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Hope in life, even in the midst of despair

Bishop Paul S. Loverde
Bishop of Arlington, VA

November 04, 2009

Bishop Loverde reflects on the death penalty as the Washington area sniper prepares to be executed.

On November 10th, John Allen Muhammad is scheduled for execution in Virginia. As many will recall, Mr. Muhammad orchestrated the 2002 sniper attacks in the Washington metropolitan area — a rampage that left 10 people dead, others wounded and entire communities in shock and fear. To say that these acts are horrific and appalling would be an understatement. Certainly, a person who committed such brutal acts should be punished severely, and many among us would surely desire revenge and would even say that such a person deserves to die for what he did. It is understandable for us — all of us, myself included — to have these reactions, and to be outraged at the way in which innocent lives were so senselessly taken, with their families left to mourn and to ask questions which have no satisfactory answers.

These emotions, however, are a beginning, not an end. We are called to be more, and to do more, than we could ever be or do without God’s transforming grace. In seeking to “be more,” we should begin with prayer for the families of the victims of the sniper attacks, beseeching Our Blessed Lord to help them experience the healing that only His hand can offer. And then, as we open our minds and hearts in prayer, we can prepare ourselves to ask Jesus: “Who are you calling me to be in this situation?”

During his public ministry, Jesus Himself was asked to make a statement on putting someone to death:

But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. (John 8:2-6)

Many of those gathered probably wanted Jesus to reach the “inevitable” conclusion that stoning was the appropriate punishment under the law. Jesus’ response, of course, surprised them all:

But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more." (John 8:7-11)

While recognizing the seriousness of the woman’s offense and admonishing her to “not sin anymore,” Jesus refused to choose death over life, or despair over hope. Although He understood the demands of justice, His emphasis was on mercy and the human dignity of the sinner.

Because each person is created in God’s image and likeness, each person retains an intrinsic human dignity — even someone convicted of a heinous crime. This dignity is what leads the Church — while acknowledging the legitimate defense of individuals and society — to teach that the death penalty cannot be justified when a government has other ways to protect its people adequately against an unjust aggressor:

If non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267; Evangelium Vitae, 56).

In solidarity with this teaching and with the consistent appeals made by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI for an end to capital punishment in modern society, we are called to choose hope — hope in the redemption of an immortal soul – over the despair embedded in the death penalty. If the woman had been stoned, she would not have had the opportunity to “not sin anymore.” And so, despite the initial reactions we might have in seeking revenge, we must not opt for the death penalty.

When life without the possibility of parole in a maximum security prison is an option, we have no need for the death penalty. By sparing the woman caught in adultery, Christ taught us a lesson which Saint Paul later expressed: “do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” (Romans 12:21). Christ did this in the temple where He was teaching, and He enables us to do this, with His help, within the temples of our hearts today.

In the needles of lethal injection, we see the manifestation of despair. And in this despair, in advocating the use of the death penalty, our society has moved beyond the legitimate judgment of crimes. Brothers and sisters, we are better than this. We are called to be more than slaves to despair; we are called to be heralds of hope!

We find a striking example of this hope in Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, who, as a young girl, prayed and did penance for the conversion of a convicted murderer Henri Pranzini. Although he had repeatedly refused to repent, at the moment before placing his head in the noose, he kissed the crucifix held out to him three times. Through the prayers and penance of Saint Thérèse, a person judged to be lost was won for Christ!

Imitating Saint Thérèse, let us unite our prayers and penance for John Allen Muhammad that he may experience Christ’s redemptive mercy, for the victims of his crimes and their families, and for the courage in our Commonwealth to choose the path of hope instead of despair.

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