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Revisiting the Death Penalty

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, March 5, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander

 

"Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight."
This morning I want to struggle - in a very public and personal way - with what for me (and I know for more than a few of you also) is a vexing moral and ethical issue...the death penalty. The question I want to grapple with today is simply this: as a social policy in these United States (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) is the death penalty morally right...or wrong? In the 24 years since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court (which in its 1976 decision declared that imposing death for capital crimes was not necessarily "cruel and unusual" punishment and could therefore be carried out by states which followed certain carefully drawn judicial guidelines) an increasing number of states are ever more rapidly and efficiently putting to death more and more of their citizens convicted of heinous crimes (Virginia, right across the Potomac from here, is, as you all know, diligently and regularly executing criminals). Every poll taken of Americans on this subject show that an overwhelming majority (something like 70% to 80%) support the death penalty as public policy. Yet (in the minds of many Americans, mine included) the question as to whether or not the death penalty should continue is profoundly unsettled. It certainly appears to be an unsettled question here in this congregation. One Sunday back in September (some of you will recall), I asked you all to close your eyes, promise you wouldn't peek, and raise your hands to tell me if you support (or are opposed to) the death penalty...and the vote (as I suspected it would be) was split right down the middle...which means there is no consensus in this religious community about this emotional issue.

Whether a public policy or practice is ethical and right for any society is (of course) often profoundly detached from public opinion or will. One of our responsibilities as a gathered religious community is to struggle (honestly, openly, respectfully and thoughtfully) with the great questions of public policy that affect the quality and value of human life...with the goal of eventually reaching some moral conclusions. One of our responsibilities as an individual Unitarian Universalist is to struggle with the persistent ethical and moral dilemmas of our time, and decide for ourselves how our guiding religious principles instruct us to stand (and speak) as citizens of the republic.

I am hoping that my sermon this morning will serve not (of course) as some sort of a "Moral Magnum Opus" to somehow once-and-for-all settle or solve this vexing moral dilemma...but rather as a CHALLENGING SPRINGBOARD for much more disciplined consideration of and conversation around this important societal issue.

Alright...let me begin my consideration then with the painfully obvious. There are (in our culture at this time - as there are tragically in all cultures in every time) crimes and criminals so heinous, so depraved, so vile, and cruel as to defy all reasonable understanding - and to make any empathy or understanding for the perpetrators almost impossible. Let me pick just one example close to home...Hadden Clark, the unrepentant rapist and murderer who has now (finally) led police to the shallow graves of two local victims (6 year old Michele Dorr, and 23 year old Laura Houghteling) and who is now suspected of having sexually assaulted, murdered, and even possibly cannibalized (for God's sake) at least several other female victims up and down the Eastern Seaboard. How can anyone, with any sense of human decency and moral order, look at a criminal like Mr. Clark (who has repeatedly exhibited such a depraved indifference to the value of human life) and not be filled with rage, disgust and horror? When I hear the details of his vicious crimes, and look at him arrogantly smirking into the camera on the evening news, it is hard for me to imagine how such a man could ever be humanly "rehabilitated" or returned to society. I know precisely why an overwhelming majority of Americans favor the death penalty: they take one look at the likes of Hadden Clark and decide such criminals have forfeited whatever right to life and being they might have once had. I myself (raised as an optimistic Unitarian Universalist) am stunned into spiritual silence when I contemplate the fathomless pain and suffering this man has caused, both to his victims (who were mercilessly violated and slowly tortured) and then to their loved ones (who suffer their senseless loss in their hearts over and over and over again for a lifetime of grief). Tell me if you see it any differently...there are crimes and criminals so morally repugnant it rightly shakes our very faith in that first and foremost principle of our Unitarian Universalist faith: "The inherent worth and dignity of every person."

This, at least, is my honest (and sometimes emotionally overpowering) emotional reaction (as one Unitarian Universalist) to extremely depraved and violent criminals (whose evil seems fathomless and irredeemable). But since its beginning, our denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has clearly and categorically stood against the death penalty, steadily working with other national religious groups devoted to its abolition. Beginning in 1961, at the very first General Assembly of the newly formed UUA when the Unitarian and the Universalists merged, delegates to our annual gathering have overwhelmingly voted FIVE TIMES (in 1961, 66, 74, 79, and most recently again in 89) to call for an end to this ultimate penalty a society can impose. I quote briefly from the 1961 resolution:

