Resources from the Unitarian Universalists for Alternatives to the Death Pentaly.

UUADP logo

Return to the main resource page.


The Death Penalty: Unpatriotic?

The Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship — January 10, 2010
(used with permission)

If you were to walk down my street, you would see at least 5 or 6 American flags flying in the breeze, American households sending the message to the world – we are patriotic.  And I wonder sometimes what that means.  Does it mean “my country right or wrong?”  Or “my country is better than any other country?”

In front of my house you would see a picture of the earth taken from outer space, on a deep blue background.  The Earth Flag is a statement of peace, justice, hope, affirmation and love.  And it is a daily reminder to me, and anyone else who might notice – that we are part of a global community.  We live in a world that is increasingly interdependent.  Now, more than ever, what we do affects others everywhere.  The speed of communication and travel has literally made the world our neighborhood.

Jean Rabenold

Jean Rabenold

So what does it mean to be a patriotic American?  Recently, I viewed the film series about John Adams, and was reminded very dramatically of the early struggles and hardships that he and so many others endured to create this nation.

What a responsibility we all have to respect their early sacrifice by making our country the best it can be, not to be better than other nations, but to live up to our own great potential, and to take our rightful place as a respected member of the world community of nations.  

A significant number of our early patriots – John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Jefferson were either Unitarians or Universalists.  We have inherited a proud tradition. 

So – if we see a problem that blemishes our homeland, we are obligated to speak up, or even better, do something about it.  In this congregation, we have many examples of people making an effort to improve the quality of life in America.  Our work to feed the hungry, preserve the environment, foster peace, and help immigrants, to mention a few, are what one expects to find in a UU congregation. 

I have chosen to focus my attention on the death penalty, which I see as an act of deliberate and willful violence, the “tip of the iceberg” of the violent climate in this country.

I can almost see some raised eyebrows at the suggestion that America is a violent nation, so let’s look at some of the evidence.  While we must acknowledge our many accomplishments, like putting men on the moon, or our amazing communication technologies, we must also recognize the dark side – the parts of our culture that are barely crawling.  For example:

Poverty:  Ghandi said that poverty is the greatest form of violence.  We have the largest gap between the rich and the poor of any of the major economies.  Homelessness is a plague, and has increased 2 – 3% in the past two decades.  Yet, the US has the lowest rate of public subsidized housing of any of the industrialized nations.  13 million American children do not have enough to eat. 

Health Care: Among all the developed nations, we alone have not provided universal health insurance for all of our citizens.  Although some help is on the way (I hope), it is probably not enough.  Further, our rate of infant mortality is nearly the highest among civilized nations.

Crime:  We have a murder rate roughly ten times higher than in Western Europe.  No other developed nation has a homicide rate that is even close to that of the U.S.   Are you aware that for every 100 civilians in the population, there are 90 handguns out there?  Again, we compare badly with other nations; the closest to us was Yemen, with 61.  And 67% of murders in America were committed with a firearm.

Another figure of significance – out of every 100,000 in population, we imprison 726 people.  The numbers in Western Europe ranged from only 142 down to 91.  Is this not telling us something?  That something is not working in our criminal justice system?  We call our prisons “correctional” institutions, but nearly 70% of released prisoners re-offend within three years.  Our system is more interested in punishment than in rehabilitation, and it’s not working.

Professor James Gilligan, on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, and a leader in studies of violence for much of his career, says that our country is inflicted with an epidemic of violence.  All of these conditions – poverty, health care, and crime – create anger and despair, and are breeding grounds for violent behavior.  And for me, what stands at the tip of this enormous iceberg we call violence is our willingness to commit a deliberate planned homicide.  The fact that it is legal doesn’t change the nature of the act.

There can be no denying that an execution is an act of violence. We have failed to understand what Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy… Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” Incidentally, Dr. King’s family members are outspokenly opposed to the death penalty. 

True patriots want to see their country with clarity, and try, lovingly, to correct its mistakes.  So, I am speaking not in the spirit of America-bashing, but as one who finds it painful to see our nation being viewed as the most violent of all the Western industrialized countries, and to see us comparing so poorly to our sister nations in significant areas of human rights.  To quote author Jack Kornfield, “The society that denies its poverty and injustice has lost part of its freedom as well.” 

