Opposition to the death penalty upholds the value of life

December 11, 2005|By WILLIAM A. AU

The recent visit of Cardinal William H. Keeler to condemned murderer Wesley Eugene Baker has served to instigate a revealing episode in the debate on the execution of Mr. Baker and the discussion about capital punishment generally. The crux of this debate is an unfortunate and unnecessary dichotomy between justice and mercy that affects our moral and cultural vision as a people.

When Cardinal Keeler called for the commutation of Mr. Baker's death sentence in the name of mercy and human life, he correctly affirmed a fundamental truth of the church's vision of human life, as revealed by the Gospel. Yet his words of mercy and compassion, as presented in the media, have obviously ripped at the hearts of the loved ones of Mr. Baker's victim, Jane Tyson. They quite understandably now ask the cardinal, and all of us, what mercy and compassion were shown to Mrs. Tyson in the senseless murder that so cavalierly denied that her life had any value.

In this conflict of raw emotion and righteous anger and moral perspective, there is a tragic conflict of people who should be on the same side. Their hearts really want the same things, and they need to find a common ground on which the voice of mercy speaks to the value of human life.

We must be clear that the fundamental truth behind the opposition to capital punishment, as expressed by Pope John Paul II, is not that the cold-blooded murderer has a human right not to be executed for his crime. He has no such right. Rather, we have a need not to kill when we don't have to. We need to recognize the profound and subtle levels on which we cannot kill without diminishing our humanity. In a world where the greatest threats to our society and to the human race are in the ease with which some people can so easily and righteously justify the killing of other people, there is no greater need before us than to affirm the value of human life. That value prohibits its taking except in the necessity to protect innocent life.

Moreover, what is really at the heart of the righteous anger of the loved ones of victims such as Mrs. Tyson if not the unspeakable revulsion of someone who could so cheapen the value of their loved one's life as to snuff it out with such unthinking casualness?

If we are to punish people such as Mr. Baker, as we must, do we not need to do so in a way that most profoundly contradicts the demonic lie at the heart of their heinous actions? That is the lie that says that these snuffed-out lives were not worthy of life.

Can the righteous anger that fills the loved ones of murder victims really find solace and relief in the death of the perpetrators?

The problem of revenge is that whatever it is, it is never enough. There is nothing we could do to people such as Mr. Baker that would really satisfy the hurt, loss and emptiness that their actions bring to the hearts of so many good people.

If the hearts of those who suffer the loss of their murdered loved ones are to find a real way to go on with their lives in peace and hope, must it not be by affirming above all else what the murderers among us deny? That is the truth that proclaims that there is never a good or justifiable reason to steal another's life.

We need so desperately to find a language and a sharing of emotion that allows us to avoid pitting against each other the clergy and the loved ones of victims, those calling for mercy and life and those calling for justice.

The satisfaction of justice and the affirmation of mercy can only come together in the determination to affirm what the killers among us deny and to commit ourselves to not killing when we don't have to. And we must do so not out of any misguided and shallow pity for the murderers among us, but rather out of the determination to not let them remake our souls in their image.

The Rev. William A. Au is pastor of Saints Philip and James Catholic Church in Baltimore. His e-mail is billaa@verizon.net.

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