Timothy McVeigh & the Death Penalty

Timothy McVeigh & the Death Penalty



This article by the Rev. Fleming Rutledge appeared in the Dallas newspaper at the time of McVeigh’s execution.

All across the United States, there has been a barrage of publicity about the need for “closure” and “resolution” in the Oklahoma City bombing case. The survivors and victims’ families have been portrayed as though they spoke with one voice in favor of the execution of Timothy McVeigh. However, because of the quiet but tireless efforts of Bud Welch, whose only daughter was killed in the blast, we know that this is a false picture. Mr. Welch has been travelling the country speaking in opposition to the death penalty, asking for life without parole as an alternative. Others have made their views known as well. Patti Hall, a Southern Baptist who was crushed under six floors and is on permanent disability, says that her faith has led her to believe “it isn’t right to take a life.” Tim McCarthy, whose father was killed, says that his feelings about McVeigh are strong and that he would not trust himself in a room with him. Nevertheless, he believes as a Catholic that it is wrong for the government to kill him. All of these people acknowledge that they initially wished for McVeigh’s death, but changed their minds upon reflection. Rob Roddy, who survived but lost 35 co-workers, said “It was a couple months before I got my senses back. If I lose my core values, I become more of a victim than I had been.”

Intense feelings surround this issue. Both camps have stepped up their activities. The anti-death penalty party has concentrated on stories about innocent people who have either been executed or have spent decades on Death Row. Governor George Ryan of Illinois placed a moratorium on executions in his state last year when it was revealed that since 1977 the state had freed 13 prisoners from Death Row because they were found to be innocent. Because so much new information has come to light, many observers have claimed to see a shift taking place in American attitudes. Some have said that the possibility of executing innocent people is the single most important reason for abolishing capital punishment. Next to that, the factor most often cited by opponents is the manifest racial and economic inequality in the application of the penalty. As one wag puts it, “Capital punishment means that those without capital get the punishment.”

With all due respect, however, these are not the most important arguments against the death penalty. If all the inequalities were to be ironed out, if the penalty were applied with rigorous fairness in all the states of the nation, and if every one executed were as clearly guilty as McVeigh, the death penalty would still violate the deepest truths of the Christian gospel. Why is that?

The simplest answer to that question is that the most famous victim of execution ever, Jesus of Nazareth, prayed as he was being publicly tortured to death, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” A lawyer in New York State, William M. Tendy, argued against the death penalty for his client, an indigent Jamaican immigrant of borderline intelligence who had endured a brutal childhood, in these words: “If Jesus were alive today, would he be standing here asking for this man’s death? Of course not. He’d be saying, blessed are the merciful.” Mr. Tendy also argued, however, “This man is not Ted Bundy or Timothy McVeigh.” This sharpens the focus. What about the serial killer and the unrepentant bomber?

Karla Faye Tucker said, before she was executed last year, “When we are talking about the crime I committed, gender has no place as an issue. If you believe in it for one, you believe in it for everybody. If you don’t believe in it, don’t believe in it for anybody.” If one is opposed to capital punishment, one must be opposed to it for reasons having nothing to do with the supposed worthiness of the accused. The reason for not believing in it for anybody lies at the very heart of the Christian proclamation. One of St. Paul’s most startling assertions is found in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans: “Christ died for the ungodly.” True Christianity is found wherever there is a profound personal appropriation of that message. The 16th century Puritan John Bradford, upon seeing prisoners led to execution, said, “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.” That is the secret¾to see oneself and the murderer as members of the same species. It has long been recognized that in order to perpetrate violence upon another it is necessary to see that person as subhuman, as “not like us.” That is what was done to Jesus by religious and secular authorities alike. Crucifixion announced to the public: “This person is not fit for human company, you may now spit upon him.”

“Consider this,” says Shakespeare’s Portia, “In the course of justice none of us should see salvation.” In the sight of God, every one of us is a Christ-killer in one way or another. Jesus absorbed the wickedness of the human race into himself when he gave himself up to be crucified. The burden of our hatred and fear has been borne by him, once and for all.


Mrs. Rutledge, one of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, is the author of The Bible and The New York Times and Help My Unbelief. She is known across the country as a preacher and conference speaker.

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