"WHEREAS, respect for the value of every human life must be incorporated into our laws if it is to be observed by our people...THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That the Unitarian Universalist Association urges its churches and fellowships in the United States and Canada to exert all reasonable efforts toward the elimination of capital punishment..."
It is clear to me that, for many Unitarian Universalists (including former UUA President Bill Schulz who now leads the national opposition to the death penalty as President of the U.S. Chapter of Amnesty International), our long-standing and sure affirmation of "The inherent worth and dignity of every person," quickly settles the debate about the death penalty. "How," many UU's seem to have concluded, "can we say we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and then in any way support a social policy which mandates that some persons be executed?" I myself, for many years earlier in my ministry, similarly believed this theological aspect of the issue was settled: if everyone has inherent worth and dignity, (I reasoned) how can we allow the taking of anyone's life, no matter how repugnant their behavior or crime? But lately I have been moving at least on this theological aspect of the death penalty issue, and I must tell you that I no longer believe that my affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person (which as a life long Unitarian Universalist I passionately do) PRECLUDES me deciding (theologically at least) that some criminals do (by their wanton disregard of human life) forfeit the protection for life which society offers its citizens.

Let me see if I can make my new thinking clear. I know of no religious tradition which asserts an absolute, universal ban on the taking of human life (which is to say I know of no religious tradition which asserts that the inherent worth and dignity of every person so great that it is always and absolutely wrong to take another life). Most religions believe that both individuals and societies have the carefully prescribed right of ultimate self-protection: which is to say that a person or a nation is justified in taking life if it is in the course of defending one's own existence. If, for example, a crazed criminal breaks into your home and night and begins directly threatening your children, what religious tradition would deny you the right to immediately take that criminal's life in order to preserve the innocent lives of your children? To my knowledge, the laws of every state in the union permit us to defend ourselves and our loved ones by taking the life of an attacker if necessary. Similarly, most religious traditions have some sort of a "just war" theory, which asserts the right of nations (say as, for example, those nations which went to war to stop Hitler's global aggression) to defend their peoples against slaughter and oppression. My point here is that surely there are (for all of us) certain moral and ethical situations when the value of some individual's life (again, a crazed criminal or a soldier waging an aggressive war at the behest of some genocidal despot) must morally be SUBMERGED (abrogated if you will) in defense of the value of other innocent lives. Surely the right to life of every individual is not a moral absolute...it surely isn't at least for this Unitarian Universalist. I am not a pacifist. I believe both individuals and societies have the right to defend themselves (up to and including the taking of others lives) when life and decency of many persons are fundamentally and immediately threatened.

The perspective, then, that has begun to emerge in my moral thinking is that PERHAPS Unitarian Universalists need to begin thinking (in a bit more complex and rigorous fashion) about precisely what it means (as we say we do in the affirmation printed every Sunday in your orders of service), to "Covenant to affirm and promote...the inherent worth and dignity of every person." That affirmation - on the surface of itself - is such a VAGUE, GLITTERING GENERALITY. What does it actually mean (in this complex and vexing world) to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person? HOW does that actually play itself out in real life? What does that look like in the real world -- across the countless human situations, moments, decisions, actions and relationships that will determine the value, worth and dignity of the life we all share? What I am beginning to morally ask myself (when I think in particular about the death penalty in cases like that of Hadden Clark) is this: "Is ALWAYS protecting the life of EVERY individual CATEGORICALLY the way we ultimately best affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person?...or are there times (as in the examples of home invasion; unwarranted international aggression; and even heinous crimes like the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building) when society as a whole must TAKE a life -- must INTENTIONALLY END THE EXISTENCE of particular persons precisely to promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person in that society.

What I am personally moving toward is greater balance in my moral thinking between: 1) the need to steadily and faithfully defend the inherent worth and dignity of every individual (which will - of necessity -- always be a central part of my ethical core as a Unitarian Universalist) and 2) the parallel need to ALSO defend the inherent worth and dignity of individuals in community...TOGETHER, AS BROADER SOCIETAL CONSTRUCTS ALSO IN NEED OF VIGILENT PROTECTION...to also defend and promote the inherent worth and dignity of the whole society if you will. If our faith tradition can be faulted for theological extremism (or moral myopia), it is, I think, precisely here, with our historic tendency to focus almost exclusively on the rights and sanctity of the individual, over and against the (sometimes competing, contrary, and corollary) rights and sanctity of the whole society). We have been, I would assert, too theologically individualistic (singularly and passionately defending the individual, including individual criminals), while at the same time not sufficiently defending the inherent worth and dignity of persons as expressed humanly in society as a whole. Said differently, I believe Unitarian Universalism as a movement (which has been so enthusiastic over the centuries about the value of individuals) has (at various times in its history) failed to properly balance the competing-yet-equally-legitimate moral claims of 1) INDIVIDUALISM on the one hand and 2) COMMUNITARIANISM on the other ...(just as many conservative religions - who, because of their suspicions of the value of individuals have tended to side with society as a whole - have also failed to find appropriate balance.

