A good humbling can do a heart good, and today was a very good day for my heart.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo, invited me to attend the Conference on the Abolition Or Moratorium on Execution of the Death Penalty. It was opened with a speech by President Paul Kagame, and was attended by 200 representatives of African nations, including many high-ranking leaders, who came together to call upon all people of the world to abolish the death penalty, as had most of these represented nations, including Rwanda.
These African leaders spoke with calm voices of impeccable reason, supported by research and data. As I sat and listened, I was indeed humbled yet again by the reminder that it is much more probable that I was sent to Africa to learn, not to teach,… that as much as I want to believe and be inspired by Rick Warren’s opening first line “It’s not about you!” it may, in fact, be “All about me” and the learning and growing that remains quite unfinished. There I was an American, from the most developed nation that seemingly has and knows everything, sitting in the heart of Central Africa, being taught and enlightened by African voices of profound reason and grace.
I encourage us to pause and reflect upon some of my conference notes and random thoughts of my own:
The death penalty was not normally part of traditional African systems of justice, but was generally introduced by colonial powers.
There is presently no capital punishment in 37 African countries, 17 of which have abolished the death penalty, and 20 more of which have moratoriums that constitute “de facto abolition.”
Every European country has abolished the death penalty, as have our neighbors Canada, Mexico, and most of Latin America.
The United States continues to execute its citizens in considerable numbers. Last year we ranked number five in the world, behind China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen, but ahead of Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.
I was very privileged to sit with Yvonne Mokgoro, the Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa who delivered the ruling that abolished the death penalty in South Africa. I also sat with Michele Duvivier Pierre-Louis, the former Prime Minister of Haiti, which abolished the death penalty immediately upon the fall of “Baby Doc’s” oppressive dictatorship. Both women demonstrated spellbinding wisdom and grace.
I was reminded that in a different context (the Libyan issue) President Kagame broke ranks and declared that “Any government that kills its own people loses its legitimacy,” and it seemed to me that statement is worthy of consideration in the death penalty debate. Once you start allowing for exceptions (in the U.S. we call them “special circumstances”) where do you draw the line, and WHO will draw the line? We can be certain that the lines will not be drawn by the disenfranchised, but rather the privileged. And the most frightening “special circumstance” is the allegation of treason. The threat of the oppressive abuse of the death penalty far outweighs any value it could possibly have.
The greatest wisdom Ronald Reagan taught us was that government is to be distrusted and feared. Government is never so fearsome as when it is holding the implements of death that we have authorized it to use,… “but please, not against me or my loved ones.” So why would I authorize fallible, politically-driven government to decide matters of life and death of one of my fellow citizens?
The research clearly establishes that the death penalty is not a deterrent, one of those inconvenient facts that many choose to ignore or deny, but without any basis.
In every nation, the judicial process is fallible. Judges are fallible. Lawyers are fallible. Juries are fallible. We hope that “justice will be done,” and when we miss the mark, we then expect the error to ultimately be remedied. But execution of the death penalty is irreversible. Our inevitable mistakes cannot be corrected.
Imposition of the death penalty is notoriously inequitable, with the weight of it falling quite disproportionately upon minorities and the poor (with ineffective lawyers).
The death penalty imposes enormous pain upon those who are innocent, e.g., the terrified, heartbroken, grieving mother and father and siblings of the condemned.
In America, the death penalty also constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” of the survivors of the victim who may suffer 20 years of anxious suspense before the legal process concludes and they can finally focus on getting their lives back on track.
Yes, one might understandably exclaim: “But the condemned DESERVES it!” Perhaps he does. But our society does not deserve it,… the refutation of our values and the denigration of human life.
How/what do we teach by our position on the death penalty? What teaching opportunities do we forsake?
Consider the irony of indulging our “bloodlust” and thereby relieving the condemned of his sustained punishment. Who wins and who loses as a result of this exercise? Would we not have the perpetrator reflect upon his heinous act as long as possible?
