The ‘Gospel of Life’ challenges us to show mercy even to those who denied it to others
Thirty-six years ago, two of my uncles were senselessly and brutally gunned down during a robbery of their small urban grocery store. The gunman, a 16-year-old youth, was arrested six months later but hanged himself in jail while awaiting trial. I struggled with the same question everyone does who is touched by such horrible acts of violence: “Why?”
As I mourned their loss, my prayers over time led me to reflect more upon the sanctity of life, and not just upon my uncles’ but even the very youth who took their lives and his own. Only when I began to pray for this youth did I begin to find peace. Vengeance can never bring back a loved one, but love and mercy brings Christ into our pain.
Each October we celebrate “Respect Life Month,” a time when we reflect more deeply upon the sanctity of life, from conception to natural death. And while many can easily admit that the sanctity of life begins at conception, it is much more difficult to promote “natural death” and to include those guilty of horrible crimes.
Why, we might ask, should those on death row be afforded mercy when they withheld it so cruelly from others? What about the victims’ families whose lives are tortured by so painful a loss of loved ones? But while the enormity of the threats against innocent life, particularly the unborn, calls for our greatest efforts to help protect, we mustn’t exclude even the most guilty from our witness to the sanctity of life.
As a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, I used to visit inmates on death row. For some, the knowledge of their pending fate humbled them, and for others, it only hardened their hearts. Even when St. John Paul II visited Ali Agca in prison, the man who nearly succeeded in assassinating him, the pope didn’t hear words of remorse, but only a question—“Why aren’t you dead?”
Standing even before God, Cain expressed no remorse in taking the life of his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:9). God punished the world’s first murderer, not by taking his life, but by banishing him as an outcast, marking him in such a way that others might not take his life.
Here I am reminded of the example of great restraint that our young troops must exercise on the battlefield when an enemy combatant surrenders or is captured or wounded.
Even should the enemy have inflicted great harm upon them prior to their capture, once they are rendered a noncombatant, the enemy is protected by military and international law against reprisals or execution. If our soldiers are expected to exercise such restraint amidst the raw emotions of combat, shouldn’t our society exercise the same restraint with those guilty of capital crimes?
The Church traditionally has not excluded recourse to the death penalty when it is the only possible way to safeguard society from an unjust aggressor. But particularly in our modern age where we have the ability to separate those who are a danger to society by means of incarceration, we should limit ourselves to those means.
In Tennessee, 11 men were scheduled to be executed beginning Oct. 7, but a last-minute court challenge has delayed this date. The crimes they were found guilty of are truly horrible, and to advocate mercy toward them may seem itself to be an offense against proper justice, and against the victims’ families as well. But we cannot invite Jesus into the pain of these crimes through a spirit of vengeance. While Bishop David R. Choby, Bishop J. Terry Steib, SVD, and I have petitioned Gov. Bill Haslam to reconsider the fate of these condemned men, I also ask you to pray for him.
A very powerful scene from the 1920 silent film, The King of Kings, depicts a group of grieving men and woman mourning as Christ passes by them carrying his cross to Calvary. As He disappears from view, the crowd’s mourning suddenly turns to anger as the two thieves come into view carrying their own crosses behind Christ. In striking contrast to their earlier demeanor, this same group of people begins hurling insults at the two thieves and throwing rocks and garbage at them.
This scene is a powerful reminder of how we must all be the face and heart of Jesus, not only to those we feel are deserving of His mercy but also especially to those who the world feels are not. And we must pray for the victims’ families that their hearts might be comforted, to stand with them beneath their cross of mourning and suffering and to offer consolation and help as a people of love and mercy.■