Faith and the Executioner

IN THE FOREWORD to Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty, Sister Helen Prejean writes, “Welcome to the pages of this amazing book.” Her hospitable remark is not an exaggeration. I have written articles, taught classes, and spoken to church groups about capital punishment; in my judgment this book is the most accessible resource now available for engaging, informing, and perhaps even transforming how readers view the death penalty.

Where Justice and Mercy Meet was edited by death penalty activist Vicki Schieber, philosopher Trudy D. Conway, and theologian David Matzko McCarthy. The book is the product of two years of interdisciplinary courses, discussions, projects, and research—in sociology, political science, philosophy, economics, theater, ethics, and theology—at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. While the book has a Catholic focus, it should be useful to Christians of all stripes and others interested in addressing this issue.

The volume is divided into four parts. Through skillful section and chapter introductions and segues, the editors have done a fine job of creating an integrated whole. Relevant questions for discussion and action tips make the book perfect for study groups in churches and for the university classroom.

Part I, “The Death Penalty Today,” exposes the realities of the dominant current method of execution (lethal injection), surveys the history of the death penalty debate in the U.S., and suggests the significance of reading or hearing the stories of those affected by murder and capital punishment. Kurt Blaugher’s chapter, “Stirring Hearts and Minds,” meditates on the role of drama in allowing these stories to capture and broaden our imagination, to stimulate reflection, and to compel us to take action for social change. Indeed, stories—from real life as well as from film and literature—surface throughout the volume, with the most moving and memorable ones being the experiences and voices of those whose loved ones were murdered.

Part II, “A Christian Rethinking of the Death Penalty,” is more explicitly theological, giving attention to the Eucharist, forgiveness, and healing; to Jesus, scapegoating, and sacrifice; and to the Bible and the death penalty. Mary Katherine Birge, SSJ, begins with Jesus’ teaching on an “eye for an eye” and surveys other passages from the gospels in order to ask, “I mean ... Do you REALLY think Jesus would be pro-death penalty?” (emphasis hers). The other two chapters nicely tackle the issue in ways not commonly found in Christian treatments of the death penalty: Liturgical scholar Rodica Stoicoiu explores how the liturgy of the Eucharist, including the Lord’s Prayer, should frame how we think about this issue, and moral theologian David Cloutier examines how the work of literary theorist René Girard on sacrifice, scapegoating, and sacred violence can assist us in seeing that “Jesus’ execution saves us as it exposes the scapegoat mechanism in its boldest form” and thereby “unmasks the sinfulness of all institutionalized violent sacrifices.”

Part III concentrates on Catholic Church teachings on capital punishment. Part IV, “The Least of These,” examines the injustices of the death penalty in connection with people who are poor, not white, or have mental impairments and disabilities. In the final chapter, theologian James Donohue, CR, gets to “the heart of the matter: the challenge of following Jesus and living out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.” Ultimately, it boils down to conversion to embodying and practicing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, and this involves a change of our minds and hearts about capital punishment, by “the grace of God in his Son and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The many stories throughout this excellent book bear witness to this possibility. I hope that Where Justice and Mercy Meet meets a wide and receptive audience. 

Tobias Winright is associate professor of theological ethics at Saint Louis University and a former correctional and reserve police officer.

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