Imposition of the death penalty certainly does not demonstrate anything at all to the departed defendant (who is no longer giving it any thought), nor to the homicide victim who was not present at the trial or the execution. The only thing it demonstrates to the survivors of the victim and the rest of us is a devaluation, not an affirmation, of human life.
A recent study in California revealed that maintaining the death penalty costs taxpayers $184 million a year more than if the state's condemned killers were kept in prison for life.
Many of us seem to believe that upright, “good citizenship” compels us to support the death penalty. That puts us on the team of good guys, against the bad guys. But it is never good citizenship to ignore inconvenient truth and facts. It is never good citizenship to squander public resources. It is never good citizenship to join the ranks of the oppressors, rather than those who would use sound reason to examine and address civic challenges and social ills. It is never good citizenship to desire death over compassion.
The United States suffers a tremendous loss of political goodwill with each execution, none of which go unnoticed. (Africans at this conference know much more about recent executions in U.S. than do Americans.) Yes, the world watches in disbelief and horror. “The land of the free” is viewed as a land of barbarians. Today in the United States, we still allow for executions by hanging, firing squad, and frying in the electric chair. With each execution America undermines its legitimacy and its voice. We cannot preach the merits of democracy to less democratic nations and continue such highly visible atrocious behavior. Rwanda provides a very good illustration: American interests, including our State Department, attempt to apply pressure upon the Government of Rwanda to advance our version of First Amendment Rights. But our voice lacks credibility when our behavior associates us with Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Zimbabwe, etc.
The death penalty in the United States actually prevents us from bringing perpetrators to justice, as many countries will not extradite suspects to the U.S. to stand trial if they might face the death penalty.
We must imagine the harm we cause to our fellow citizens (prison workers) who are directed to actually carry out the death penalty. No healthy person can kill another person, then go home, crack open a beer, and figure that “It’s all in a days work.” Some of the humanity of the executioner necessarily dies along with the one executed, no less than the desensitized child soldier or the gang member who is required to kill as part of their orientation into the organization.
The representative of one African nation explained that his country still has the death penalty, but their executioner died two years ago. They have advertised the “Job Available,” but no one is willing to accept the position, thus reminding me of the 1960’s bumper sticker: “What If They Gave a War, And Nobody Came?”
Please note that I do not lean heavily on the various arguments of “ fundamental human rights” and a “violation human rights.” I am comfortable with the notion that the serial killer has forfeited and lost his rights. My plea is not so much for him, as it is for us. What will his acts evoke from us? Will his killing, turn us into killers? The crisis presents an opportunity for us to demonstrate repugnant revenge or calm, reasoned, noble values that we would like to demonstrate to our children.
And do not misunderstand: Abolitionists do not advocate impunity, “free passes,” no justice for the victims. They merely advocate alternative forms of punishment which might include life imprisonment without possibility of parole, restitution to the victims and the community, and other forms of punishment that may constitute a very “heavy sentence.”
If Rwanda could find its way to the abolition of the death penalty following the 1994 genocide of 1 million people, then surely any country can. If any country “needed” the death penalty to bring necessary civil order, it was Rwanda. But instead Rwanda abolished the death penalty. With no death penalty to deter serious crime, why are the streets of Rwanda (all the streets, everywhere, day or night) so much safer than the streets in America?
Public opinion is not trustworthy on this issue of the death penalty, just as it was not trustworthy as Pilate and Jesus stood before the angry mob. This is an issue for courageous, informed leadership, not for demagogues or wimpy politicians. We might respect a political leader who recognizes the need to teach and lead. But we should have contempt for present-day Pilates and the politicians who stir a cheering crowd with “I am proud to tell you that I am a strong supporter of the death penalty.”
A Muslim from Morocco explained that sharia (Islamic canonical law) has a tradition whereby the individual victim might choose between death for the perpetrator, compensation, or forgiveness,… and the greatest of these is forgiveness. (Islamic nations are split on capital punishment, just as our Christian nations.)
