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Therefore Choose Life

Unitarian Universalists of the Cumberland Valley — January 16, 2010
(used with permission)

Opening Words

Psalm 107: 10-18

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
and broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind,
for he shatters the doors of bronze,
and cuts in two the bars of iron.

First Reading

from Dead Man Walking, by Sister Helen Prejean

If someone I love should be killed, I know I would feel rage, loss, grief, hopelessness, perhaps for the rest of my life.  It would be arrogant to think I can predict how I would respond to such a disaster.  But Jesus Christ, whose way of life I try to follow, refused to meet hate with hate and violence with violence.  I pray for the strength to be like him.  I cannot believe in a God who metes out hurt for hurt, pain for pain, torture for torture.  Nor do I believe that God invests human representatives with such power to torture and kill.  The paths of history are stained with the blood of those who have fallen victim to “God’s Avengers.”  Kings and Popes and military generals and heads of state have killed, claiming God’s authority and God’s blessing.  I do not believe in such a God.  (p. 21)

Second Reading

(found on a web site titled “Seeds of Hope,” managed by death row inmates at a Texas prison)
Sunday, June 1, 1997
“A Mother Learns to Forgive” by Darlie Routier

June 6, 1996, two young boys and their mother were attacked in their home while sleeping and left for dead.  The two young boys were taken to be with the Lord while the mother was given God's miracle of life.  Even though she questioned this miracle and felt guilt for surviving while her babies did not, she never questioned that it was truly a miracle given by our Father Above.  Two weeks later this broken down and grieving mother was arrested for the slayings of her two beautiful boys.  Even though she proclaimed her innocence and never wavered, she was ridiculed and beaten by the media and the public.

This mother cried out in anger to our Lord, "Father, how could you allow this to happen - You know the truth." Little did she know this was only the beginning of the trial of her life and many around her.

This mother cried out for revenge and wanted the man that murdered her babies to die slowly and painfully, with no forgiveness or peace.  Eight months later the mother was convicted and sentenced to death in Gatesville, Texas.  Beaten down and no desire to live, she joined a dorm with six other women also living on death row.

In ONE month this mother learned about forgiveness.  She learned that Jesus died for all our sins and no one has the right to play God.  This mother's eyes have been opened to a corrupt and injust system made up by man, not God, a system which only worries about making a name and who wins that matters, where people really aren't people but only a name on a piece of paper.  A system where pride comes before doing what's right.

This mother has learned to have compassion and love for other people who have done terrible crimes and hopes for the day she can look her attacker in the eyes and say "I forgive you".

My name is Darlie Routier and I am this mother, the seventh woman in Texas to be placed on death row.  I am innocent of my charges but that's not what my words are about.

The death penalty is wrong for many reasons and I am ashamed for my attitude before my nightmare began.  The State of Texas has no right to play god, we, as a society have no right to say who lives or who dies.  The system is fallible, mistakes are made, and two wrongs don't make a right.

What greater testimony can I give?  I am a mother who lost my precious boys to someone who is free, walking the streets, but I swear to you today I would fight for this assailant to not be put to death.  People have to become involved, they (you) need to allow your voices to be heard.  Take a stand.  Every human life is WORTH fighting for.  Please take that courage and fight for what is RIGHT.  Abolish the Death Penalty.  Stand together and let your voices be heard across this nation.

Sermon:  Therefore Choose Life

For as long as I’ve been able to understand what it’s about,  I have been vaguely opposed to capital punishment.  In my case, vague opposition meant that I didn’t think it was a good idea, that it seemed wrong to me, but if I had been confronted with strong arguments in favor of capital punishment by someone who felt passionately about the subject, I probably wouldn’t have been able to overcome them.  I’m reminded of that line from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” — “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Recently there was some discussion at a Board meeting about a request that had come to us for office space for an intern who was going to be working against the death penalty.  While our conversation at the Board meeting was primarily about utilities and furniture, the opinion was expressed by one Board member that surely everyone in the congregation was united in their opposition to the death penalty.

