March 30, 2018 – 7:00 PM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah  52:13-53:12 Psalm 31:2;6;12-13;15-16;17;25
Hebrews 4:14-16;5:7-9 John 18:1-19:42
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Today, we commemorate the day when evil people did a bad thing to Jesus. They killed him, pure and simple.  Jesus was a victim of capital punishment.
Today, I will explain to you why the death penalty is wrong, always and everywhere, no matter what the circumstances. That may sound rigid and judgmental in and of itself, and indeed, it is, intentionally so. As many of you are aware, I have a law degree, and I used to be an attorney. One of the concepts we learned in criminal law was, “malum in se.” That’s Latin for, “bad in and of itself.” What that means is that there are some acts that are bad, period, with no room for debate. For Catholic Christians, that means any killing of another person, self-defense excepted, is BAD, period, end of story.
Why? Let’s start with the Ten Commandments. One of them reads, “You shall not kill.” Some translations read, “You shall not murder,” so as to leave open the possibility that not all killing is morally unacceptable. Indeed, at the time Moses received the Ten Commandments, and when the first five books of the Bible were compiled, the death penalty was a reality among the people of Israel. That’s the excuse used by our conservative sisters and brothers as the alleged biblical justification for the continued use of the death penalty in contemporary society. It is therefore, not surprising that the biblical translations favored by conservatives, such as the New International Version and the English Standard Version, use the word “murder” in translating the commandment against killing. Mainline Christians, that is, those of the Catholic tradition, like Old Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, as well as the liberal protestants, generally oppose capital punishment, so it’s not surprising that the bibles they favor, like the New American Bible and the New Revised Standard Version, use the broader word, “kill.”
Absolute opposition to capital punishment, as articulated by Pope Francis, is one area where I am in total agreement with the Roman Catholic Church. He speaks in the tradition of St. Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop-martyr of Carthage, who makes it clear that it doesn’t matter whether the murderous retaliation comes from an individual or from the state.  Although his predecessors allowed that the death penalty may be morally acceptable in very limited circumstances, Pope Francis was very clear on the issue when he addressed the International Commission to Abolish Death Penalty when he said, “Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”
Pope Francis argued that the death penalty is no longer justifiable by society’s need to defend itself, and the death penalty has lost all legitimacy due to the possibility of judicial error. Despite the highest degree of care, innocent people do get condemned to death and executed.  Unlike prison sentences, the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable.
Pope Francis stated that capital punishment is an offence “against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society” and that it “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”
Vengeance is the desire to punish, to get even. That’s the person-on-the-street idea of so-called “justice” in the United States. We saw that right here in Palm Springs two years ago when two police officers were killed in the line of duty answering a domestic disturbance call. Within days, the father of slain officer Leslie Zerebny was calling for the guy who did it to be executed.  I empathize with him in losing his daughter. In fact, I prayed for this officer and her family right here in this church when it happened.  She left behind a daughter, husband, mother and father. They were hurting, for sure, and deserve compassionate care from the entire community. But I don’t empathize with the family’s desire for retribution, to punish, to get even. As instinctive as that feeling may be, and as popular as it is politically in California, acting on that feeling will do nothing to bring back their beloved Leslie.
Let us not forget that Jesus, from the cross, forgave his executioners rather than call down an army of angels to decimate the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council that he decided he would die, and the Roman Soldiers who killed him.   The emotion based, uneducated human instinct to exact vengeance is a sin. Let me be very clear about that: it is a sin! What is sin? It is “missing the mark,” not meeting God’s expectations of humanity. God’s expectations of us are set out in the teachings of Jesus, and in our baptismal covenant, where we promise to respect the dignity of all humanity. That, my friends, is the message of Jesus, and it is that message to which we should all pay attention.
Our conservative sisters and brothers tell us that the United States is a Christian country, but wait….aren’t Christians supposed to follow Jesus?  Didn’t Jesus tell us in the Sermon on the Mount that vengeance is unacceptable behavior? Here’s what Jesus had to say about retaliation in the Gospel according to Matthew: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Later on in that Gospel, Jesus also tells us to forgive one who wrongs us at least seventy times seven.   St. Paul had pretty much the same idea in his epistle to the Romans, when he said, ”Repay no one evil for evil… never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
God has not been on board with the idea of one human retaliating against another from almost Day One. What happened when Cain killed Abel? God did not strike Abel dead. God sent Cain into exile and put a mark on Cain to warn others not to harm him. Even though Cain had done an evil act, God still loved him. That is how God relates to humanity.
But we relate to each other differently than God relates to us. Our way is not God’s way. When our government, in the name of all of us, using our tax dollars, kills a person despite the available non-lethal alternatives, the government declares that the way to fight violence is with more violence. Not only is this not how God does business, it is unacceptable because of what that does to us as a society.