I paused and reflected when a delegate urged that this matter be reasoned through and decided without religious language or references. Interesting. Sensible,… but not possible. My Muslim colleague and I agree that no person of faith can be asked to consider matters of life and death without referencing the spiritual reality in which we live. We cannot check at the door everything that we know to be true, and then enter the room with anything to contribute to the conversation. HOWEVER, my Muslim colleague and I both believe that our respective faiths and understanding of the revealed truth of God lead us (and can lead others) to a position against capital punishment.
Although my list, below, was hastily compiled and is quite incomplete, Christians might carefully consider the following as we seek to discover the mind and heart of God:
With the execution of that death penalty, we terminate any possibility of confession, repentance, redemption and reconciliation. An execution is a repudiation of our desire and our hope in God’s power to redeem the lost.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,”… and there are no exceptions or “special circumstances.”
As for the previously stated sentiment: “But this murderer DESERVES it!” Yes, he does,… and so do I,… and so do you, in the eyes of the Holy and Righteous Judge. I think it was CS Lewis who observed that “There is no man on Death Row who has committed an act as heinous as I am capable of.” That is the condition of my dark, corrupt heart. And do we remember somebody once saying something about “Anyone who looks upon a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery”? His initials are J.C., and I don’t mean Jimmy Carter, although President Carter was indeed self-condemned on this matter. (Matthew 5:28)
But the Lord said “All right then, if anyone kills Cain, Cain will be avenged seven times as much.” Then the Lord put a special mark on Cain so that no one who found him would strike him down. So Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Genesis 4:15
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19
“All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” John 8:7
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:14
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. Matthew 5:38
Human life is a miraculous creation of God. It is sacred, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Christians must demonstrate harmony and consistency in our position on the sanctity human life. One of my sons did considerable research on the death penalty, and in doing so he was moved to reconsider his position on abortion. It appears quite foolish, or at least inconsistent, for one to crusade against abortion and be in support of the death penalty,… or crusade against the death penalty can be in favor of abortion.
When we chant “Death! Death!” we are crying out for “Justice!” In truth, however, what I most want, what I most desperately need, is mercy and grace. If justice were to rain down upon us in its purest, infallible form, that would not be good news for me. And the Bible tells me that I have a choice to receive one or the other, judgement or grace, according to what I demonstrate:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1
So these African voices (and the voice of Jesus) overwhelmed me today with both reason and with grace. It was powerful, and then I had an appointment with real-life that was even more powerful:
At the conclusion of today’s session one of the speakers encouraged me to introduce myself and meet a rather motley looking crew, mostly from America, in T-shirts branded “Journey of Hope.” I did as suggested.
I met Edward Mpagi, a Ugandan who spent 18 ½ years on Death Row,… until it was discovered that his “murder victim” was very much alive. Unfortunately, his cousin who was also condemned to die for the same murder that never happened did not survive Death Row. Death Row was not kind to Edward, who now requires assistance to walk. Imagine: I was not just reading words such as you are now. We were face-to-face. What do you say to a brother who wasted away on Death Row for a crime that he did not commit, and whose cousin died on Death Row for the same crime that never happened? “Uh,… Sorry.” That was pretty much it, for I was dumbfounded. He was very tender-hearted and soft-spoken, and recognizing my sorrow, he seemed to graciously communicate “Hey, forget about it.” But I don’t think he really wants us to forget about it, for he traveled to this conference so that others might understand.
Edward was assisted by Bill Babbitt of California, who himself uses a cane to walk. (They were quite a beautiful sight of loving brothers caring for one another.) Bill was never a death row inmate, but wishes that he could trade places with his brother, Manny (Manuel Babbitt), who was:
Manny, an African-American, was a U.S. Marine, who fought five major battles in Vietnam, including the siege of Khe Sanh. He took shrapnel through his skull and was believed to be dead. His lifeless body was piled into a helicopter with other corpses. He ultimately received a citation from President Johnson and was decorated with numerous medals.