I’m not so sure.  When there are such divergences of opinion among us on so many other subjects, why should we assume that we all agree on this one?  Other than that mention at a Board meeting, I haven’t ever heard the subject come up among us.  But perhaps it’s time to do so now.  Perhaps it’s time for me to exercise the privilege of the free pulpit and challenge you, as I have challenged myself, to develop some passionate intensity on the subject of the death penalty.  Perhaps it’s time for me to appall you, as I have been appalled at the deplorable situation in this country, which is right up there with Yemen and Iraq and Somalia among the few countries left in the world which still routinely and legally execute people convicted of crimes.  I’m not lukewarm any more; I’m upset and I’m disgusted and I’m appalled and I’m angry and I’m sick at heart that we in the United States are still participating in this barbaric practice.

I’m still amazed at the phenomenon — though I should be used to it by now because it happens often — of how visible an issue suddenly becomes when I decide to pay attention to it.  I decide to preach on a certain topic, and suddenly I’m surrounded by that topic in the news, in conversation, in my dreams, in the culture at large.  That has been the case with the issue of the death penalty.  In mid-December, at the time of the January newsletter deadline, I decide that I am going to talk about capital punishment, and it seems there is an immediate barrage of information and stories from National Public Radio, Associated Press, “Nightline,” Steven King, Time Magazine, my father’s wife, and Benneton — all of them have conspired to call the issue to my attention over and over again.  There is no escaping it once you start looking around.

You don’t have to look far.  I could have made a full time career of reading about the death penalty on the Internet.  (One search engine I used found over 21,000 web sites.)  There are films about it:  “Dead Man Walking,” “The Thin Blue Line,” and the most recent one that I’m aware of, “The Green Mile.” 

Well, one has to start somewhere, so I started with the book (by the same title) on which the film “Dead Man Walking” was based.  Its author, Sister Helen Prejean, is a Catholic sister who, somewhat accidentally and unintentionally got caught up in the issue of capital punishment when she began a correspondence with a death row inmate at Angola prison in Louisiana.  Through her relationship with him, in which she became his spiritual advisor and witnessed his death by electrocution, she has become a full time advocate for abolition of the death penalty in the United States.  She is also involved with advocacy groups for the families of homicide victims, which strikes me as an extraordinarily sane and compassionate approach to the complex problems engendered in the tangled web of crime and punishment that we are looking at today.

In her book, Sister Prejean frequently quotes a 1957 essay by the French author and philosopher Albert Camus, entitled “Reflections on the Guillotine.”  This essay is my other primary source.  At the time that he wrote it, France was still executing prisoners by beheading them (I was stunned to learn that this practice was still being carried out in a Western country in my lifetime), so he really was talking about the literal guillotine, not just a metaphor.  Despite the other resources I have examined, the American Catholic nun and the French existentialist provided for me the most readable and persuasive arguments.

There are lots of arguments against capital punishment, lots and lots of them.  There are lots of arguments for it as well, and I intend to touch on them too, although I won’t be making anything like a balanced presentation on the subject because I come down heavily on the side of abolition and I want to be very clear about saying that right up front.

So let me take you through some of these arguments.

Some people say that we should have the death penalty because it is a deterrent to crime.  This is an unconvincing reason, based on statistical evidence alone, and there are other reasons why I believe it doesn’t wash. 

In the first place, sophisticated studies have conclusively shown that executions do not deter crime.  In this country, the murder rate is no higher in states that do not have the death penalty than in those that do.  In Canada, the homicide rate peaked in 1975, the year before the death penalty was abolished there; it continued to decline for ten years after abolition.  A 1962 study by the United Nations concluded “All the information available appears to confirm that [removal of the death penalty] has, in fact, never been followed by a notable rise in the incidence of the crime no longer punishable by death.”

