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Issue Date:  June 2, 2006

Changing sides on the death penalty

A chaplain reflects on his three years at a state prison


When I left the Twin Cities in June 2002 to begin my service as a lay Catholic chaplain in a California maximum security prison housing 5,000 male inmates, I had no idea what to expect other than warmer weather. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself changing my position on the death penalty. I didn’t expect to go from being against it to being for it. To be honest, I was a little bit embarrassed to find my heart hardening and my mind closing, especially so quickly.

I learned a lot during my three years as a prison chaplain. I learned that many inmates have done absolutely horrendous things, and that a significant number are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. I also learned that prison is an incredibly hard place to become a better human being because of the violent and fearful nature of the surroundings. And I learned that the fence is pretty darn thin, and that with a slight change in genetic or environmental makeup or with a poor choice here or there, I could just as easily have been a resident in need of a chaplain rather than the one serving as a chaplain.

As a Catholic chaplain, I led weekly Word-Communion services on five yards (each yard functioned as a separate prison housing approximately 1,000 inmates) and once a month accompanied a bilingual priest who came to say Mass and hear confessions. I visited men in the prison hospital and in the “hole” (a prison within the prison for those who are caught selling drugs, fighting and so on). I comforted men who lost loved ones on the outside, and I taught a variety of classes on prayer and forgiveness and personal transformation. I lugged an artificial Christmas tree with me from yard to yard to brighten up our Advent and Christmas services and I led Stations of the Cross services during the season of Lent.

Though I had far more positive experiences with inmates than negative ones, I still found myself to be increasingly for the death penalty. In fact, when my family and I returned to the Twin Cities this past August, I was much more in favor of the death penalty -- especially if the state had irrefutable DNA evidence -- than against it. Why this shift in position?

Well, I had met quite a few inmates who had maimed and murdered and who didn’t seem to be too concerned about their victims or victims’ families. I read many prison files that contained narratives of their trials and disturbing pictures of their victims. It bothered me to see inmates with color televisions in their cells along with all sorts of snack food. I observed inmates happily playing volleyball, soccer, basketball, handball, softball, checkers, chess, dominos and cards, which some of their victims will never have a chance to do again. In short, it didn’t seem fair or right that those who had intentionally taken another person’s life should be able to enjoy things, much less live.

This was the mindset with which I returned to the Twin Cities. No, I wasn’t bitter. I enjoyed my years as a chaplain. I met inmates who had changed for the better and inmates who were in the process of changing for the better. I knew inmates I would be happy to have as next-door neighbors and some I consider to be like brothers. I came to know many inmates who were wonderful, loving Catholics, who cared about those who were suffering in all corners of the world. Yet I came home in favor of the death penalty.

But then three things took place over the course of several months to change my stance on the death penalty so that I became more deeply against it than I was before I began my prison ministry.

First, I started to meditate again. I started to get out of my head, out of seeing things through my mind and limited ego, and started to get in touch with my heart. For as Antoine de Saint-Exupery so astutely observed, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” One purpose of prayer and meditation is to point out our blindness -- which is inevitable when we rely solely on rational thought -- and to restore our heart-sight, the vision with which Jesus saw and continues to see the world. If we Catholics don’t pray and meditate, it becomes very easy to see life and complex issues such as capital punishment just the way others in our society do, through the understandable but distorted lens of “an eye for an eye” and “a life for a life.” When we pray and meditate, the Holy Spirit gives us the eyes of Jesus, through which we can begin to see that the worst person among us has human dignity and potential for transformation. And that when we can’t see this dignity and potential, God can.

Second, in conjunction with prayer and meditation, the words of the Gospel began to penetrate and break up the hardened regions of my heart, especially passages such as: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:44-45). Jesus’ vision is that we are all one. Our brokenness keeps us from buying into this vision and living by this unalterable truth. And whatever happens to the least of us, to the victim and the murderer, happens not only to Jesus but to us all. Adding another victim through capital punishment does nothing to contribute to this oneness. Capital punishment is not only murder. It is killing someone who, like you and me, is made in the image of God. Our behavior does not change the fact that we are children of our Creator God and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

Third, I was influenced by some reading I was doing on the stages of moral development. Generally speaking, many inmates are imprisoned within a childish developmental stage dominated by selfishness and an “everything centers around me” approach to life. If you want to punish inmates for murder, raise their morality, raise their consciousness, raise their humanity -- don’t kill them. Then as they develop as human beings, as they move up the moral ladder, so to speak, they will have true remorse and they will suffer for what they have done to hurt another human being. They will have to live with it. In fact, some transformed inmates will be aghast at what they did. I met at least 20 inmates during my three years who had metamorphosed from being heartless killers to tenderhearted human beings. They have an incredibly hard time forgiving themselves; in fact, many of them can’t. They are trying to make a positive contribution, even though they may never see life again outside of prison. I am personally proud of these men and humbled that I had the privilege to come to know them.

It hurts for all of us to become more human, to open our minds and hearts and to have our circles of love expanded. The pain that murderers will suffer as they become more human is a pain that will hurt, but one that will also be redemptive. Jesus came to redeem the world and then passed the job along to us to continue ministering to the brokenness within and around us. When we say no to capital punishment, we are allowing the Spirit of relentless love to continue working in the hearts and minds of those we sometimes want to see pay with their lives. All we have to do is take an honest look at ourselves to see how much room there is for growth in our own journey to holiness and wholeness. And when we realize how far we have come and how far we have to go, we realize that we have no business saying that God cannot help a cold-blooded murderer become more human and holy in God’s own way and time.

As the saying goes, “Be patient with me, for God isn’t done with me yet.” Our heads may say that the death penalty is fair; our Spirit-led hearts know that our God is out to heal all of us, whether we deem it fair or not.

Gary Egeberg leads workshops and retreats and lives in Bloomington, Minn.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2006

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