All of this is my way of confessing (if that's the right word) that I have become theologically persuaded that my longstanding commitment to our UU principle of the inherent worth and dignity of persons does not preclude me from also believing in the moral necessity of sometimes taking the lives of individuals who threaten or show heinous disregard for the sanctity, dignity and worth of others. Boston Globe Columnist Jeff Jacoby, has written about this moral subject in a way I find substantively compelling. In challenging those who believe the lives of murderous criminals like Hadden Clark must be preserved at all costs, he writes,

"The core message [of such death penalty opponents] is that nothing is more precious than human life. Not even justice. Or morality. Or decency. Or the welfare of the community. [The individual's absolute right to life] trumps all. But no civilized society can believe that and stay civilized...We execute murderers [he goes on] in order to make a communal proclamation: that murder is intolerable...a deliberate murderer embodies evil so terrible that it defiles the community...It is [therefore] for the good of society that [heinous murderers] ought to die - that we may declare, to ourselves and to the world, that the crime of stealing a life is worse than any other crime and deserves a penalty worse than any other penalty."
So, my bottom line here (at least for now, as I seriously grapple with this difficult issue) is that I have begun to theologically believe that the Unitarian Universalist moral proclamation of "the inherent worth and dignity of persons" is (in some extreme situations at least) best defended and affirmed by (paradoxically I admit) willfully taking the lives of a few profoundly cruel individuals who show wonton disregard for the worth and dignity of others. I have been moving toward the conviction that the death penalty may be an appropriate and moral social policy if it is used wisely to ensure that society as a whole steadfastly honors, protects, and affirms the worth and dignity of all. The question of whether or not the death penalty actually functions as a practical deterrence to some criminals is largely irrelevant to me. What is relevant to me is wondering whether the imposition of that ultimate punishment sends an unequivocal, life-saving, universal message to every person and community in that society that the wonton disregard of the value of others will not be tolerated by the society as a whole. Theologically, I guess I no longer believe all persons deserve to have their lives categorically protected in every situation...communities and cultures must be able to act to defend the dignity of the whole, if the dignity of any individual - including that of the criminal -- is to be morally defended.

So, I have moved quite a distance theologically on this issue over recent years. I no longer believe our historic UU theological affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person suggests we cannot impose the death penalty to protect our society and proclaim the value of persons. Now, I am absolutely certain there are many in this room right now (possibly a majority) who are passionately not persuaded by my moral reasoning. Please know and trust that I thoroughly respect the moral and theological logic (quite different from my own) which argues that the only way to defend the inherent worth and dignity of every person is to have an absolute prohibition on the taking of life, including by means of the state-imposed death penalty. There is no small weight to the question (as anti-death-penalty the bumper sticker rhetorically asks), "Why do we teach that killing people is wrong by killing people?" But before we start arguing theological fine points out loud here this morning, I need to move on and tell you that as an American religious leader whose theological reasoning has shifted away from the individual and more toward the needs of the whole community, I nonetheless remain politically opposed to the death penalty at this time...opposed for (primarily) two other reasons - two SOCIOLOGICAL reasons which I believe continue to make this practice profoundly immoral and wrong.

The first is the indisputable fact (which has been widely reported in the news of late) that a significant number of people who end up on death row are, in fact, totally innocent of the crimes for which they have been sentenced to the loss of their life. Here are the facts, with which some of you will be familiar. Since 1973, 79 persons have been freed from death row on account of the new technology of DNA testing...(in Illinois alone, where Republican Governor George Ryan recently took the courageous step of declaring a moratorium on all executions) 12 death row inmates have been freed after DNA testing over the last 12 years!) all of them innocent to a scientific certainty. All of these innocent men and women (and 33 more in Illinois whose attorneys were later disbarred or suspended) were convicted and condemned to death by (assumedly) fair-minded American juries -- assumedly on the basis of incorrect eyewitness identification, coerced confessions, withheld evidence, or other flawed dynamics of our judicial system. As Governor Ryan said as he announced his moratorium,

"I now favor a moratorium because I have grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row. [I can no longer support a system that] has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of an innocent life."
As social commentator Richard Cohen recently observed in the Washington Post,
"...it is no longer enough to ask whether a certain prisoner deserves to die. We must also ask whether the system that kills the guilty will also kill someone who is innocent. Once, capital punishment proponents could argue that the system was foolproof. No more. The criminal justice system is flawed, occasionally corrupt, sometimes downright bizarre: O.J. walks. Innocent people...get death sentences."
Given the vagaries of human nature and the abuses and incompetencies of judicial systems, we need far more safeguards and checks and balances in our courts before I will feel comfortable with sentencing convicted felons to death. To my mind, it is a profoundly unacceptable moral tragedy when a judicial system puts an innocent person to death.

