I had a series of meetings. Like every hour, another meeting. From 9:00 on.
I saw the text from my wife.
I didn’t have time to click on a video. I was in a room full of people. Important business. Major client and all that. And I completely misunderstood the “H/T Gina L.” thing. For some reason, I thought Angela was mad at Gina. (There’s a cool psychological explanation for my misunderstanding, but that’s for another post. Unless Dr. Gina wants to explain it in the comments.) Anyway, I didn’t have time to deal with it. Which makes me feel like a jerk, because Angela’s sick. But I am kind of a jerk.
Later, Angela texted this:
Okay. At this point I had no clue the Jindal text related to the Gina Loudon text. But I’m slow. Always have been.
By the time I got home, Angela and I had been texting about other stuff so long I’d forgotten about the Gina Loudon text. So I looked. Here’s the video:
I’m not being judgmental or rhetorical with that title. I’m curious how other people deal with capital punishment.
Here’ my story:
Once upon a time, I advocated for the death penalty. Loudly. Shrilly, at times.
In the 1980s and into 1990s, I read a lot. Philosophical. Religious. Legal. Historical. Lots of angles, but few perspectives. You see, I sought out confirming information. I searched high and low for perspectives that would justify my own.
I learned that insulating oneself in a blanket of confirming data works. By blocking out thoughts and arguments that differed from my own, I was happily consistent with myself.
The problem with the confirmation approach, though, is: what if I’m wrong?
Drinks and Death Penalties
The death penalty came up in a conversation with a friend on Friday. Two libertarian-ish conservatives talking over drinks felt comfortable enough to admit to unorthodox views on the subject. Unorthodox, that is, within Missouri’s center-right world where support for capital punishment is taken as a given.
When I woke up this morning, I found that subject still bouncing around in my mind. All of this led me to read some old blogs on the subject. I was surprised to find that I’d written on this topic before and no one has threatened me with tar and feathering. Maybe my ideas are not as unorthodox I thought.
I still haven’t reached a new decision on the death penalty. I’m in a no-man’s land where I want the death penalty to be available to juries, but I don’t [think] that I could ever condemn a stranger. I could kill someone who needed to be killed for the safety and welfare of myself or society or family. But I would have a very hard time voting to kill someone.
My thinking has not really evolved in the decade since. I’m still where I was then. Which is, I believe, an unorthodox conservative view.
Even though my Catholic faith allows for capital punishment “only if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (think Hannibal Lecter, to use a fictional character example), my faith also teaches that capital punishment “definitively takes away from him the possibility of redeeming himself.”
Redemption. And it all comes back.
Watching the Old Barn Fall
On February 27, 1999, I dragged my three boys (ages 11, 8, and 6) to Forest Park’s Aviation Field. With a few thousand
others, we went to watch The Arena go down in flames. That rancid organization, Civic Progress, condemned the building to prevent City Museum’s founder, Bob Cassily, from buying and renovating the structure. Civic Progress did not want competition for its shiny, new Kiel Center
Between 1969 and 1994, The Arena was my home away from home. I saw St. Louis Police circuses and rodeos, Warner Brothers on Ice shows, and other events. But my first love was St. Louis Blues hockey. I don’t know how many games I saw in The Arena, but I’m sure it was over 300. To say, “I grew up in The Arena,” would not be an exaggeration.
My boys were miserable that afternoon. It was cold and muddy in Forest Park. In its haste to destroy The Arena, the city failed to arrange decent viewing spots, so the building’s lovers had slog through muddy clay. One man brought a trumpet to entertain the crowd. News helicopters circled overhead. Conversations were quiet, rare, and respectful, except for occasional outbursts of laughter at something someone shouted.
It was like waiting for a funeral service to start.
Finally, some activity. I don’t remember what it was, but we knew something was about to happen. Did they shoot off fireworks?
Anyway, a few minutes after the call-to-attention, explosions shook the muddy ground beneath our feet. Flashes, one by
one, began a march around the base of the building I loved since my first memories. Black smoke rose from the far side of The Arena. As the flashes reached halfway around the west side of the building, the south side began to collapse.
As The Arena’s iconic dome sank, I shouted, “NO!”
My futile protest sprang from my throat as involuntarily as my heart beats. People turned to look at me, and I became self-conscious. I’d been totally unaware of my being for a few seconds. But my wail brought me back to the present. I realized my nose was running and my eyes were wet. My son, Patrick, then just six years old, looked at me, worried. He wasn’t used to seeing me cry.
What happened when my voice erupted with that plaintive “NO?” A thousand ideas flashed through my mind. Every thought involved arguments defending the death penalty. And one image sat atop these arguments: a mother watching her son die for his hideous crimes.
