Sunday, September 25, 2011

Death Penalty and the Dignity of Life

The execution (murder) of Troy Davis this week threw the issue of Capital Punishment back in the limelight. The deep and continuing tragedy of this policy continues to mar too many US States not to mention many countries around the world.

There is no shortage of reasons to oppose the death penalty. For one thing, it costs four times as much to execute a murderer as to house him or her for life. For another, judges and juries make mistakes (this week alone a Florida man was released after thirty years in prison for a crime DNA evidence has just proven he didn’t commit).

Its historical application has more than smacked of racism, not to mention political grandstanding. And, once convicted, a death row inmate must actually prove his or her innocence, a fact that sent Troy Davis to the executioner’s table even though 7 of the 9 witnesses to the murder recanted their original statements and no physical evidence ever linked him to the crime. Doubt was not enough.

Finally, it wreaks emotional and mental havoc on guards, executioners and families of the executed – all innocent victims. Any time we tell someone (guard, soldier, doctor) that they are not responsible for their actions, that they need not exercise their conscience, that others (judges, juries, officers) are the ones responsible for the call, we stray into dangerous territory. Like it or not we are each responsible before God for our actions. We were given the freedom to exercise conscience. We cannot pass it on to others and simply argue that we were following orders.

But the overarching reason that the death penalty is wrong is simple. It comes down to four words: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Of all the commandments this is probably the most straightforward – so much simpler than trying to figure out what it means to honor your mother and father, or what exactly constitutes a lie. Don’t kill. Don’t ever kill.

The dignity of life lies at the forefront of Christian faith. It is the reason that Jesus does not fight back from the cross. It is the reason that he allowed himself to be killed, innocent victim of capital punishment, in a self-emptying act that should have ended the death penalty once and for all. Two thousand years ago the Roman soldiers got it wrong. Has anything changed?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Seeking the Real and the True

What is real?

Many years ago I landed in Montreal after a two year stint in rural Malawi as a volunteer teacher. My first thought as my family drove me away from the airport through the winding cement highways of the city was, ‘This can’t last.’

I had spent my two years in a rural location, in a country which at the time had no traffic lights, no billboards, no television, little variety in food, and whose one main highway was still not entirely paved. After the fields and forests of Malawi, Montreal’s flashing lights, towering buildings and congested highways appeared not civilized, but rather like the bedroom of a spoiled infant so choked with toys and things that no one can find the floor.

So I come back to the question: ‘What is real?’

Quite often people who don’t believe in a higher power (God) will tell me their disbelief is based on the fact that they have no proof of such a divinity’s existence. There is nothing they can touch, nothing they can hold, nothing they can point to that would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that God exists.

The trouble is that they’re looking for things. But physical things are only real in the immediate sense of today. Wealth and possessions are tenuous and temporary. They cannot lead us to truth, wisdom, faith or love. And they won’t last.

Reality is found beyond the tangible. It lies beyond human touch and human eyesight. In order to understand what is truly real we must look with the heart.

We find what’s real in human relationship, in friendship and community, in compassion and fellowship. There too, we find God. In hospitality and love, we find the deep Spirit of faith. The word ‘companion’ comes from the Latin root ‘com pane’, or ‘with bread’, because if we live our companionship with each other, then our things, even our food, become no more than tools for sharing. The fellowship of a meal leads us to the fellowship of God. This is what Jesus pointed to when he said ‘Where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there with you ’ (Matt 18:20; CEV).

It’s an interesting fact that people who live in the impoverished countries of the south, bereft of the physical trappings of our society, often find it easier to find faith. In the slums of South America or Africa people flock to churches, mosques and other houses of worship perhaps because, although they may have little else, they have the one thing that is real. They have God.