Under Penalty of Death: Kent’s Perspective

Joe, the career police officer and my co-blogger puts it this way:

“There are some people in the world we cannot fix. Dylan Roof is just one more example of damaged goods. But I wonder if we do more damage to ourselves by killing him than we realize.

History is replete with examples of efforts to solve problems by killing our way to the solution. I wonder if, millennia from now, scholars will look at our time of embracing the death penalty as our well-intentioned, yet equally evil, version of a final solution.”

As a society how do we respond to evil that can barely be grasped. Dylan Roof a white young man is welcomed into the historic African-American church, called ‘Mother Emmanuel’.

For an hour he is welcomed as family. He listens as the Bible study explores God’s Word. He receives their prayers.

Then he calmly takes out his Glock 45 semiautomatic handgun and murders nine people.

Why? Because he hates black people. Why? For reasons that defy understanding.

How do we respond? Many, but not all, of the family members who lost loved ones that day asked the judge not to put him to death. Some even offered forgiveness.

Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance offered this:

“I forgive you,” Collier said, her voice breaking. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

What are we to make of such words? We live in a society governed by the old teaching ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But Nadine Collier and many others at Mother Emmanuel are guided by a different teaching. Jesus when asked, ‘how often are we to forgive?’ He responded ’70 x 7′ in essence, we are never to stop forgiving.

Why? Jesus understood that bitterness is a form of imprisonment that constrains the person who has been wronged. He wants us to be free.

This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences. One can forgive and still believe that Dylan Roof should be held accountable. Many who lost a loved one that day, believe that Dylan Roof must be sent to prison. But not put to death.

The Death Penalty is about retribution.

I think many of us can relate to this desire for retribution, revenge. If you hurt someone close to me, I know I have the capacity to want revenge.

Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham in her January 11th article wrote:

“Initially the savagery of Roof’s crimes did nothing to change my anti-death penalty stance. That was until I read Roof’s journal, his racist manifesto and his lack of remorse. A jury in South Carolina has decided the fate of a young murderer who feels no remorse. Now that he has been sentenced to death, neither do I.”

I understand Ms Graham’s thinking. If my family member had died that day I might very well feel the same way.

Yet, Dr.Martin Luther King understood that ‘hate begets hate’. The only way to break the seemingly endless pattern of hate is through forgiveness.

We can’t do this on our own. It is God’s Spirit that can empower a person to do what is so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive, so seemingly impossible. To forgive.

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About Kent Harrop

I am bi-coastal...I was raised in New England (Rhode Island) and for twenty years 1994 - 2014 served as pastor of First Baptist Church McMinnville, Oregon. In May 2014 I moved with my wife Tricia back to New England and serve on a team of ministers at the First Baptist Church in Beverly, Massachusetts. I love the beauty and geographic breadth of Oregon and the north shore of Massachusetts. A growing edge for me is the integration of the contemplative and prophetic life. Tricia and I enjoy gardening, camping and kayaking on rivers and ocean. We have two grown daughters who are strong, smart and adventurous. The purpose of the blog is to explore the relationship between faith and the wider culture. The views expressed here are my own.
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