This week, I’ve been praying around sin—appropriate enough for Lent, of course—but in particular around criminal justice as well. The trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, of course, is impossible to ignore, and on Tuesday I was also drawn into another case through a colleague in Georgia. Georgia was set to execute Kelly Gissendaner, convicted for her role in the murder of her husband. In her time in prison, her life was changed; she studied theology and began a correspondence with the theologian Jurgen Moltmann, ministered to her fellow prisoners and was, by all accounts, completely changed. Her story was a compelling one; Georgia hasn’t executed a woman in more than fifty years, and her story of conversion and compassion reminded me of everything we want to believe about human nature. We can change and we do change, even under difficult circumstances, even living through the consequences of the depth of our sin.
For our Tuesday night services, we’re using a Eucharistic prayer from the Church in Scotland which contains this line:
Lifted on the Cross, [Christ’s] suffering and forgiveness spanned the gulf our sins had made.
To which, of course, I would add—Christ’s ministry, and suffering, and forgiveness spanned the gulf of our sins. What I like so much about this phrasing is the visual metaphor—our sin separates us from God. We can sense that God is there, that there is hope and joy and forgiveness—but we can’t get there on our own. That gulf of sin is not intractable. God has already bridged it. But I need to acknowledge it as there, because without the awareness of sin, I slip into thinking that I’ve got everything figured out. Not because Jesus died as some blood sacrifice for my guilt, but because the crucifixion is a mirror of reality. Twelve year old kids getting shot by police who are supposed to protect them, immediately seen as suspicious because of the color of their skin. Muslim women being harassed (and worse) for wearing headscarves. Synagogues defaced. The Charlie Hebdo massacre, girls kidnapped in Pakistan and Nigeria for going to school. The Marathon bombing. Human trafficking. The crucifixion happens every day. When crucifixion happens, how do we respond?
Too often, we lash out with more violence. The death penalty is a prime example of this. The old Biblical injunction “an eye for an eye” gets quoted a lot, but in its initial context, that was intended to minimize punishment, not maximize (we might also recall that Jesus said some things that un-did that logic). Kelly Gissendaner wasn’t executed, after all—after thousands of petitions and phone calls to the governor’s office, the prison said that the drugs for lethal injection looked “cloudy.” Maybe if all the petitions and phone calls hadn’t been made, she would have still been put to death; I don’t know. She’s alive, though, and that is a blessing.
In Massachusetts, no one has been executed since 1947, though governors and legislatures have tried to bring it back a number of times. The Tsarnaev trial is a federal one, so even though our state doesn’t have the death penalty, federal prosecutors are asking for it and most of the defense, at this point, is around convincing jurors that mitigating circumstances make Tsarnaev less culpable of his crime.
I’m not on the jury, so it doesn’t really matter whether I think Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty, not guilty, or somewhere in between. I do, though, think it matters what all of us think and do about the death penalty itself. (It's probably worth noting that my opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances would have disqualified me from being on the jury at all). I signed the petition for Kelly Gissendaner because I was moved by her story. I’m glad to know about her and I’m glad she’s not been executed. But the death penalty isn’t about how good or how bad the defendant is. The death penalty is about what kind of society we create. And that’s about all of us. If we promise to respect the dignity of every human being every time we baptize someone, that includes the possibility—even the certainty!—of how those human beings fail. We are always bound by those vows, no matter how we think we can justify breaking them.