Some punishments cannot be reversed

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Some sermons stay with you longer than others. Especially when the content is unforgettable. Years ago, a pastor preached a message on capital punishment. In his message, he confessed to being a longtime opponent of state-implemented execution. He revealed that events caused him to change his mind. An organist with whom he had worked had been killed in a robbery. His palpable anger over her death caused the pastor to embrace the position he had formerly scorned.

There are people of conscience and good will on both sides of capital punishment. Please remember that as you read this column. I suspect some will agree and some, perhaps more, will disagree with my words below. This is simply my opinion, nothing more.

A vital question for everyone to answer is, "What is my reason for supporting or opposing capital punishment?" Events make this query relevant. In a few days -- Oct. 20 -- the state of Missouri is expected to execute Roderick Nunley. A law enforcement official, whom I respect, has a reason for his advocacy of lethal injection. He believes that the possibility of the penalty of death enters a criminal's mind, even during crimes of passion -- and that this awareness saves lives that might otherwise be taken. He may be right, although criminal justice studies can be cited that proclaim the death penalty is not a deterrent.

What is clear is that execution carries a finality of punishment that cannot be reversed. If a mistake is made and someone is wrongfully executed, there is no taking it back.

Years ago in seminary, I worked as a student chaplain at the old St. Louis City Jail, which is now a parking lot. The permanent chaplain at that male-only facility, Rev. Paul, had one question for his student clergy as we began our service with him at the lockup: "Tell me now if you support the death penalty, because if you do, I won't let you have any contact with these men."

Most of the best teaching I've received on the issue of capital punishment has come from the Roman Catholic tradition, which has a consistent position on life. Life is sacred, period. You don't take it in the womb and you don't take it when someone is placed on death row. We can argue whether or not Exodus 20:13 or Deuteronomy 5:17 says "Thou shalt not kill" or "Thou shalt not murder," the latter of which would seem to leave room for state-sanctioned execution. That, it seems to me, is an argument without successful conclusion.

A better path forward might be to discuss what the Rev. Donald Wuerl, Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., once opined about it. Bishop Wuerl said that at the time the Law of Moses came down from Mount Sinai, there were neither prisons nor jails. There were no places where the wandering Hebrews, fresh from Egyptian slavery, could incarcerate a miscreant. They were constantly on the move with no roots put down. Yet the Hebrews, looking for Canaan, could not have criminals living among them. The practical solution, pressed on them by circumstances, was the death penalty. Today we do have the capacity to house convicted criminals and separate them from the general population. The need, Wuerl suggests, to put convicts to death -- lack of facilities to house prisoners -- no longer is an issue.

So the question remains as Missouri prepares to execute Roderick Nunley: "What is our reason for supporting or opposing capital punishment?" If the answer has to do with keeping such men and women apart from the general populace, then you might recall the paragraph above. If the answer is about exacting final punishment, then I would ask, "Are you absolutely sure he or she did it?" Because if you are wrong, there is no taking it back.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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