Life and death

I don’t know if the practice of keeping a journal leads to the habit of mulling things over, or if a penchant for mulling things over leads to keeping a journal. Either way, I have a tendency to do both.

For the last few days, a juxtaposition of stories on the front page of Friday’s Rapid City Journal has been occupying my thoughts. Across four columns, with two stunning pictures, was a story about the ordination of the Most Rev. Robert Gruss, Bishop of Rapid City. In the remaining column with a thumbnail photo and a smaller headline was an update on the sentencing trial of Briley Piper.

Had I not been Catholic, I might not have paid much attention to the story about the ordination or noticed the juxtaposition. Being Catholic, I was moved by both. Life and death lay side by side, challenging me to choose.

For me, this was especially true because I was struck by something Bishop Gruss said in his remarks following his ordination, but prior to the final blessing which would end Mass. He quoted Pedro Arrupe, who died in 1991 but had served as superior general of the Jesuits, saying, “What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Arrupe, of course, was speaking of falling in love with God, but I strongly suspect the same is true regardless of whom we love or what we love. We begin to be shaped by that love. I know this has been true for me. The love I have for my children has shaped me. The love I have for my friends has shaped me. The love I have for my faith has shaped me.

And therein lies the crux of this reflection. Although detours through evangelical Christianity and Zen Buddhism have given me tools which have deepened my faith as Catholic, the sacramental life of the Church and her teachings have shaped me – and continue to shape me.

As a result, I have a deep awareness of the dignity of every human being. That’s a theme which runs through the Church’s teachings, and has for a number of years been revealing its implications in all areas of my life. Friday’s paper challenged me to consider again where I stand on the death penalty.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, our all-purpose reference book, states, “the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way to effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (CCC 2267).  However, it goes on to say, “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime. . . the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ (CCC 2267).

What about a case as horrendous as the one under consideration last week?

I put myself in Dottie Poage’s shoes and wonder how she can get through a day – or night – knowing how her son died. Compassion compels me to stand in solidarity with her grief, especially in light of the suffering her son endured during his final hours on earth. She must have imagined his mental anguish and his physical pain dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the past decade, and felt as though she were being eaten alive.

I cannot ignore that suffering, and I cannot imagine how anyone can abandon human decency to treat another with the abominable cruelty Briley Piper, Elijah Page and Darrell Hoadley showed Chester Allan Poage. Considering those factors, only one position would be appropriate, to support Dottie Poage in her desire to see her son’s killer die.

However, I find myself wondering if that will bring healing into her life. And I find myself reflecting upon the times in my life when I have been injured by injustice. On those occasions when I have nurtured a desire for vengeance, the wound festered, grew and consumed me. When I have sought to forgive, even if it took years, the wound healed, sometimes leaving scars, but freeing me nevertheless to move on.

I won’t presume to know what is best for Dottie Poage or challenge the way in which she is channeling her grief. The death of a child is an almost unimaginable burden for a parent to bear, and the circumstances of this one must make it worse.

However, after mulling this over, taking into consideration not only the circumstances of this case but also what the Church teaches regarding the dignity of human life, I do find myself wondering whether South Dakota should even have the death penalty on the books. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And, where does that get us?

Maybe we need to promote a culture of life and healing instead. Maybe it’s time to change the law. It is, I think, an idea at least worth considering.

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