When I was in high school I was on the debate team. I distinctly remember the season when the topic was capital punishment and I was placed on the pro side of the debate. At this point in my life, I was very much in favor of the death penalty, so this was perfect. I defended and justified executions for a myriad of reasons, from touting it as an immediate solution to prison overcrowding to bringing out the predictable the “eye for an eye” defense. I am obviously no longer in that place and I look back on that young man and wonder how I could have thought these things. I also marvel at the restraint my left-leaning Democratic mother exhibited in letting me work through the social, cultural, and theological implications of my beliefs.
With the execution of Kelly Gissendaner in the state of Georgia this week, there have been many think pieces reflecting on the nature of the death penalty, race, class, etc. I commend two to you: Anyone Feeling Closure After the Death of #KellyGissendaner? from Rhetoric, Race, & Religion and Think Progress’ Kelly Gissendaner: The First Woman Executed By The State Of Georgia In 70 Years by Carimah Townes and Aviva Shen. You should also check out the main hashtags used to protest her execution, #KellyOnMyMind.
There is much to think about when it comes to the death penalty and what many of us feel is state-sanctioned murder, but what frustrates and angers me the most is how the families are once again brought into the pain, grief, and sadness that accompanies murder and the violent loss of a loved one.
As many of you know, years ago my wife’s brother, Brian, was murdered at his place of work. When his killer was being prosecuted, we knew that Brian would not have wanted his killer put to death — and neither did we. I understand that not every family who is in the position of being “the family of the murder the victim” holds the same opinion, but whenever you hear those who support the death penalty using the argument, “If you had a loved one murdered, you would want them put to death too” please know that our response is just as valid as theirs. We are that family who has lost a loved one and we do not believe that the death penalty is right, just, or humane. Did the killer of Brian extend the same compassion, justice, or humanity, no. Are there times when rage and sadness manifest themselves into wanting revenge, certainly. But we also know that responding to evil with evil, hate with hate, and murder with murder pays no honor to the person that Brian was or to the world that he hoped we would become.
So for the very reason that so many scream. “Death! Justice! Vengeance!” in honor of the person who has been lost, even in the midst of our own rage, sadness, and our own yearning for retribution, we plead, “Life! Compassion! Dignity!” in honor of the person we lost. There are no winners in the aftermath of murder and this is not about whose experience is more valid than another, but we do have the choice as a society if we will add death upon death. In memory of Brian and too many others killed, I hope and pray that soon, we will choose to respond to death with life. If for no other reason, and for as hard as it is sometimes to embrace, this is what Brian would have wanted.
This post also appears on The Huffington Post.