I emphasize “what it does to all of society.” Let’s get rid of one myth at the outset. The death penalty does not deter murder. According to the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center, on a per one hundred thousand population basis, in  2016, the average Murder Rate of Death Penalty states was 5.4, while the average Murder Rate of States without the Death Penalty was 3.9. And, it is costly. The California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice estimates the annual costs of the present death penalty system to be 137 million dollars per year, while a life-in-prison-without-parole system would cost about 12 million dollars per year.
But more important, what is the moral and spiritual message the death penalty sends? The International Commission Against the Death Penalty came up with the following findings.
First, Capital punishment is absolute unforgiveness. In killing a criminal, even a murderer, we do not affirm life, but destroy it. Whatever worldly sense the death penalty may make to some people, the principle we as Christians must follow is eloquently stated in the Our Father, which says in modern translation, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Second, the death penalty is often used in a disproportional manner against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic, political and religious groups. People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 34 % of total executions since 1976 and 51 % of those currently awaiting execution. And capital punishment is statically more likely when the defendant is a racial minority and the crime victim is white.
Third, the death penalty violates the right to life which happens to be the most basic of all human rights. It also violates the right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. And for me, that is the most important reason: the death penalty undermines human dignity which is inherent to every, and I mean, every, human person.
Respect for human dignity is the original human right from which other human rights flow.  We acquired our dignity at the moment of our creation. We are endowed with the capacity for a conscious awareness of ourselves that marks each of us as distinct from others.  What does it mean to respect a person’s human dignity? That comes down to acknowledging the humanity of each person, a humanity shared by all human persons by virtue of being human.  Our dignity as human persons comes from our origin in divine creation, wherein we are created in God’s image, and from our ultimate destination of eternal life with God. God calls each and every one of us to respect the life and dignity of all humanity, even those who deny the dignity of others. We must still recognize that their dignity, too, is a gift from God and is not something that is earned or lost through their behavior. Respect for life applies to everyone, even those  who commit terrible crimes, even murderers.
The death penalty is inhumane and uncivilized. Accordingly, the continued existence of the death penalty in thirty-two out of fifty states makes each of their citizens co-responsible for their fellow citizens’ state-sanctioned murder. The death penalty makes us just like the murderers whom most of us so despise. It is not only about what capital punishment does to those killed, but also what it does to those who do the killing and those in whose name the killing is done. It’s bad enough that we are victimized by crime in our society; we don’t need to be further victimized by becoming perpetrators of killing ourselves and then living with the unfortunate consequences.
The death penalty is barbaric. It is an antiquated, regressive, “cruel and unusual” punishment. The death penalty is brutal. When violence is condoned via the death penalty, more violence occurs. Homicide rates tend to increase around the time of executions, due to legitimation, desensitization, and imitation.
          The reason the death penalty is still a reality in thirty-two states, including ours, is the very same reason that Jesus was executed. It is politically popular. Jesus was executed by a confluence of political forces: the Herodian dynasty, the Sanhedrin, that is, the Jewish temple establishment, and the Roman Empire. In today’s world, we see the same wine in new bottles: conservative religion of all kinds. Jewish, Christian and Muslim conservatives are all of the same ilk as the Sanhedrin.  Today’s Republican Party is today’s Herodian Dynasty. And our contemporary government shares much of the cruelty of the Roman Empire.
Democracy only amplifies the problem. The imprimatur of an election supposedly vitiates anything, according to the principles of so-called “democratic government,” which glorify “government by the people,” even when the people are objectively wrong. The Californians who went to the polls in 2016 to vote the continuation of capital punishment in California behaved in the same way as the people who cried out in the passion gospels, “Crucify him.” “We have a law,” they told Pontius Pilate, that says Jesus had to die for blasphemy by proclaiming himself as the Son of God. Therefore, Jesus was executed. Here again, we have people excusing themselves from objectively wrong behavior by saying they were just following the law.  That’s same, very lame excuse we hear from juries and public officials who sentence people to death and execute them in the twenty-first century. Just because something is “the will of the people” does not make it right.  Votes do not make evil acts good.
I find our conservative sisters and brothers to be quite hypocritical when they loudly condemn abortion but support the death penalty. Capital punishment arises solely from a definitive, irreversible judgment about the moral good of another person. Moral judgments about human acts belong to God. The jury or judge that sentences someone to death has taken over a decision that should be that of God alone, that of life or death. Life itself comes from God, and should be solely in God’s hands from beginning to end. Human dignity and the sanctity of human life go hand-in-hand. Without human life, there are no human persons.
What is needed is to refocus how we view ourselves and others. Let’s try a different approach. How about, “Everybody is my brother and my sister. I cannot turn a switch and say, ‘You are not human like the rest of us, and we can kill you.’” A decision to respect all other people is deeply spiritual. It’s about the soul of all of us.
For Christians, the death penalty is more than a public policy issue. It is a serious moral issue. Our Christian duty is to put aside any feelings we may have in recoiling from acts of violence, and oppose capital punishment. There is really no room for the opposite viewpoint. The previous tradition of the church aside, no Christian can in good conscience in today’s world support capital punishment. Killing is killing. Killing is wrong. As the Book of Deuteronomy tells us, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” AMEN.