November 18, 2018
In a recent movie about the capture, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, he hisses at one of his captors, who had lost a sister in the Holocaust, If it is justice to take my life, does that mean that my life is worth six million of your sister?
That question and every incidence of terrorism or mass violence perpetrated by a single individual raises the same question, what punishment can bring justice when the criminal has but one life to lose? You must think about that question for a while, before going on with this essay.
The Church’s teaching on capital – or any other -- punishment is much like it’s teaching on waging war. The right to punish is acquired when an individual has been proven to have committed a crime; not before. The punishment must be proportionate to the crime – an eye for an eye; but not two eyes for one. It must restore the pre-crime balance of the society. That means that it is not just punitive; it is restorative of good order.
Applying these rules is clearly difficult when the crime is outrageous, order is impossible to restore and there is no reasoned hope that the offender will not reoffend. This is the dilemma raised by the Eichmann character’s query.
This is the issue that Desmond Tutu had to face in the wake of apartheid in South Africa. The systemic debasement and exploitation of the black population by the white was so monstrous that, short of killing all the former Boer’s or digging up the corpses of those who were already dead, there was no proportionate way to proceed to justice. Tutu’s solution was to set up panels of truth and reconciliation. These panels allowed and urged that victims of apartheid should tell their stories out loud and in public, naming names and dates and giving details. Those named, who were sincerely repentant, were allowed to recover a share in the non-apartheid and non-vengeful future that South Africa was seeking to build. Otherwise, the penalties for hate crimes based on racism were to be exacted.
There is a story of the Crusader general who urges his soldiers to ‘kill them all’ when capturing a city of Saracens and Christians. “God”, he said, “will know his own”. Jesus urges the exact opposite choice in the parable of the wheat and the tares.
The Church’s rules fly in the face of everything we know of human nature. I know that. They force us to look to a better future, rather than an evil-ridden past, and they don’t work really well with the penal systems of any developed society.
But, we are called to live God’s life in a future beyond even death. This is who we are, how we must live. It is the essence of the Gospel of life together now and in eternity.
Really and truly and eternally yours,