There is some evidence, however, that state executions — which legitimize killing — actually incite violence rather than deter it.  Some studies show an increase in homicides immediately after publicized executions.  In the Fall of 1987, immediately after the state of Louisiana executed eight people in eight and a half weeks, the murder rate in New Orleans rose 16.4%.

The Mennonite Central Committee’s statement against the death penalty includes these thoughts:  “If capital punishment is a deterrent, its effect is so minuscule that even the most sophisticated techniques have not been able to measure it. We do not believe that society has the moral right to take so serious a step as ending human life for such a minute and questionable effect.”  They go on to say, “Deterrence theory assumes that potential murderers rationally calculate costs and benefits before committing a violent crime.  However, most murders are committed in moments of extreme anger or passion and/or by persons who are psychologically abnormal.  A majority involve family members or close acquaintances.  Most are hardly situations in which costs and benefits are weighed.”

Dan Cozort was telling me about participating in a panel where representatives of different faiths spoke about capital punishment.  The Imam who was speaking on behalf of Islam said that the problem with the death penalty in this country is the way it is conducted.  He said that if we really wanted to use it as a deterrent to crime, then executions should be held in public places and the entire population should be required to be present as witnesses.  He argued that when people see with their own eyes the consequences of crime, only then will those consequences actually work as a deterrent to crime.  (Even this doesn’t seem to play out in actuality, for in the days when pickpockets were executed in England, other pickpockets exercised their talents in the crowd surrounding the scaffold where their colleague was being hanged.)

But we don’t treat executions that way at all.  They are held inside prisons, away from public view, witnessed by only a very small number of people.  Camus states:

If the penalty is intended to be exemplary, then… the machine should… be set on a platform in Place de la Concorde at two p.m., the entire population should be invited, and the ceremony should be put on television for those who couldn’t attend.  Either this must be done or else there must be no more talk of exemplary value.  How can a furtive assassination committed at night in a prison courtyard be exemplary?  At most, it serves the purpose of periodically informing the citizens that they will die if they happen to kill—a future that can be promised even to those who do not kill.

And why do we hold executions in such isolation now?  Because of shame.  Whether we articulate it this way or not, we know that an execution is a brutal act — it is, after all, a premeditated murder carried out by the state — and it is a shameful act.  Of course it should be done behind closed doors.  Of course people should be protected from seeing it.  It’s horrible.  Coming from the recent experience of seeing the film “The Green Mile,” I can say that witnessing an execution, even at the psychological distance of sitting in a movie theater and knowing that this isn’t real, that it is merely being staged… witnessing such a horrifying event even in that abstract way certainly serves to make one an advocate of abolishing the practice, regardless of its effectiveness in deterring crime.  In fact, this may be another reason that executions are held behind closed doors; if large numbers of people were to see and understand what is actually happening, there would be an uprising of protest, and the death penalty would quickly be abolished.

Another reason, and I think a terribly important reason, that this practice must stop is that innocent people are executed.  There is no way of knowing how many people have suffered this fate, of course, but what we do know is that an increasing number of people on death row are being pardoned and released when new evidence is discovered which proves them innocent.  Particularly now, with DNA testing becoming available, it will be even more possible to discover when errors have been made and the wrong person convicted.  Unfortunately, I recently learned to my dismay that many courts and prosecuting attorneys are refusing to allow DNA testing, perhaps precisely because it can be so dazzlingly conclusive.  What kind of criminal justice system is that?  Don’t bother us with the facts, just kill the suspect and be done with it.

It’s alarming to learn that the average time spent on death row is becoming shorter.  In what I see as a totally misguided and actually cynical attempt to “alleviate suffering,” Florida governor Jeb Bush has just signed legislation limiting the time that an inmate has between sentencing and execution to five years, when it has been averaging about ten.  This imposition of shorter stays means that there is less time for appeals to be filed and investigations to occur which might prove someone innocent.  So just at the time that procedures are being developed to determine innocence more conclusively, those tools are being denied, federal funds for further investigations are being withdrawn, and the time line is being shortened.

