Earlier this month, I gave the following reflection during a prayer vigil at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cheyenne.
I imagine that many of you have heard of Immaculée Ilibagiza. She wrote the book Left to Tell about her experience of surviving the genocide in Rwanda. Many of her family members were brutally murdered. A few years after the genocide, she returned to Rwanda and visited the prison where her brother’s killer was being held. The prison guard brought out the killer who had used a machete to open the skull of her brother.
As the killer knelt in front of her, the prison guard expected her to take out vengeance. He wanted her to spit on him and mistreat him. Instead, she forgave him. She was convinced that the only way for the nation of Rwanda to find peace was through forgiveness. And she wrote that the key to stopping violence was not through more violence toward the killers, but through forgiveness.
The world is scarred by so much violence – by the violence of genocide, the killing of unborn children, senseless shootings, terrorist acts and ongoing wars. All people of good will are against violence. But people disagree in how to end violence. Many people support violence toward those on death row. In the United States, about 53% favor capital punishment and 42% oppose it.
Immaculée Ilibagiza believes that forgiveness is the way to stop violence. Pope John Paul II who lived through the holocaust and atrocities of WWII said, “Violence begets violence.” He advocated for an end to capital punishment.
If we sanction capital punishment by our laws, then we are teaching our children that violence is a legitimate response to crime. Not only that, we are saying that it is okay to kill people on death row, even though there may have been a mistake in their trial. Since 1973, 156 people on death row were exonerated. Thus, for every ten executed, one was found innocent and released. So how many were killed without having the chance to be exonerated?
Opposing the Death Penalty is an anti-violence cause and a pro-life issue. Every human life is sacred. The dignity of each person is rooted in creation and redemption. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and Christ died to redeem all people. All people have an inviolable dignity – from the child in the womb, to the undocumented person fleeing violence, to the person trapped in addiction and homeless on the streets, to the person on death row.
No one can take this God-given dignity away. Not even the person who has committed the most heinous crime can renounce his dignity. Even if he says, “I am worthless. I am scum because of what I have done.” That is not true. His God-given dignity is sacred. It still remains. Pope Francis has officially affirmed this sacred gift by writing, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and the [Church] works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267)
By sanctioning Capital Punishment at the hands of the state, we are implying that some criminals have lost their God-given dignity. Consequently, this erodes the dignity of every other human being. It lessens our respect for the sacred dignity of those with disabilities, the refugee, the terminally ill or the child in the womb. To stand for life is to stand for the dignity of every human person.
We live in a violent culture, a culture that constantly violates human dignity. Taking another life is a way of extending the violence. Yet, violence begets violence. This is true for the child in the womb, but also for the person on death row. The antidote to violence is forgiveness. Perhaps this is why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” (Mt. 5:38)
Obviously, we have a right and a duty to protect the common good. So dangerous criminals need to be imprisoned for the safety of society. But we should not lower ourselves their level by reacting to violence with more violence. With his new commandments, Jesus was saying, “Do not react like a criminal, but act like the Father.”
This one of his greatest lessons. He never reacted to how he was treated. He didn’t hang on the cross and say, “Father, look at how violently I have been treated? Strike them down. Wipe them out. Show them who is more powerful.” Instead of reacting with vengeance, he acted with the Father’s mercy. He said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” (Lk. 23:34) Likewise, he taught us to act like children of the Father. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; so that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the just and the wicked alike” (Mt 5:44-45).
Mercy is non-negotiable in the Gospel. We fail to be disciples of Jesus if we do not imitate his mercy. In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis wrote, “At times . . . We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. This is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. . . . We should always consider inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy.” (Amoris Laetitia, 310-311)
When we say the only way to deal with people who have committed horrendous crimes is to execute them, we doubt the omnipotence of God and his mercy. We look at them and say, “They’ll never change. They are hopeless cases.” But God can do all things in his omnipotence. No one is beyond his omnipotent mercy. If we give up on a criminal, then in effect we are saying that evil is stronger than grace. We have given up on redemption for that person. We doubt the omnipotence of God and his mercy. We have lost faith in the grace of the cross and new life of the resurrection.
At times, all of us fail to live this way. We give up on redemption or mercy for our enemies, corrupt leaders, even ourselves. That is why we are gathered in a church tonight. We need to pray constantly for the Lord’s help. And we need to look to people like Immaculée Ilibagiza who show us that what Jesus asks of us is not impossible. Not only that, it is the only way forward. Forgiveness is the antidote to violence, and it brings healing to the family members of victims.
In 1995, Bud Welch lost his only daughter Julie in the Oklahoma City bombing. Bud has become an ardent and persistent supporter of the abolition of the death penalty. He said, “You don’t heal by escalating violence and by using the death penalty we escalate violence – and that violence is sponsored by the state.” (More on his story can be found at this link Bud Welch.)
Instead of reacting with vengeance, he is acting with the Lord’s mercy. This is the way beyond violence. This is the way to healing for those wounded by violence.