Death Has Lost Its Sting: Conflicted Response to Tsarnaev's Death Sentence

By Shane Claiborne 5-19-2015
Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial, by H. Powers on Flickr.com.
Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial, by H. Powers on Flickr.com.

It’s hard to have mercy for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

It was Jesus who said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” And he certainly demonstrates that mercy on the cross as he forgives the people nailing him to it. But as a follower of Christ, mercy seems like an audacious thing to ask of us.

His guilt is clear. He posted offensive, arrogant messages all over the Internet. He carved a manifesto of revenge into the boat where he hid as police captured him. He flipped a bird at the camera in his jail cell.

The evil he is responsible for is horrific. More than 250 people injured. Seventeen people lost their limbs. Four people died — one of them 8 years old.

It’s no surprise that a jury found him guilty, and still no surprise that they sentenced him to death.

What’s remarkable is the lack of enthusiasm that accompanied Tsarnaev’s death sentence. One person after another had mercy on their lips – from victims of the Boston bombing to the legendary Sr. Helen Prejean who met with Dzhokhar and spoke of his heartfelt remorse.

No one diminished the trail of death he left in Boston, but not many seemed to think his death was the answer. Death was the crime, not the solution. It comes at a time when support for the death penalty is waning. In 2014, support for the death sentence hit a 40-year low, and most executions performed were in only three states. 2015 is set to break a record, with only a few executions scheduled in the rest of the year.

Massachusetts abolished the death penalty more than 30 years ago and is one of the 18 abolitionist states — so a federal jury’s death sentence for a crime in Boston isn’t exactly given a warm reception. A recent Boston Globe poll showed 85 percent of Boston residents are against the execution for Tsarnaev.

But it isn’t just the progressive mecca of New England. All over the country, enthusiasm for the death penalty is hitting a record low.

On the same day as the Tsarnaev death sentence was announced, Nebraska legislators voted 30-16 to repeal the death penalty. It would be the first state where conservatives have led the way to abolition. The Tsarvaev death sentence seemed to go against the current of anti-death sentiment sweeping our country.

Perhaps we have what ethicist David Gushee has called “death fatigue.”

Could it be that we are growing tired of death?

Even the families of the Boston bombing victims shared their opposition to the death sentence … evidence of the hundreds of murder victims’ family members who believe that there are better forms of justice than execution, but rarely make headlines.

The family of 8-year-old Martin Richards released a 500-word statement detailing their opposition.

And these are the words of Jennifer Lemmerman, the sister of slain MIT police officer Sean Collier:

"Whenever someone speaks out against the death penalty, they are challenged to imagine how they would feel if someone they love were killed. I’ve been given that horrible perspective and I can say that my position has only strengthened … I also can’t imagine that killing in response to killing would ever bring me peace or justice … I choose to remember Sean for the light that he brought. No more darkness."

Jessica Knesky and Patrick Downes, a newlywed couple who each lost limbs in the attack, also asked prosecutors to take the death penalty off the table: “In our darkest moments and deepest sadness, we think of inflicting the same types of harm on him,” they confessed. But then they went on, “However, we must overcome the impulse for vengeance.”

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that the victims of violence don’t want to see another person killed — even justifiably. After all, violence is the disease not the cure.

It is not unusual after traumatic events for the survivors of horror to insist that death is the problem, not the solution.

It happened after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. When apartheid fell, the death penalty fell with it. The newly established government abolished the death penalty, recognizing execution was a relic of the old regime and had no place in the new world. It happened after the Holocaust, where a death-weary Europe abolished execution across the board. The state of Israel had a fatigue and suspicion of state-killing that led it to be an abolitionist country. Rwanda, after the genocide, declared in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that there are better forms of justice than execution, insisting that when we kill those who kill we exacerbate the wounds and continue to glorify death.

And it happened this past week in Boston as the families of the murdered declared their opposition to the death penalty.

One of the people who traveled to Boston this week to stand against death is a man who is has become a champion of mercy — Bud Welch. Bud lost his 23-year-old daughter in the Oklahoma City bombing that claimed the lives of 168 people 20 years ago.

Initially, Bud felt what any father would feel – outrage. “I wanted Timothy McVeigh to fry,” Bud said. “I’d have killed him myself if I’d had the chance.”

But then he began to think of Julie and how she said: “Execution teaches hatred.” Eventually, Bud’s heart began to change. He recognized that it was vengeance and hatred that drove McVeigh to kill. In Bud’s words: “It was hatred and revenge that made me want to see him dead and those two things were the very reason that Julie and 167 others were dead.”

He began to steer his anger and grief in a new direction. Before long he became a friend to Bill McVeigh, Timothy’s dad, in whose eyes he recognized a familiar agony of a father losing his child. He realized the pain of the McVeigh family was even more excruciating than his own. At least Bud could delight in all the good his daughter Julie did in the world, but Timothy McVeigh would be remembered as a monster by many, and the McVeigh family would carry the weight of that shame. Bud Welch and Bill McVeigh became unlikely partners as they grieved together and walked through the valley of death.

As Timothy McVeigh was strapped to the gurney for his execution, Bud Welch was one of the loudest voices of protest. Welch points out that after the bombing, a poll taken in Oklahoma City showed that 85 percent of the survivors wanted the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh. But several years later the figure dropped to nearly half, and now many of those who supported the execution have come to believe it was a mistake.

It is understandable that immediately after an incident like the bombing in Oklahoma City or Boston, execution can feel like the most adequate response. But it also makes sense that yet another death does not ever bring true healing. The cure is as bad as the disease.

Timothy McVeigh is one of only three people executed by the federal government in the past 50 years. He was killed in 2001 as Bud Welch protested in the streets.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may be the fourth person killed by the federal government in spite of the death fatigue sweeping our country. And it seems very likely that if the federal government kills Tsarnaev in the name of the victims, some of those victims will be protesting outside the execution just as Bud Welch did. Of course, mercy doesn’t mean evil goes without consequence, and no reasonable person is saying Tsarnaev should be expunged and set free. But we should insist that mercy means not taking a life.

As for myself, I am a Christian trying to follow the one who said: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy.” The heroic courage of murder victims’ families against execution inspires me. And deep down, I know that one of the core truths at the heart of my faith is the belief that death has lost its sting. That’s a line penned by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:55). Paul himself was a former religious extremist, a cold-blooded killer who had such a radical conversion that he changed his name from Saul to Paul and went on to write half the New Testament. So I know that murderers can be transformed.

But I admit — I find it hard to find mercy in my heart for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I guess that is why we need God’s help. And I guess that is why it is called “faith.” God is daring us to believe in the miracle of grace. God is calling us to believe that every person is made in the divine image — even Timothy McVeigh and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Shane Claiborne is an author, speaker, and activist. He is the founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia. His new book Executing Grace comes out in 2016. You can find out more on: www.redletterchristians.org. And you can follow Shane on Twitter and Facebook @ShaneClaiborne . A version of this article was originally composed and posted at ON Scripture.

Image: Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial, by H. Powers on Flickr.com.

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