When we are discussing execution, then even a tiny number of mistakes is unconscionable.  Death is irrevocable.  Citing an early French study, Camus writes :

The Jurist Olivecrois, applying the law of probability to the chance of judicial error, around 1860, concluded that perhaps one innocent man was condemned in every two hundred and fifty-seven cases.  The proportion is small?  It is small in relation to average penalties.  It is infinite in relation to capital punishment… Once the innocent man is dead, no one can do anything for him, in fact, but to rehabilitate him, if there is still someone to ask for this.  Then he is given back his innocence, which, to tell the truth, he had never lost.  But the persecution of which he was a victim, his dreadful sufferings, his horrible death have been given him forever.  It remains only to think of the innocent men of the future, so that these tortures may be spared them.

Another thing that I found deeply disturbing is how unevenly the death penalty is being applied  In the 1972 Supreme Court decision which abolished the death penalty in this country, Justice Brennan wrote:
When a country of over 200 million people inflicts an unusually  severe punishment no more than 50 times a year, the inference is  strong that the punishment is not being regularly and fairly  applied.  To dispel [that inference] would indeed require a clear showing of  non-arbitrary infliction… When the punishment of death is inflicted in a trivial number of the cases in which it is legally available, the conclusion is virtually inescapable that it is being inflicted arbitrarily.  Indeed, it smacks of little more than a lottery system.

A mere four years later, the court allowed the re-imposition of capital punishment after several states revised their statutes to guard against arbitrary and random imposition of the death penalty.  In that decision, the court instructed the criminal justice system with the caution that “discretion must be suitably directed and limited so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action.”  However, the American Bar Association, which is hardly a stronghold of fuzzy-headed liberal thinking, and which is certainly in a position to monitor the actions of the criminal justice system, has called for a moratorium on executions.  Their statement reads, in part, that administration of the death penalty is “a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency.”

Some of the factors which determine whether someone will receive the death penalty are:

  • the race of the accused and that of the victim;
  • where the crime was committed (currently 12 states and the District of Columbia do not impose the death penalty);
  • whether that jurisdiction has effective legal resources for the poor;
  • electoral politics, which influence prosecutorial and even judicial decisions

There isn’t time this morning to go into these factors in detail, but I do want to point out the close relationship between poverty, race of the suspect (and race of the victim), and the actual people serving time on death row right now.  Statistics vary by state, but it is clear that Blacks are disproportionately represented on death row.  Even more significant than the race of the suspect is the race of the victim; when the victim was white, there is a much higher likelihood that the suspect will receive the death penalty than when the victim was Black.  Most death row prisoners are indigent, which also calls into question the availability of adequate legal representation for them, as well as the availability of expensive expert witnesses and evidentiary findings.  Amnesty International, in its call for worldwide withdrawal of the death penalty, sums up the issue of unfair application this way:

When the ability to obtain good legal representation becomes one of the most important factors in determining the outcome of a trial, questions of race, class and poverty can have a considerable effect upon the administration of justice.  The wealthy, the politically well-connected and members of dominant racial and religious groups are far less likely to be sentenced to death and even less likely to be executed for offenses of comparable severity than are the poor, supporters of the political opposition and members of unpopular racial or religious groups.
Proponents of the death penalty say that the only way survivors of murder victims — the grieving family and friends — can come to peace with their loss is when the perpetrator of the crime has been executed, has met the same fate as their loved one.  In other words, the death penalty is justified because it provides closure to the families of victims.  Thus, vengeance and retribution also become justifications for state-sanctioned killing.  This is an argument which I find especially chilling.  It’s even more chilling to read the comments of family members who actually witnessed executions (thirteen states now allow victims’ families to do this).  They sometimes say that it was too easy, that the prisoner didn’t suffer enough, not as much as the victim did; they often seem dissatisfied, even disappointed and let down.  I think that what happens here is that families in desperate need of healing are further traumatized by this ghastly ritual.  How can there possibly be anything healing, anything redemptive about watching another human being die in fear and suffering?  And do we really want to be part of a society that encourages seeking vengeance in response to a crime?  Is that the best we can offer?

