Like me, you may have read the letter to the Boston Globe by Bill and Denise Richard’s, the parents who lost their little boy Martin to the Boston Marathon bombing two years ago. They appealed to the prosecution team of Jahar Tsarnaev, “To end the anguish, drop the death penalty.” They argue that giving Tsarnaev the death penalty would keep his story and face in the news for years to come during the appeal process. The wounds of his victims would never heal as they had to relive that day whenever his face or name was in the news. It is a more fitting and servere punishment to lock him up without parole for the rest of his life to reflect on the heinousness of his crime and to be outside of the limelight of the media.
The Richard’s are people of faith. They are Roman Catholic and active in their parish. Catholic social teaching, as is most Christian teaching, is against the death penalty. I don’t know if that influenced them to write their appeal in that letter, but it is still pretty amazing. For a family who suffered the loss of their sweet little 8 year old, Bill Richard’s is still recovering from a blown ear drum, Denise is adjusting to the loss of her right eye from the blast, their 7 year old daughter Jane lost her left leg, and Henry, their other son, missed schrapnel but witnessed the whole horror show, it is staggering that they are not calling for revenge.
They aren’t at a point of forgiveness, if they every will be, nor are they diminishing the heinousness of the crime, but they are saying that justice isn’t served by taking a life for a life. During his life time Jesus opposed retributive justice by overturning the Old Testament teaching of “an eye for an eye.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42
In fact, during his ministry, Jesus publicly thwarted an execution. When the woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned he stopped it and he said: “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” The fact that Jesus stopped an execution is completely in line with all of his other prohibitions against the use of violence. When Jesus said “he who is without sin may cast the first stone” he was teaching that while death may seem just, and even at times be just, there isn’t anyone alive who is worthy to tie the noose around their neck. Therefore, even if siding with the rationale that death is a just punishment in some cases, we arrive at the difficult truth that — according to Jesus — neither you or I are perfect enough to serve in the role of executioner.
Jesus further teaches that it is better to show mercy and compassion than to obey the law. One of the areas where he got himself in trouble more than once (and the act that likely helped lead to his death) was appearing to violate the law against working on the Sabbath. During one of these occasions, Jesus and his disciples were plucking grain (work) because they were hungry. When confronted for violating the law, Jesus replied: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Matthew 12:7 In a variety of circumstances, we see that God values mercy and compassion above all else — which means we should be people who value mercy above all else. After all, mercy seems to be God’s love language.
Yes, the issue of capital punishment is a complex one, and people of goodwill can disagree. While this can be a complex debate if speaking only from our identities as American citizens, this issue should not be as complex for Jesus followers. Jesus overturned the old laws that permitted the use of retributive (and all other forms) of violence. It simply is not possible to simultaneously follow the one who forbade violence while participating, condoning, or supporting it in any form.
My point, ultimately, is that the appeal of the Richard’s family to “Drop the Death Penalty” is a sign of Resurrection faith and Resurrection life. They asked for mercy not revenge and for justice that was not retributive. As Jesus’ Resurrection was a blow against the use of violence to get rid of outcasts and rabble rousers (the victim became the victor) so is the Richard’s appeal to our better natures a refusal to participate in a world where violence is seen as redemptive and revenge is normative.