But Manny brought demons home with him from the battlefield. He suffered serious PTSD and schizophrenia, and spent time in psychiatric hospitals in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He attempted suicide three times.
In 1980, while under the influence of alcohol and PCP, Manny perpetrated a home invasion and killed elderly Leah Schendel. His brother, Bill (who told me the story) turned Manny into the police after being assured that Manny would be sent back to an appropriate psychiatric hospital. But instead Manny was tried for murder and sentenced to death. Bill assured their mother that “Manny will not be executed. It is not possible. They promised me.”
While sitting on death row, Manny was awarded the Purple Heart for his sacrificial and courageous service to the United States and his Band of Brothers,… and then he was executed. He refused his last meal so that the $50 allotted would be given to homeless Vietnam veterans. Bill, who turned in his brother in exchange for “ false promises” and was present at the execution, sighed as he explained to me that “My brother’s blood is on my hands.”
Then I turned to the Randy Gardner, whose brother Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed last year in Utah, by FIRING SQUAD! (My subsequent Google research reveals that Ronnie chose death by firing squad, but why would we allow the condemned to make barbarians of us before a watching world?) Although the daughter of the condemned had spent many, many years preparing for the day, and she believed that she was indeed prepared, it proved to be too much to bear and she attempted suicide.
And then the coup de grace:
Soft-spoken Bill Pelke told me the story of his grandmother, Ruth Pelke, and how her story ultimately became HIS story.
Ruth was a Christ follower, who loved to give Bible lessons to anyone who desired to learn about Jesus. One day four girls, aged 14 to 16, skipped school, drank alcohol and smoked pot, and knocked on Ruth’s door, ostensibly for a Bible lesson, which turned into a robbery and Ruth’s Homecoming. It was pretty brutal. Ruth was stabbed 33 times, and 15-year-old Paula Cooper was sentenced to die in the electric chair. (In telling the story, caucasian Bill Pelke will never mention that the four girls were African-American, but African-American Bill Babbitt added that detail when Bill Pelke was not present, for he wanted me to fully understand depth of Pelke’s current kindness, fairness, and grace.)
Bill Pelke supported the death penalty. It was simply “justice” for the brutal death of his beloved grandmother. He intended to be present at Paula’s execution. “But then I experienced a spiritual transformation. I recognized that my grandmother died because she wanted to share the love of Jesus. I did not have what my grandmother had, but I wanted it, and I called out to God to give me what she had,… the love, the compassion, the ability and strength to forgive, the healing, and God indeed transformed me. I stopped focusing on how my grandmother died, and instead I focused on how she lived. And so I campaigned to have Paula’s sentence commuted. During this time, Paula earned her GED and a college degree. We were ultimately successful, and after 28 years in prison, Paula will be released from prison on July 13, 2013. I will be standing outside the prison gate to receive her with open arms. Revenge is never, NEVER the answer. The killing of another human being could never have healed me.
This conversation took place in a crowded 5 star hotel, the only 5 star hotel in Rwanda. Toward the end, Bill’s voice cracked slightly with the emotion of a tender, broken heart, mended by grace. When it did, I experienced a very unfortunate combination of a tough guy trying to carefully guard and control his emotions, coupled with an unexpected surge of emotion, coupled with swallowing wrong while gasping at the same time,… the perfect storm: I choked and my trachea totally seized and clamped down. I could NOT breathe in AT ALL. I stood up. I crouched down. I made animal noises that I cannot even attempt to describe. I became the center of attention, a shocking spectacle that brought the entire hotel congregation to a standstill. I wondered if I would actually die, or if my trachea would relax once I passed out.
So, I will end as I began: A good humbling can do a heart good, and today was a very good day for my heart. I was indeed humbled and my heart was thereby greatly enriched. I too desire to be like Ruth Pelke. Although I became quite an embarrassing spectacle, God’s love, wisdom, forgiveness, and redemptive grace was a much greater spectacle.