We walked back to my car in silence. Me, my boys, and the thousand or so people around us. The ten-minute mud walk gave me time to sort through what I’d just experienced.
“Have I been wrong all along?” I thought.
“What’s wrong with me? What kind of idiot questions the death penalty because a building got destroyed?”
Remaining In the Gray
While I’ve never sat down and scripted out a new position on the death penalty, I know I’ve cast off my old one–the one that practically celebrated society’s decision to kill one of its own. That position, I know, was wrong. For me, at least.
I don’t buy the idea that the death penalty is no deterrent. I don’t buy the notion that the death penalty should be banned. I think the availability of such a punishment serves its purpose. William F. Buckley said something to the effect, “I can understand society’s occasional need to execute someone, but never to hurt his feelings.” And I don’t like government putting limits on things in general.
I do worry, though, about the ease with which some people sentence others to death in America. I wonder if they protect themselves from disconfirming thoughts about capital punishment, just as I did for almost 40 years. I feel terrible for everyone who’s ever been on a jury and voted for death. I think, “What if, one day, those jurors are confronted with a challenge like I was? How will they live with themselves?”
I also feel for the families of the condemned, just as I feel for the families of the victims. Imagine watching your child being strapped into a death chamber. Imagine the guilt.
Still, the one thought that I can’t get out of mind is the permanence of the execution. Once the demolitionists set off those charges, The Arena lost all hope of redemption. I could feel that finality in every cell of my body.
David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, somehow eluded the death penalty. Because of that, he was placed with the general prison population. Because of that, he met an inmate named Rick who talked to Berkowitz about Jesus.
“One night, as I was reading Psalm 34, I came across this verse, ‘This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him from all his troubles,’” Berkowitz said.
At that moment, alone in a stark cell, everything hit Berkowitz at once.
“The guilt from what I did, the disgust at what I had become—I got down on my knees and began to cry to Jesus Christ. I told Him I was sick and tired of doing evil. I asked Jesus to forgive all my sins. I must have been there a long time. When I got up, it felt as if a very heavy but invisible chain that had been around me for so many years was broken.”
Today, Berkowitz is a chaplain’s assistant at Sullivan Correctional Facility where he counsels and prays with fellow prisoners. He has shared his testimony on “The 700 Club,” “The Coral Ridge Hour” with the late Dr. James Kennedy, “Inside Edition,” “A&E Investigative Report” and the Gideon’s Convention via videotape.
Some say Berkowitz didn’t deserve a chance at redemption. Maybe they’re right. I don’t know. But I don’t know how I could be the one who denied him his chance at redemption.
I don’t know how many souls have been redeemed because David Berkowitz–one of the most notorious murders of the 1970s–became a counselor and spiritual adviser to other prisoners. But I’d hate to be the one who prevented that outcome, too.
No, I don’t think I’d ever take away society’s right to execute its own. I just wish our society wasn’t so happy to pull that trigger.
An enduring criticism of the Church over a millennium involves its wealth and opulence. Its cathedrals were often the most expensive and ornate structures in entire nations, save for monarch’s palaces. Lavish ceremonies mark significant milestones, such as the installation of a new pope.
So Pope Francis’s instruction to the bishops and faithful of his homeland Argentina says everything about why this pope will be different from all other popes.
Tell the bishops and the faithful to make an offering and an act of solidarity to the poor with the money instead.
After he left the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis had an elegant car with the license plate “Stato Vaticano 1” waiting for him, but he declined it in favor of riding the last minibus back to Casa Santa Marta with his fellow bishops and cardinals.
Maybe We Can Make Social Justice A Good Thing
Pope Francis will speak and write of our duties to the poor often. Conservatives, rightfully wary of “social justice” sermons that sound a lot like calls to Marxism, might look on with a jaundiced eye. It’s important, I think, to keep in mind Francis of Assisi’s view of things, via Catholic Encyclopedia.
Moreover, Francis’s simple, childlike nature fastened on the thought, that if all are from one Father then all are real kin. Hence his custom of claiming brotherhood with all manner of animate and inanimate objects. The personification, therefore, of the elements in the “Canticle of the Sun” is something more than a mere literary figure. Francis’s love of creatures was not simply the offspring of a soft or sentimental disposition; it arose rather from that deep and abiding sense of the presence of God, which underlay all he said and did.
I pray that Pope Francis inspires everyone to be more generous with their own money, not with other people’s money. Paying taxes won’t get anyone to heaven, anymore than robbing Peter to Paul. I believe Francis can do more for the poor through his example than by exhorting governments to forcibly redistribute wealth.
We on the right would do well to avoid knee-jerk reactions when we hear Social Justice, though, until we understand what the phrase means at that moment.
