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In death penalty debate, what’s best done in remembrance of Jesus?


For many homilists, the two most difficult subjects are the Blessed Trinity and capital punishment. In the first instance, it’s hard to interpret so profound a mystery. In the second instance, emotions overwhelm faith and reason. Outrage and fear influence one’s sense of justice as much as a longing for forgiveness and redemption.

It’s reasonable to assume that, within any congregation, there are people who support capital punishment and others who oppose it. These are our neighbors, our relatives and members of our faith community -- women and men whose belief in Jesus Christ draws them to receive his body and blood time after time.

The church, increasingly committed to a consistent ethic promoting the sanctity of life in all its stages, invites us to take another look at our current conviction. One perspective draws on the instruction Jesus gave to his disciples at the first Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of me.” In every circumstance of our lives we cry out for grace when we ask, “What ought we do in remembrance of Jesus -- in the light of his teachings and example?”

The same measure applies when we confront the murdered and the murderers, the courts of law and the teachings of the church. What choice do we make in remembrance of him?

In the summer of 1995 a young woman jogging in Central Park in New York was murdered. The assailant was captured and the governor called for his execution. The jogger’s mother, Linda Pinto Machado, came from Brazil to claim her daughter’s body. Reporters engulfed her. They wanted her reaction to Gov. George Pataki’s vision of justice for her daughter’s murderer.

Mrs. Machado recoiled at the suggestion that he be executed. Anyone who would commit such a crime, she said, was sick and in need of help. To take such a person’s life would desecrate her daughter’s memory. She asked that the assailant be given the help he needed. This was the reaction of a woman who had prayed aloud in Rio de Janeiro at the start of her sad journey, “God be with us.” She carried the God of the living into New York where elected officials were opting for death.

Mrs. Machado’s reaction is very much in line with that of much of the civilized world. As matters stand, the United States is the only country among Western industrialized nations that employs capital punishment. For the second year in a row, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights -- over the objections of the United States -- has voted in favor of a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment.

Numerous reputable studies cite the uneven and unethical application of legally sanctioned executions. These include their use against the impoverished, the mentally defective and youthful offenders. Many of us are unaware of these truths. We know more about capital punishment as it is meted out to criminals who rationally and coldly plan the murders of others.

On the most logical of levels, it makes no sense for judge and jury who, presumably, are not mentally defective, drug-crazed or in the throes of passion, to do what the murderer did: To conspire to take another’s life. Only the crime of murder seeks like behavior. The jury does not order the thief robbed or the rapist raped.

Pope John Paul II, whose visits to the United States have been celebrated and televised, has intervened on behalf of prisoners awaiting execution. No state has paid any attention at all to his pleas. On Aug. 14, Zane Brown Hill became the 473rd person executed in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The Holy Father has clarified Catholic teaching on this matter. With incarceration as a way to prevent the killer from committing further murders, the church holds that no grounds exist to justify capital punishment.

No one can overstate the value of a single life or the evil of a murder. The life of every person, whether innocent or sinful, is sacred, not because of personal merit or demerit but because the creator and source of all life is sacred.

Jesus, who invites us to choose our actions in remembrance of him, warns us not to be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. “Fear him, rather, who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:26-27).

We would do well to fear our ability to disguise vengeance as justice. We would do well to recognize the temptation of allowing those who take innocent lives to rob us of our Christian spirit.

During the trial of a South Carolina woman who drowned her two young sons, a billboard on a major Staten Island thoroughfare personified one man’s thirst for vengeance. An extended arm held the severed head of Susan Smith. In large black letters next to the painting were these words: “Susan Smith murdered her two babies. I say cut her @&*#!* head off.”

Beneath the billboard three women and two men held a statement that read: “Hatred and revenge destroy the human spirit.”

Which message is better proclaimed in remembrance of Jesus?

Mercy Sr. Camille D’Arienzo is president of the Brooklyn Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a religion commentator for WINS-radio, professor emerita of Brooklyn College and the founder of the Cherish Life Circle, a group that circulates a Declaration of Life card stating that should the individual holding the card be murdered, the death penalty should not be given to his/her murderer.

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998