I got a letter recently from the Archbishop asking every priest to talk a little today about the death penalty, so I thought I’d tell you a story about it, and a few words about the Gospel.
I’ve always been against the death penalty, not only because it’s unjust, immoral, unfair, and racist; not only because it’s only for the poor, who can’t afford lawyers, and because it’s too expensive, costing about a million dollars per person on death row; not only because we’re one of the only countries left in the whole world which still electrocutes people, or because it doesn’t work, it’s not a deterrent to violent crime; not only because it’s just plain murder and inconsistent–that we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong, or that it’s just an excuse of corrupt, hypocritical politicians to stir up vengeance and win elections; but most of all, because as a Christian, I have to be against the death penalty. Jesus condemned it and then he became a victim of it. The cross was a form of capital punishment.
I’ve visited many people on death row, and have even been asked by prisoners to be with them at their moment of death, and have counseled many people who lost loved ones in violent acts of murder. But once I was speaking out against a scheduled execution in California, 13 years ago, and I thought we should get someone like Mother Theresa to help us and lo and behold, someone gave me her private phone number in Calcutta. So just before the scheduled execution of Robert Harris, I got the Governor of California to speak on the phone with Mother Theresa. So I called her, and she said, “Hello.” I introduced myself, asked her to speak to the governor, and she agreed, and asked if I could call her back and get a statement from her for the press. So after she spoke to the governor, I called her back and asked, “Mother Theresa, what did you tell Governor Deukmejian?,” thinking she would have yelled at him or told him not to kill people. And she said, “I told him: ‘Do what Jesus would do.’” That’s all she said. I was so impressed. A judge intervened and granted a stay. I spoke with her about 20 other times and corresponded with her about this, and she was a great help, and on several occasions, the courts intervened and granted a stay, and once, granted someone clemency.
Her idea was simple: Jesus would not execute anyone. He said, “Let the one without sin be the first to throw the switch.” He does not want us to execute anyone; he wants us to forgive, even those who hurt or kill us. He became a victim of the death penalty; he stood and died with those on death row and we should too, while also offering compassion and healing to all those who have lost loved ones do to violent crime. I hope all of us will reject the death penalty, pray and work for its abolition and always try to “do what Jesus would do.”
In our Gospel, a rich man confronts Jesus and arrogantly asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” His problem is that he thinks he’s in charge; that he has a right to inherit eternal life, just as he inherited all his land and money, as opposed to receiving eternal life as a gift from God! So Jesus asks him if he has kept the commandments and Jesus lists them, but did you notice the trick? Jesus adds something that is not one of the original commandments: “Do not defraud,” which means, “Do not cheat people; do not take their land; do not deprive others of their rights; do not rob people of their money.” Clearly the rich man would have been defrauding people.
But Jesus doesn’t get mad. He looks at him with love and says, “You lack one thing: go, sell everything you have, give all the money to the poor, and come, follow me.” And the guy walks away sad. He rejects Jesus, which I think must have hurt Jesus very much.
I think Jesus looks at all of us with love, and asks all of us to sell what we have, give the money to the poor, embrace voluntary poverty like Dorothy Day and Mohandas Gandhi, serve one another, share our resources with one another, and follow him. My hope and prayer is simply that we can all do what the rich man was unable to do, that we will always do what Jesus would do, that no matter what, we will never walk away from Jesus again, we will never reject Jesus, we will always follow Jesus, into the world of poverty, to the cross, to nonviolent confrontation with our government’s wars and murderous practices, such as the death penalty, that we too will love our enemies and stand with the condemned and give our lives in love proclaiming the coming of God’s reign of peace and justice.
As we do, we will discover that we are greatly blessed, in the eyes of God, the richest people in the world.