And how does all this affect our relationship with the rest of the world?  Mary Robinson, speaking as the U. N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said “The increasing use of the death penalty in the United States ….is a matter of serious concern and runs counter to the international community’s expressed desire for the abolition of the death penalty.”

 We are the only one of the western industrialized countries that still retains the death penalty.  In fact, one of the conditions for membership in the European Union is the abandonment of capital punishment, because it violates evolving standards of human decency.  These nations are among the 105 countries around the world that have ended the use of the death penalty.  The United States is drifting into isolation on this issue, at a time when solidarity with nations that value human rights is so much to be desired.  We are constantly in need of cooperation on such matters as defense, drug enforcement, and economics, but when we speak of human rights, our credibility is destroyed when our performance does not measure up to our stated values.

We have alienated our allies in the execution of foreign nationals, especially when they have not been accorded their consular rights under the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations.  One spokesman from California said, “Californians elect their legislators and their governor to write the laws…and they should not have to abdicate that authority to foreign treaties approved by someone in Washington.”  Cases in Virginia and Texas show that California is not alone in expressing this kind of arrogance.  International law expert David Cole noted:  “When it comes to Cuba’s record on human rights, or Japan’s trade practices, the United States is a staunch proponent of international law.  But when the tables are turned, and we’re accused of violating international law, we couldn’t care less.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with respect to the death penalty.”

Further, the safety of Americans abroad is threatened when such law is not honored.  Just recently, there was a young woman in Italy who was tried and found guilty of murder.  I don’t know the details of the evidence against her, but observers have reported that it consisted mostly of character assassination, and that there was prejudice against her because the behavior of American students was resented in the community in question. 

The U. S. has frequently sought cooperation in the exchange of prisoners.  We have extradition treaties with many countries whereby a defendant charged with a serious crime will be returned to the charging country.  However, countries such as our nearest neighbors Canada and Mexico, as well as England, France, Italy, and Germany have refused extradition to the U. S. unless they are assured that prosecutors will not seek a death sentence.

In 1998, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The United States helped forge this pivotal document, but we are becoming the target of increasing criticism for our violation of its spirit.  We are criticized for racial discrimination in the application of capital punishment, as well as for the cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners on death row.  We find Guantanamo to be a national embarrassment, but turn our eyes away from what truly amounts to torture of prisoners in death penalty states.  Typically, an inmate spends years in a 6-by-9 isolated cell, with little chance for exercise, visitors, or contact with other human beings, and being haunted by the ever-present threat of death.

Is it any wonder that so much of the rest of the world has looked at us with apprehension, in the past, when they have seen our capacity for violence, coupled with the frightening power of our weaponry?  There has been a significant shift away from the bellicose attitude of an earlier administration, and this has been recognized and appreciated by the international community, as we saw in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama.  Still, our use of the death penalty stands in the way of whole-hearted respect for America.  It appears that at least on this issue, we are seriously out of step with the rest of the civilized world.

The good news is that in this past year, New Mexico became the fifteenth state to end the death penalty.  There are five or six other states that are coming close.  UUADP is devoting itself this year to offering assistance to congregations in those states.  My particular assignment is New Hampshire, and I have been contacting the 23 congregations there to encourage their involvement.  The motivation in many states will be the exorbitant cost of maintaining capital punishment, as well as the possibility of making mistakes.  At this time, there have been 135 exonerations from death sentences, after finding evidence of innocence.  I will be glad for a vote for abolition, no matter what their motivation.  But my real wish is for a shift in consciousness.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, after visiting a man on Texas’s death row, said of us: “You are a very generous people, you Americans, and it is very difficult to square with your remarkable vindictiveness, which doesn’t square with your remarkable generosity… Don’t dehumanize yourselves as a society by carrying out the death penalty”.  Marcel Proust once said:  “The voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  We need to turn away from the desire to punish, and look toward the need to heal.  Vindictiveness hurts.  It is intended to hurt.  I find here the roots of my own devotion to this issue.  Who among us had not been wounded by the whiplash of vindictiveness?  Wouldn’t our world be a better place if we could greatly reduce this destructive reaction?