The other profound moral concern I have about the death penalty in America today is the profound racial disparity with which it is applied. As author David Cole writes,

"It has long been known that race - particularly the race of the victim - infects the decision of who lives and who dies in our criminal justice system. In the 24 years since the death penalty was reinstated...143 black persons have been executed for killing white victims, while only 11 whites have been put to death for killing a black victim. More than 80% of those on death row are there for killing a white person, even though whites make up only half of the homicide victims. A 1991 study of Florida's death penalty found that persons who kill whites were 3.4 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill blacks."
Without going into too much statistical detail, even when you scientifically control for all nonracial variables in all these cases, Black Americans are 4.3 times more likely to receive the death penalty...which is an utterly astounding and shameful disparity. As I'm sure you all know, America today remains infected with racism - explicit and intentional...unconscious and "innocent." There is no doubt in my mind that the death penalty is unjustly applied with profound regularity, reflecting the racist bias of our troubled culture...and this deep racial bias (and the injustice which inevitably results) is a second moral reason I cannot be persuaded at this time that the American judicial system is capable of applying the death penalty equitably and justly.

I know there are other arguments against the death penalty...that it has never been sociologically or psychologically been proven to be a deterrence to future crime...that it dehumanizes the whole society and teaches that violence is an acceptable way to handle disputes (to name just two)...I personally am not persuaded by either of these arguments, but they surely warrant mention and consideration as we (together) struggle with this issue.

So...when all is said and done, what's my bottom line this morning? I am conflicted and uncertain about the morality of the death penalty. Theologically I have come to be persuaded that individual human beings do not have an absolute right to life, and that when we seek to appropriately balance: 1) the rights and value of individuals with, 2) the rights and value of the community as a whole we may find it morally right (in very specific, carefully drawn situations) to abrogate the criminal individual's "right to life." But sociologically (at least for the time being) I remain politically and morally opposed to the death penalty. The American judicial system has proven utterly unable to apply this ultimate criminal penalty in just and non-racist ways, so (for the foreseeable future at least) I will continue to publicly support moratoriums like that recently imposed in Illinois, until and unless far more judicial safeguards and standards can be put into place.

Now...as I observed earlier...I am certain that many of you sitting listening to my moral reasoning this morning see things far differently...perhaps passionately so. This is not a church - as you all know - where the minister or ministers morally speak for the whole congregation, I speak only for myself as one Unitarian Universalist struggling sincerely with a tough issue. Please remember that - as announced -- there will be an open discussion session today, right after both services with Larry Egbert (a UU and Board member of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty) -- and eventually with me, once I can break free from coffee hour -- with whomever wishes to participate. Please join us if you too are struggling with this moral issue, and want to do some further critical thinking and listening on this complicated subject. Whatever our differences in moral, ethical, and sociological perspective - and they will be wide here as they are in any healthy and honest Unitarian Universalist setting -- we need not fear sincere differences amongst us...for we can listen, struggle and disagree respectfully. And surely, no matter where our differences in perspective take us, we can surely all return - again and again - to one, enduring, universal moral consensus. All our ethical and moral struggles must be first and foremost informed by the our historic UU affirmation of "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." It is our difficult job as Unitarian Universalists to turn this "vague and glittering generality" into a useful, practical moral tool, as we strive to do what is right for humanity in this world. I, for one, do not see this central affirmation of our faith tradition as cookie cutter simple. We all should be eternally suspicious of simple, categorical pronouncements about what "the inherent worth and dignity of every person" actually means...and be morally cautious as we strive to wisely interpret and apply what this might ethically mean in the real grit and grind of everyday human life and conflict (as, for example, the issue I have raised this morning...when we grapple with the often conflicting rights and value of individuals on the one hand and communities on the other). We here in this thoughtful and responsible religious community must not fear the rub, conflict and tension that arises when people with differing moral perspectives come together to "mix it up," and then move - MOVE -- (individually and together) toward greater, deeper, truer understanding. No one ever said that bringing Unitarian Universalist religious community to true and full flowering was an easy or straightforward thing. But somewhere - in all the swirl and messiness of our inevitable struggling and grappling -- lies the way to greater moral depth and clarity (for us as individuals...and for us as a community). This morning, I've told you where I am, as clearly as I know how. Where are you? Where is your mind and heart moving with this tough issue? Let's talk and share and respectfully struggle together. Let's not be afraid of our differences and uncertainties. The moral stakes are too high for anything less.

 

Amen.

 

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