|Illinois Governor Pat Quinn|
I am from Illinois. And again, we are in the news because of our politics. As many of you know, our Governor signed legislation to get rid of the death penalty here in Illinois. Emotions are high, and opinions abound. It is notable, in our shallow and media saturated society, that I have been hearing more about this news than the antics of Charlie Sheen...if only for a day!
So, what should we think about this? How should we feel?
To these questions, I offer my confession:
As a Christian: I struggle with knowing the "correct" stance on such a divisive issue. Sure, you could proof text from the Old Testament to prove that the death penalty is a faithful thing to do. You can also proof text from the New Testament to show how grace, mercy, and forgiveness are better ways of approaching the evil deeds of people. (To separate the OT and NT as two different stories would be to miss the meta-narrative of scripture, however.)
Then there are the folks who talk about how many innocent people have been found on death-row. They argue that we should abandon the practice so that we do not add more wrongful death. In response, of course, are the people who suggest that with the "new DNA" stuff we can almost always be certain. As important as these points are, they do not touch upon the real important questions that I must ask as a Christian (and as a responsible citizen, I might add).
The Overlooked Issue: The real issue we must deal with, here, is our theories of justice and punishment. We must develop a theory of justice in our world. Frankly, our sense of justice is shallow, pale, and driven by emotion. I dare say that most ordinary citizens do not have a consistent theory or practice of justice. What is justice in the face of evil; what is evil? What would the world look like if we all got "what we deserve?" These questions and subsequent answers must be discussed openly and frequently.
More to the point however, is the issue of punishment! Why do we punish? It seems that the death penalty is first and foremost about retribution and secondly about deterrence. But what is an appropriate Christian view of punishment? I confess that I do not have a quick or confident answer on the topic. My sense is, however, that a Christian view of punishment must be more about REHABILITATION, because Christians are to be a people of redemption. If our end is to rehabilitate, then the death penalty does not fit in well. I say this, though, with fear and trembling, because I do not want to diminish the evil (and therefore pain) that some death row inmates have caused others. Evil acts are evil, but how did Christ treat our evil deeds? Are Christians to return evil with more evil? How far do we go? My confession is that we do everything we can to restore the brokenness of people: victims and perpetrators. We must promote the full participation in being, in all cases. Remember! No one is completely good (fully participating in being), and no one is completely evil (privation from being).
As a Citizen: The point is really the same. We must ask to what "end" do we punish people, and what is our understanding of justice! What are we trying to accomplish, and are we accomplishing it? These are conversations that must be had in a civil and faithful manner. As I mentioned in a previous post, I do not think that Twitter and Facebook are proper places for responsible dialogue, so we must commit to hearing one another and being patient with opposing view points.
My Concluding Remarks/Feelings About This Legislation:
I am more comfortable, morally, with abolishing the death penalty than upholding it! But, I do not have much hope in our penal system to rehabilitate anyone. I think we need robust conversations and work on this front too. Just what does it mean to rehabilitate someone, and what is the most effective way of doing it? I hear some of my "left-leaning" friends, crying for more legislation and programs. I can also hear some of my "right-leaning" friends, crying for less government and the need for building stronger families.
I am not sure that either side of the aisle holds the answer at this point! Where do we go from here? Maybe we need a refreshed reading of Augustine's The City of God to help Christians understand our role as it pertains to the dealings with the "City of Man." And if you are not a Christian, maybe you will agree with me that we need to invest more in training people in the humanities (ethics, philosophy, theology, literature, religious studies), so people have, at minimum, a vocabulary and experience to dialogue about such things.