Resisting the Death Spiral

Resisting the Death Spiral: Capital punishment is about vengeance, not justice.

I was sitting with a group of men in prison, in a seminar I had been leading for some weeks. Most were serving life sentences and had been in for many years. One young man, however, expected to be released soon.

We got to talking about justice. "When we were outside," the older men said, "if someone dissed us, wronged us, we had to fight but we didn't have to win. Otherwise, we wouldn't be a man."

"You're out of touch," said the younger man. "If someone disses me, I have to waste them—I have to kill them." His classmates—all of whom had been convicted of taking a life—were appalled.

The death penalty fuels the very phenomenon it claims to suppress. Taking a life—whether on the streets or in the courtroom—is driven by the same motive: to do "justice." Both are part of the same cycle of violence. This cycle of violence is what Jesus was trying to break when he preached against vengeance, even when someone is clearly wronged, as Jesus was when put to death. This is not just mushy idealism or preachy Christianity. Actually, the lesson Jesus taught is supported by current experience.

Researchers have been unable to find a credible correlation between the death penalty and reduced homicide rates; in Canada, for example, homicide rates were lower after the death penalty was abolished. Some commentators and researchers have noted a tendency for murders to actually increase in a particular locale after an execution occurs there.

Why? Perhaps it is linked to an observation made by Dr. James Gilligan, chief psychiatrist for the Massachusetts prison system for more than a decade: "All violence is an effort to do justice, or to undo injustice." In my experience, Gilligan's observation rings true—whether it is ordinary street crime or terrorism. Violence reflects a tit-for-tat worldview, with people giving to other people what they "deserve."

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Sojourners Magazine April 2007
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