The Tookie Williams case

Monday, December 12, 2005

For those who believe that capital punishment is one of the defining issues for Christians in our time, there is an imperative that we not be naive or sentimental. There is a tendency among death-penalty opponents to gloss over the horrific nature of crimes committed by death-row inmates. An example from the recent debate about Tookie Williams was discussed on NPR. One of the demonstrators supporting clemency for Williams said, “I don’t care what he’s done in the past…” followed by impassioned testimony about the positive things Williams had done while in prison. A relative of a victim responded angrily, “If he had seen his loved one lying in a pool of blood, he would care. He would care.”

Indeed. It is essential that anyone arguing against the death penalty be hyper-aware of the seriousness of murderous crimes and that he (or she) watch his language in that regard. Anything that falls short of utmost condemnation of murder cannot be useful in the debate. The argument against capital punishment must be clear-sighted and even-handed. Those who thus argue must not give the impression that they do not care if a great and irreparable wrong has been done.

The question is, given that wrong, what is the proper response of society? Is it good for society to cultivate retribution as a key value? Is it wise to reject the possibility of redemption in this life? Is it humane to encourage the basest instincts of those (and they will always be a majority) who relish the death of another? Why is it better for Tookie Williams to be put to death rather than serving a life sentence where he was having such a good effect on many fellow prisoners? Does anyone seriously believe that this is a deterrent? Apparently so, but no one has been able to show that it is.

More important for Christians is the connection between the death penalty handed down by the state, with the consent of the govermed, with the death of Jesus Christ. He was condemned by the best of state and church. He was “numbered with the transgressors.” He prayed for his torturers and commanded us to do the same. The cruciform life of a Christian disciple should mirror that of the disciple’s Lord. This is not naivete. This is a way of understanding human sin that offers to the world an image of Christ’s victory over the very worst that human nature can do.

The difficulty seems to be in persuading people that prisoners–malefactors, transgressors–are not the same species of person as those who look upon them from outside the bars. Those who demand the deaths of others consider themselves superior and therefore able to pronounce upon another’s deserving. They seem lacking in imagination; the possibility that, given certain circumstances, they might be the ones in prison, never seems to occur to them.

This is why Johnny Cash was so important and why his example should be continually celebrated. Unfortunately the film Walk The Line covers only the first half of his life. It was in the second half that he did his deepest work, most apparent in the last album, When The Man Comes Around) Cash knew he had been in prison (and I don’t mean literal prison, for contrary to popular opinion he never did hard time). He knew that he had escaped prison, literally and figuratively, solely by the grace of God. To the end of his days he felt a deep emotional connection to those who were in bondage, behind prison bars and the bars of their own impulses. He was able to identify with them. The example of this revered singer should, at the very least, give us pause.

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