Remember the words of Darlie Routier, the mother accused (she says unjustly) of killing her two sons.  She understands that judgement and vengeance are beyond the rights of mere humans to impose.  While she uses language and imagery that might not be what we would choose, her words still touch us (at least they touch me):  “This mother's eyes have been opened to a corrupt and injust system made up by man, not God…  A system where pride comes before doing what's right.… The State of Texas has no right to play god, we, as a society have no right to say who lives or who dies.  The system is fallible, mistakes are made, and two wrongs don't make a right.”

In fact, there is an organization called Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation which is among the thousands of organizations opposing capital punishment.  Making the same argument that Darlie Routier makes, these hundreds of family members of people who have been murdered understand that no good can possibly come of continuing the killing.  They say, “A society that has nothing better to offer grieving families than another killing needs to examine itself.”

And thus we come to the argument that I believe is the most persuasive, and that is the question:  what does it do to our society to authorize killing as a punishment for killing?  Journalist George Will says that the death penalty satisfies people’s deeply felt moral intuition that some crimes can only be punished by execution.  He says that vengeance, far from being shameful, can be noble.  Yet even he fears that public viewing of executions would have a “coarsening effect” upon society.   How can a noble act coarsen society?  Sister Helen Prejean:
An execution is ugly because the premeditated killing of a human being is ugly.  Torture is ugly.  Gassing, hanging, shooting, electrocuting, or lethally injecting a person whose hands and feet are tied is ugly.  And hiding the ugliness from view and rationalizing it numbs our minds to the horror of what we are doing.  This is what truly “coarsens” us.

Camus writes:

To assert, in any case, that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no one in his right mind will believe this today.  Instead of believing this, people will more readily think the reverse.  Our society has become so bad and so criminal only because she has respected nothing but her own preservation or a good reputation in history.  Society has indeed lost all contact with the sacred.

And if we lose all contact with the sacred, then what hope is there for us, for any of us?  By putting a person to death in response to a crime they have committed, we are saying that there is no hope for this person, that they are beyond redemption.  We take away any possibility that they might in some way atone for the crime or come to an understanding of the wrong they have committed; we take away any chance that they might make amends with society. 

Being human ourselves, we have to admit that it’s all a matter of degree.  There is no absolute innocence among us, no one whose hands are perfectly clean.  Yet by continuing to live in society, we continue to have the opportunity (whether we take advantage of it or not) to add some good to the world to make up for the evil we have also inflicted on the world.  “Such a right to live,” argues Camus, “which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst man. Without that right, moral life is utterly impossible.”
Moral life is utterly impossible.  This is my greatest fear when I consider how all of us are affected by living in a state and a country which executes people.  Perpetuating the wrong by continuing the killing must be seen as an immoral act and a failure of imagination.  As a religious person, I have to believe that there is always hope — not hope that the victim will be restored to life, not even necessarily hope that the perpetrator can be restored to a place in free society.  But killing him or her absolutely and finally removes all hope or possibility of redemption; it gives to people a power that we have no right to hold over other people’s lives; and it responds to violence with more violence.

Surely, surely we are capable of better.  Surely we are capable of building a more just and equitable society where crime decreases because hope and comfort and personal power increase.  A society where there is less violence, where justice and mercy are equally available, where good deeds are rewarded and evil is punished, but where the possibility of forgiveness, atonement and restitution is always held open.  This is the great work that lies before us.


Closing Words

From The Merchant of Venice, IV, I, 184
by William Shakespeare

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown;
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway,
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.  Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
the deeds of mercy.