We can look to great spiritual teachers for guidance: Jesus and the Buddha both taught the need for compassion and forgiveness.  And interestingly, we can also turn to science, - to neuroscience, to discoveries of the nature of the human brain.  If someone breaks an arm, it is painful, and a splint is applied to allow healing.  But if the brain is damaged, it is not felt or visible to the naked eye.  This wonderful and mysterious tofu-like stuff incased in our skulls can be damaged, but can also be healed in many cases. 

Some of you may have seen the program on public TV given by Dr. Daniel Amen, who has done thousands of brain scans, and who instructs us on how the damage to the brain can be reversed.  In his book “Magnificent Mind at Any Age”, he points out “few people ever consider looking at the brain in helping people whose behavior is so bad they end up in jail... We found that murderers had significantly lower overall activity in their brains compared to a healthy group... These findings were especially prominent in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that acts as the supervisor, inhibiting impulses and difficult behavior.”

 Especially interesting to me was his comment on so-called “free will”, a concept that has been a part of the religious background of many of us, and that I find objectionable because it is used in such a judgmental way – e.g. – “He had free will, and chose to be bad”.  Dr. Amen says: “After looking at tens of thousands of brains in my own patients I have come to realize that free will is really a very gray concept.  I think most of us have about 85 percent free will, until you drink a six-pack of Bud Lite, which drops free will to about 50 percent.  But what if someone, through disease or damage, starts with 50 percent free will?  That same six-pack of Bud Lite could cause a disaster in their lives.” 

This is a sobering idea.  It makes me realize that none of us are as free as we would like to think we are.  I believe inner freedom is an achievement, not a given.  To be totally free would be possible if we were totally enlightened, but I don’t know anyone who can make that claim.  We haven’t achieved full Buddha hood – yet.  And consider the brain of a child who has suffered physical and/or emotional abuse, or whose mother used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy.  Such children are handicapped, through no fault of their own, long before they were old enough to make conscious choices.  

Some people will feel that this is just a high-tech excuse for bad behavior, but I see it as knowledge that enables us to have compassion for those who are in trouble.  It is not a denial of their crimes.  We must still apprehend those who commit murder, and confine them in order to prevent further damage.  But we must do this with understanding, and humility, knowing that but for the grace of God there go I.  We can hate the crime, but it does not follow that we must hate the person who committed it.  We have a neighbor in San Diego, a Sufi Muslim named Azim Kahmisa.  His spiritual practice enabled him to say, when his son was tragically murdered, that he saw victims at both ends of the gun. 

The concept of healing, rather than punishment, is not a new idea.   Seneca, a Roman philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, said:  “A physician is not angry at the intemperance of a mad patient, nor does he take it ill to be railed at by a man in fever.  Just so should a wise man treat all mankind, as a physician does his patient, and look upon them only as sick and extravagant.”  And much later, Longfellow wrote: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility”.

I want to offer you a quotation from one of my favorite books, “Buddha’s Brain”, by Rick Hanson:  “Our world is poised on the edge of a sword, and it could tip either way.  Across the planet, slowly but surely, we’re seeing increasing democratization, a growing number of grassroots organizations, and more understanding of our fragile interconnectedness.  On the other hand, the world is getting hotter, military technologies are increasingly lethal, and a billion people go to sleep hungry every night.

The tragedy and the opportunity of this moment in history are exactly the same: the natural and technical resources needed to pull us back from the brink already exist.  The issue is not a lack of resources.  It is a lack of will and restraint, of attention to what’s truly happening, and have enlightened self-interest – a shortage, in other words, of virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom.”

With so many challenges facing our nation, many people will not see capital punishment as a top-priority issue, but it is important that we do not forget about it.  I hope you will agree with me that use of the death penalty is against the best interests of our country, and against the best interests of our own humanity.  And if you do, please consider supporting our own organization Unitarian Universalists for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

I want to close with a story from Jack Kornfield’s book “The Wise Heart”.  “An old Hasidic rabbi asked his pupils how they could tell when the night was ended and day begun, for daylight is the time for certain prayers.  “Is it,” proposed one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?”   “No”, answered the rabbi.  “Is it when you can clearly see the lines on your own palm?”  “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell if it is a fig or a pear tree?” “No”, answered the rabbi each time.  “Then what is it?” the pupils demanded.  “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that they are your sister or brother.  Until then it is still night.”