Perhaps nothing so well summarizes Francis of Assisi’s life than his simple prayer. The prayer also helps us overcome the tendency to react to phrases we hate.
Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen
A simple prayer, but, oh, what a difficult path to follow. A psychological theory of “mirror neurons” tells us that we match others’ emotions and actions even before we realize it. A smile induces smiles from those who see it. Likewise, then, hate induces hate, injury induces retaliation; doubt, confusion; despair, more despair; and so on.
The Prayer of St. Francis, then, asks us to deny our biological humanity and substitute our divine humanity.
Argentinians who know and love Francis want to go to Rome, of course. National pride, too, will drive people toward the Vatican. This is a very big deal for the country.
Fitting with the irony of Francis of Assisi’s prayer is the irony of Pope Francis’s call. The greatest demonstration of obedience to the church, to this new pope, and to God would be a sparse crowd on the most important day of Francis’s life.
P.S. This post began as a scathing attack on a former US Senator. Searching for a link to that story, I stumbled upon the story of Pope Francis asking people to stay home and give their travel funds to the poor. I intend to write about that Senator later. But I’ll do my best to meet his vitriol with love. Your prayers will help.
I read today that the Christmas shopping season was off. The writer, or his sources, blamed Sandy: Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook. Retailers said that shoppers weren’t very jolly. They were serious or worried or distracted. Hurried, as if they didn’t want to be out too long.
I thought of my parents and others at the Christmas of 1941. Americans had endured a decade of economic depression that the planners were impotent to correct. After the years of privation, then, Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor and, then, the Philippines. Congress had approved a unanimous declaration of war. The young men who’d been deprived the childhood their parents’ planned for them would also be deprived young adulthood, limbs, and life.
Of course, in 1941, we didn’t have as much time to worry about ourselves as we do today. There was life to get on with. People certainly worried, but did it ruin their Christmas? Here’s what Winston Churchill told us on Christmas Eve, even as London was in the midst of the bombing:
This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.
When was the last time you heard a “leader” speak of daring?
The victims of Sandy and the survivors of Sandy Hook feel no less sorrow today than did the families of Americans killed at Pearl Harbor or the survivors of Hitler’s heinous, relentless bombing of London. They deserve our respect and prayers and help as much as our ancestors of 1941. Their sorrows are real and pitiable. Their losses painful to everyone with a heart and soul.
Yet, today, it seems, we give ourselves and our society permission to wallow and gnash our teeth. We don’t dare to live. We seek “solutions” to insanity—solutions that deprive the sane their freedom. I fear that we would meet the next Hitler or Hirohito, not with resistance or appeasement, but with assistance. Civilization today seems unwilling to accept tension and suffering, as if our birthright denies their existence.
But that’s foolish. God became flesh and walked among us, not to eliminate tension and suffering, but become the poster-child of them. His birth at Bethlehem was the beginning of His march to the cross, not the end of human suffering.
Victor Frankl reminds us that “Dostoevski [sic] said once: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” Dostoyevsky’s words should serve as a warning to us all: if we succeed in eliminating suffering, we will have also succeed in becoming worthless.
Living in the horrors of a Nazi prison camp, Frankl and his fellows found moments of joy and insight. Weighing half his former weight, living daily on a few ounces of bread and a small cup of watery soup, using his surgeon’s hands to dig water pipe ditches in the frozen dirt surrounding the Auschwitz death camp, Frankl received this revelation:
The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.
That passage struck home with me. I’ve been a rude husband and thoughtless, absent, distracted father. I’ve been a bad friend. I am not “above” the weaknesses of our civilization. I, too, ignored much of Advent. I, too, worried more about avoiding sufferings than about living the life Christ died that I might know. I, too, failed to appreciate the joy of suffering, the humanity of pain, and the necessity of tension.
But I have 24 hours to do something about it. The stores are closed. The presents bought—or not. Doesn’t matter. I am here.
My weak Christmas pledge: I will try, for the next 24 hours, to live up to Victor Frankl’s imperative: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
Isn’t that the plot of It’s A Wonderful Life?
Merry Christmas my love, Angela, Amie, Jack, Ben, Samantha, Patrick, and Jordan.
Merry Christmas Mom and Dad, Tee and Sue, Mickey, Scotty, Hank and John, JoAnn, Virginia and Carrie.
Merry Christmas Carol and Bill.
Merry Christmas Michelle and Ben.
Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building and Loan!
Merry Christmas to all who’ve reminded me tonight that joy is in me all the time if I’d only get over myself and let it work.
Lent prepares us for the cycle of mortality and resurrection, perfected by Christ, without which life has no meaning. It’s a time of humility. We call to mind our human brokenness in hopes of making ourselves better imitators of Christ.
On Ash Wednesday, we mark ourselves with the sign of the cross in ashes. “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).”