Advent Meditation on the Death Penalty

Adventus…coming, approach….ad+venire in Latin = to come to…

I am aware of Advent as both a season of expectation and a season of renewal of my commitments to the Gospel.  The Church teaches that Advent has two meanings: the coming of the birth of Jesus 2000 years ago and the coming of Christ the King at the end of time when all creation will be reconciled to God.  So for the Church and for me as an individual, Advent is the season when the ethics of God’s kingdom are in full liturgical display. In this season, I am conscious of my responsibility to love God with my whole heart and my neighbors as myself.  Crying in my/our wilderness is the voice of the oppressed, of the poor, of those who are not normally invited to our community table.  In Advent, we anticipate the reign of the “anointed one,” the Messiah who will bring peace, justice and righteousness to the world.

So Advent is not so much a time for reflection on my personal sin as it is a season for taking on my responsibility to bring God’s justice and reconciliation to the world.  In the readings for Gaudate  (Rejoicing) Sunday (the Third Sunday of Advent), I am inspired by what I hear from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

And the prophet’s words are also meant to be my/our words.  Yes, God has anointed each of us, and sent each of us “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted….”

So what does this exhortation have to do with the death penalty?  The prayers of Advent are prayers of commitment to God’s justice and mercy, that we will participate in the work of the Kingdom (Mt. 25 and the Beatitudes).

Pope Francis has spoken out about the death penalty on at least two occasions.  In June, 2013, in a message to participants of the fifth World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Madrid, Francis reiterated his predecessors’ (Pope John-Paul II and Benedict XVI) pleas for abolition of the death penalty world-wide. In his written statement, Francis said that opposition to the death penalty is part of the church’s defense of the dignity of human life, “a courageous affirmation that humanity can successfully confront criminality” without resorting to the suppression of life.1   The Catholic Church’s traditional teaching on the death penalty, cited by Francis in his talk, “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”  However, with advances in the protection of society from dangerous criminals, we can now see that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”2

Taking this idea even further, on October 23, 2014 in an address to representatives of the International Association of Penal Law, Francis denounced what he called “penal populism” that purports to solve society’s problems by punishing crime instead of pursuing social justice. “It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples’ lives from an unjust aggressor,” the Pope said, adding that Christians and all people of good will have an obligation “to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty. And this I connect with life imprisonment,” he said. “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”3   He also noted that the Vatican had recently eliminated life imprisonment from its own penal code.

I think that Pope Francis can be seen as placing the death penalty in the universal context of our obligation to the poor and the oppressed.  Shortly after his election to the Papacy, he spoke about his reasons for choosing Francis (of Assisi) as his name.  The 12th-century saint “is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation…How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor.”4

And who among us could be considered poorer than the prisoners on death row in the 32 states (including Georgia) that still practice capital punishment?   Reports from the Death Penalty Information Center show that inadequate legal representation is the most important factor in determining which defendants receive the death penalty. “Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys. In many cases, the [court] appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid or lacking the trial experience required for death penalty cases.”  In 2001, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg commented, “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty…I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.”5

Moreover, death-row inmates live in conditions of poverty and deprivation.  I have heard from many prisoners awaiting execution at the GCDP in Jackson, Georgia about the lack of nourishing food there and the very limited opportunity for exercise outside their cells.  According to these prisoners, truly effective medical care is very limited and reading material severely restricted.  Life “on the inside” can also be dangerous, even life-threatening.  One prisoner spoke about a grudge two other prisoners had against him.  For days, he expected to be attacked by them. So when he showered, he took a shoe with him.  Sure enough, one day the two others attacked him in the shower, and he was able to drive them away with his shoe.  However, later that day, “for the part he played in the fight” he was sent to solitary confinement and remained there for some months. In total isolation, he experienced a new form of loneliness and deprivation, finding it difficult to eat, to sleep, even to think clearly.

By praying over the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, we might liberate ourselves from the cynical belief that justice, mercy, compassion, goodness, openness to love and understanding are not possible in our world.  Isaiah sees the world’s ugly situations through the lens of joy.  “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul, for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice…” Again, the “I” of this passage is not only the Prophet and the Messiah, but also “I” the individual (myself and yourself) and we, the people of God.  God will lead me/us to salvation because he “has anointed me.”   Salvation will come from the work I/we do: “he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.”

Surely, death-row prisoners are among the “poor” to whom we are meant to bring “glad tidings” and the “brokenhearted” whom we are meant to heal.  In writing to them and receiving their letters, in visiting them, we see the face of Jesus in the poor.  In working toward abolition of the death penalty here in Georgia, we proclaim that God’s justice and mercy are for all of our brothers and sisters, especially for the least among us.

If we are truly to be “a church that is poor and for the poor,” then standing with the poor on death row will “announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God.”

Come, O Come, Emmanuel; and ransom captive Israel.

1National Catholic Register, June 19. 2013
2Catechism of the Catholic Church.
3Francis X. Rocca, Catholic News Service, Oct 23, 2014
4Joshua J. McElwee, National Catholic Reporter; March 16, 2013
5DPIC Report: “With Justice for Few: The Growing Crisis in Death Penalty Representation (1995)

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