By Thomas Schmidt
In early February six people from the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and several other statewide organizations went to Olympia to participate in a lobbying day with the state legislators. We were taking with us messages and information from many who opposed the laws mandating the state legal system to seek the death penalty for those convicted on the heinous crime of murder. Although we all came from many faith backgrounds, including atheism and secular humanism, we all were morally against killing of any one, or, in other words, we were all pro-life. In our differing ways we were followers of nonviolence, and believed that the state also should be so. This was the first finding.
The second finding was that we didn’t have to present to anyone the moral reasons for our journey. That would have been seen as condescending by those who supported continuing the death sentence in Washington, a definite put down. In fact several representatives specifically told us they were not interested in hearing that from us. And we specifically stated that, since we all valued life and the brother and sisterhood of all humans, we would not make that argument. We were there to present the data, some of which was only a couple of months old, to fellow honorable people. The second finding.
The third finding was that we could frame the data as suggesting a policy which we could easily easily framewhen presenting it to secular politicians, in terms of the majoritarian secular religion of American Transcendentalism. We did not need concepts of God, or salvation from sin, but could rely on the stories that stemmed from the belief in the equality and dignity of the individual, and our mutual connection in the obligation to serve the common welfare, no matter whether we were law abiding or murders. The third finding.
The fourth finding is not, and never will, be as solidly based on evidence like the other arguments. Often after all the evidence which shows the death penalty as being bad policy has been presented and even accepted, we are faced with the claim that an innocent victim has been murdered, and that is devastating to those who loved him or her. Therefore we need to punish the murderer equally by taking his or her life. Retribution is a powerful and common motive. We hear over and over that the family of the victim needs closure, which can be achieved only by killing the killer. We have whole nations and large groups in most religions believing in the absolute value of retribution in order to achieve a sense that justice has been done. However many family members of the victim have joined us in lobbying against the death penalty with their stories. They vividly told how the execution of the murderer gave them no sense of closure, a sense that now things are returned to a balanced state of justice. In fact, some told how it had gotten worse for them: guilt for wanting and having someone also killed, continuing anger and despair with no live object to whom they could direct their these feelings. They felt more pain every time the murderer received the publicity brought by the appeals, which had to be made to insure justice had been served by the trial. And many felt bad because it prevented the murderer to freely come to her or his own sense of having done something heinous, from learning the value of life which they had violated. The killing prevented any chance of growth on the part of any of the parties involved. In a new development many family members therefore came with us to ask that the legislators adopt a policy that would allow that growth to happen. Retribution is no longer a convincing argument. The fourth finding.
We drove to Olympia having the security of knowing the latest evidence that was clearing up the last arguments over the death penalty. The scientific evidence, admitted by advocates of repeal of the penalty in favor of safe and just alternatives, was already known. No argument there. To stop killings by killing simply is not effective. The new scientific evidence, gathered in some of the best statically analyzed data I’ve ever seen by Seattle University graduate departments, is that the death penalty is not only unproductive, it is more costly that life in prison without parole, data released a month ago. In fact, conservatively estimated, it costs more than $1,000,000 more to kill a prisoner than it does to incarcerate them for the rest of their lives. Although paying for room and board for life is more expensive in the latter case, to kill them with a minimal process of appeals to insure justice, is much more expense than the half a million more it costs to feed and house them. Furthermore, the prosecuting county foots the bill, and the whole process is so expensive none of the counties can afford to seek the death penalty except Kings county. So, you’d better control your rage until your target steps over the county line… hardly a system conducive to just and moral life.
I’d just finished reading Alvin Reines’ book, “Polydoxy,” in which he has a thorough analysis of the many forms of Christianity and other religions, using the different and often conflicting religions known by the title “Jewish”, and by extension Islam and Far Eastern religions. He concentrates on the pre and post religious responses to the Enlightenment in which now many participants in the major forms are close to rejecting the orthodox forms in favor of polydox forms, which include most of the atheistic and non-metaphysical forms, such as non-theistic Christianity. In these latter polydox forms the individual does not rely upon an absolute authority for their polity or their proof, each person attending to her or his moral experience and respecting other’s opinions as probably as valid for the other as their own. As a Disciple of Christ and personally a follower of the Jesus of the sermon of the mount, I saw the similarity of the ecumenicity of our founders as extended to not just other Christians but to anyone who took a humanistic path toward values. Reiner sees religion as serving the purpose of meliorating the conflict between our desire for infinite immortality and truth and the reality of our limits and ultimate finitude. He calls the resolution of this conflict “Soteria”, a term picked up by John Caputo and others who are questioning the need for the orthodox views of divinity in order to maintain a religious stance toward our values. Very simply, an authoritarian, everlasting, and unchanging God for many requires us to believe in an unchanging ethics based on God’s law, or at least unchangeable until God arbitrarily decides to change it, as the Old Testament shows him doing. Thus retribution, eye for eye justice, becomes the basis for our justice systems treatment of heinous crimes, and we get into the conflict between valuing life and forgiving others and valuing what we hold to be “God’s dictates.”
It is my belief that values based on authoritarian dictates, what some personage or being declared, is rather child-like in ethical development, and does not rise up to the adult developmental level of Jesus’ values as shown by his going beyond the law to find the loving and socially productive good, which shines out from our hearts. That is of course the Soteria of polydox religious based morality, a morality based on love and empathy, not on authoritarian demand or reactive resentment.
So, I felt good about not making a moral appeal to support our drive to repeal the death penalty. We all knew that retribution is not a high value, if it is a value at all. What far reaching considerations from a simple request for a just public policy. It’s about time; let’s think about it.