Krista's Journal: A Renewed Sense for Caution and Compassion

April 14, 2005

Even secular opinion polls use the phrase "an eye for an eye" when they ask Americans about the death penalty. For this week's show, we invited a rabbi — who used to be a criminal lawyer — to talk about the original meaning of this phrase in the Hebrew Bible. I found his explanation revelatory. In our time we hear "an eye for an eye" as a cry for retribution; but the intention of this decree, in historical context, was to limit revenge. In the ancient world, as in much of human history, there were no prisons and no civil system of justice as know it. It was up to family members to avenge crimes against their loved ones, often creating an escalating spiral of violence. The Jewish legal commandment was a call to equity, to fairness — as in "You may not slaughter the entire family of the person who did this to you. You may only take an eye for an eye."

Like many Jews and Christians, Rabbi Spitz insists that the Hebrew Bible does give civil authorities the right, even the mandate, to impose capital punishment. The life of a human being, created in the image of God, is of infinite value, and the taking of the life is a grave offense. But when he looks at rabbinic wisdom on this subject, he also finds an unequivocal early caution — that in order to be moral, capital punishment must be meticulously administered.

Yet the death penalty is only considered in the face of horrific crime and appalling human suffering. And for the people involved in those events, moral arguments can sound meaningless, even callous. With Debbie Morris in this week's program, we enter that domain of human tragedy. When she was 16 years old, a man named Robert Lee Willie abducted her and her boyfriend, raping her over a period of two days and shooting and torturing him. She later led police to the remote area where he had buried the body of another young woman — a crime for which he was convicted and sent to death row at Angola Prison in Louisiana. There, Sister Helen Prejean became his spiritual advisor. She told his story compassionately in her celebrated book Dead Man Walking.

At first, Debbie Morris and her family were furious with Sr. Helen and strongly in favor of the execution of Willie. In our conversation, she traces her path out of rage. In the first instance, her story illuminates that original human impulse behind the death penalty, the natural desire of victims and their families to seek survival, closure, and justice. Debbie Morris eventually wrote a book called Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. But she did not rush to forgiveness. She offers a glimpse inside the architecture of forgiveness that is as powerful as any I have heard in any context. You come to forgiveness, she says, for yourself, not for the other person. It is long, slow, and exacting work of a lifetime.

Finally, I spoke with Sr. Helen Prejean herself. Through the movie version of her story — starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn — she became the world's best-known crusader against the death penalty. We hear her as a commanding, vibrant voice — and the only voice in this hour with no qualification of her position whatsoever. Anger, she agrees with my other guests, is a moral response — but it is a first response, not the one on which we can base public policies. I pressed her on the fact that American law can also not be based on religious principles. She makes the striking point that on the issue of capital punishment, modern religious ideas have evolved in accordance with the secular insights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Article Three," she quotes, "every human being has a right to life. Article Five, no human being shall be subjected to degrading punishment or torture. That our law can begin to embody, and that's what we must work for."

Sr. Helen's book, Dead Man Walking, is an extended theological reflection on the criminal justice system. With research to back up her claims, she concludes that the death penalty only becomes possible when we dehumanize a person convicted of a crime. Poor defendants and defendants of color are more often sent to death row, she argues, because they can not afford effective lawyers — lawyers who make a minimal effort to present them to juries as human beings with families, with lives and loves beyond the crime they've committed. Such emotional evidence persuades juries to order life sentences rather than death.

There are lessons in the perspectives of this hour for responses to collective crimes and grievances as well as private tragedies. They leave me with a renewed sense that caution and compassion are called for, alongside argument and legal combat, when our public policies engage the enormous mysteries of good and evil, life, and death.

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Voices on the Radio

Debbie Morris

is author of Forgiving the Dead Man Walking.

is a lecturer, community activist, and author of Dead Man Walking.

is author, teacher of Jewish Law at the University of Judaism, and rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel.