Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is “The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Pope Francis, who has caused the heads of right-wing Catholics to swivel before, has done it again, proclaiming that the death penalty is inadmissible in all cases “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” He also said that Christians should work “with determination” for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.
Good for him, and good for the teachings of Jesus in this important regard, which have been wildly neglected, particularly by Christians in the United States.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, was absolutely clear about vengeful justice. He summoned the Old Testament teaching of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” and then overturned it sharply. “But I say to you, do not resist evil; but if anyone should strike you, turn the other cheek.” Then he went further: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good for those who hate you, and pray for those who abuse you.”
He didn’t say: “Kill those who kill people.” He said that we should not even “curse” anyone who acted badly, lest we bring judgment upon ourselves.
As ever, the apostle Paul expanded on and clarified the teachings of Jesus in interesting ways. Consider Romans 12:17: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” A few verses later, he adds: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
I have never understood Christians who oppose abortion but support killing prisoners. Life is life, and it is not our right to decide when it must end.
The death penalty is an abomination. It goes against human dignity and lowers the bar for social behavior. It is an incitement to revenge. I can’t imagine anyone with a conscience can look at the execution of even the most heinous mass killer, and think that doing to him (it’s usually a man) what he did to others in any way makes up for his crimes, or benefits society.
As for punishment, living in an American prison – with or without possibility of parole – is punishment enough for any inmate. If anything, we should be working “with determination” to make American prisons less cruel almost across the board. Their brutality and inhumanity degrade us all.
America is a backward country when it comes to the death penalty. The Netherlands banned executions in 1870, Costa Rica in the late 19th century, Colombia in the early 20th century. Which countries are the murderous outliers? Libya, Uganda, Cuba, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and more. And the United States, where studies show that capital punishment “disproportionately involves prisoners diagnosed with mental illness.”
I often look to Dickens and Tolstoy as exemplary figures in the long debate over capital punishment. Dickens watched the public hanging of a Swiss servant in 1840, and wrote a series of letters to the national press abhorring executions, which were in those days public affairs watched by thousands of bystanders. Looking at the gaping crowd, Dickens saw nothing human: “No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence. … It was so loathsome, pitiful, and vile a sight that the law appeared to be as bad as he, or worse.”
It degrades us as a society to kill people as public policy, and this leads to a citizenry that devalues life itself. In a country where murder is commonplace, we should be doing everything we can to show our disgust at the taking of life.
And to take lives at public expense, as public policy, is nothing short of horrific.
Thank God that Pope Francis has finally acted, and firmly. Of course he speaks only to the 1.2 billion Catholics who look to him for guidance in Christian doctrine. But this is an important group, and it includes at least four members of the Supreme Court: Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas. Should Brett Kavanaugh be appointed, that would make five Catholic justices.
Will these justices listen to Christian teaching, especially as it has now been articulated by the pontiff in Rome? Or will they side with those on the Christian right who have favored “an eye for an eye” justice, thus ignoring the teachings of Jesus and Paul?
I hope the time has come for the United States to join the modern world and abolish capital punishment once and for all. It’s plain common sense as well as obvious Christian ethics and humanitarian sentiment.