cancer at the age of 60.  She lived most of her life as she was born – a poor black sharecropper in Mississippi with a fourth grade education.  The system persisted well beyond emancipation as nothing more than a system of “debt slavery” enforced through insidious segregation and intimidation veiling all too real brute force.  This began to change for Hamer when at the age of 45 she heard a preacher encourage blacks to defy racist repression by doing something as radical as registering to vote.

It remains difficult for us to accurately recall the shame and injustice of these years and admit the oppression and degradation that was part of the air we breathed in America.  But somehow, somewhere this poor, black, uneducated woman had the inspiration and courage to decide that subsisting by sharecropping a “master’s” land was not what God had in mind for her or for others like her.  She would pay a heavy price!  In 1963 Hamer was one of a group arrested in Charleston, South Carolina for having the temerity of illegally entering the side of a bus terminal reserved for whites.  While in jail she was savagely beaten and left with a damaged kidney and eyesight permanently impaired.  In 1964 she would be part of a “Freedom Delegation” from Mississippi challenging the credentials of that state’s slate of all-white delegates to the Democratic National Convention.  Though thrown out, Hamer’s eloquent defense touched the conscience of a nation.

A few weeks back I wrote on this site about a friend who teaches at a Catholic high school. Regulars here will recall she wanted stories about the great men and women of faith her students needed to know about.  Today I nominate Fannie Lou Hamer.  Yes, she was powerfully motivated by the unspeakable injustice she and others like her had to endure.  But, she was empowered and sustained by her faith!  She cited Ephesians 6:8-9 as her touchstone: “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Isn’t this the sort of hero, mentor, role model, woman of faith, saint we would want our young people to emulate?

And what about us?  Are we willing to confront the structures of injustice that permeate the familiar “world” that props up our seemingly secure and predictable lifestyles?  Are we willing to courageously change course even in mid-life – Hamer was 45 – when suddenly we hear the Word of God calling us to live lives of integrity and self-transcendence.  Are we willing to pay the price that all God’s children are rendered the equal dignity, inalienable respect, practical opportunities and legal protection which we would demand for ourselves and for our children?

Fannie Lou Hamer died of breast cancer at age 60.  She freely gave her life for causes far greater that we might put an end to human degradation and structures of violence.  We are blessed that her compelling witness comes to us during Lent.  We, too, are called to repentance, conversion, and transformation in the way we give flesh to the Word of God.  Like Hamer, my brother was just an ordinary sort of guy.  We have heroes, mentors and role-models all around.  What about us?  What about today?
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I was inspired by and recommend to you the story of Fannie Lou Hamer for today, March 14 in All Saints: Daily Relfections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsberg.  Crossroads, 1999.