South Dakota Execution Day: May God Have Mercy
Today, at 10:00 p.m., South Dakota will execute a man, and another man within the next couple of weeks.
I am opposed to the death penalty.
In every case, no matter what, I am opposed to the death penalty, and I am on the basis of my religious beliefs.
Today’s case is tragic on so many levels: Eric Robert, at least according to all the biographical information I could find, seemed to have a fairly good family situation when growing up: no record of being abused; determined to do well–and did–academically; had a good and respected job; and volunteered in the community.
Publicly he was a “good man.”
Privately, he raped his girlfriend and beat her.
In South Dakota, his relationships with women did not improve. Another girlfriend accused him of rape, and he ended up in the penitentiary because he abducted and assaulted a woman after pretending to be a police officer.
While in prison, his rage “metastasized,” says this article, and he saw himself as a soldier in a war against the prison system.
And then he did what some soldiers have to do: he killed a prison guard, an enemy soldier to his mind, in his attempt to escape.
He killed this man, RJ Johnson, and told the Judge that he would have killed him too, if he had stood in the way of Robert reaching freedom.
Not only has Eric Robert plead guilty, but he has actually requested that he receive the death penalty. He refused to allow any of his good works to be presented at the trial, believing that only his awful deeds were relevant to deciding his fate.
So in sentencing him, obliging him of his wish to die, Judge Zell said, “May God have mercy on your soul.”
I can’t help but detect some irony here, as if he is saying “Good luck with that, Robert. Burn in hell.”
I might be wrong here, and if I am, I will publicly apologize. But generally, when somebody says to you, “May God have mercy on your soul,” they are not necessarily wishing you well, they are not hoping for the best.
And it is also ironic, because God actually does have a habit of being merciful, precisely to those who don’t deserve it.
In fact, isn’t that the definition of mercy, of grace? Offering forth something that somebody doesn’t deserve? Because if a person deserved it, she or he would be getting something else, like a reward, for example, or celestial bonus points.
But grace, but mercy, that’s different. If you get it, you shouldn’t, but that’s precisely why you are getting it. Because you shouldn’t.
I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases.
I am not, however, opposed to judgment.
Of course people who commit heinous crimes ought to be punished. Opposing the death penalty does not therefore mean endorsing anarchy.
But as a Christian, I’ve got a certain take on things. And so words matter, and are informed by a particular way of thinking about them by way of how I think about God.
There is a strong practice in the Judeo-Christian tradition of something called “restorative justice.” The goal is not merely “judgment,” but rather, exactly as you might expect, restoration. That is, something is not well, and as we are about bringing forth healing, we have a calling to seek reconciliation.
In other words, judgment as punishment is not the end. Judgment is seen as a part of the path to reconciliation.
It is not the end goal or end game.
Restoration, however, is.
And it’s worthy of noting that Jesus didn’t just wait for people to croak before he sought to bring it to them, even the “worst of the worst.”
“Today salvation has come to you,” he said, and in effect on more than one occasion.
To the degree that that bothers a person, that we have a calling to enable restoration to happen, here and now, not just washing our hands of it like Pontius Pilate, one then might be asked about what the goal is, in doling out the death penalty to a convicted criminal.
It seems pretty judgmental to me, in an end-gamey sort of way.
However, when you kill somebody, you not only don’t bring back the life that lived before the crime. You also take away any chance of repentance, of reconciliation, and of offering mercy and grace to the person who committed it.
Why wouldn’t Christians hold out for these possibilities?
All of these are hallmarks of the reign of God.
I am not advocating for release, early or otherwise, nor am I expecting that reconciliation will always come to pass. Some people who rape and kill ought to be away from society for ever and for good.
I am advocating for the possibility of restoration, for healing, the sort that can’t happen entirely when one of the parties is killed and the State is complicit in the killing.
Most mainline Protestant denominations officially oppose the death penalty, not to mention the Roman Catholic tradition. These links here and here are helpful to learn about the significant religious objection to the practice.
To some degree, the specifics of this case don’t matter. It is about the principle, not about the particular case-at-hand. The swath of statistics regarding the death penalty show that it is not a deterrent, it costs far more money than incarceration, and is deeply flawed by way of the proportional number of the poor and people of color who sit on the Row.
But this is where the point against the death penalty becomes both most clear and most distressing to me, looking at Christians who favor, clamor, even, for it: When Jesus hung on the cross, looking at those who had killed him–it was an assassination, a political murder, an unjust killing, and he knew it–looking at all those who killed him, by our present standards here in the U.S. (standards shared with nations like, oh, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran, China, and Afghanistan) Jesus should have given them all the death penalty.
Instead, what did he do?
Say “Father, forgive them, for they have no clue what they are doing.”
Hah! He gave them life, not death, for killing him.
And anyway, let’s be frank. Does any mentally well person have a clue of what she or he is doing during a perverse crime? They might know that they are committing one, but can they really be well, doing it?
And can we as a people really be well, when we somehow believe that killing heals?
Let me be clear: there is no way to express my deepest grief at the pain of victims, their families, and their friends. Every time I think about the death penalty I imagine how I would feel if someone would rape or kill my children.
My eyes fill up and my fists clench and I feel nothing but building rage and revenge brewing in me–even for something that hasn’t happened.
It is hard for me to breathe.
I am not demeaning the pain.
Instead, I’m trying to honor it in a different way: Honor it by finding something healing, something restorative, something that keeps us human in the midst of the inhumanity, that can take root in the center of the rage.
“Today salvation has come,” said Jesus, in effect on more than one occasion.
Salvation in Greek is soteria.
It means, in Greek, health, healing, and wholeness.
May it be so, today, for Eric Robert.
May it be so also for his victims, their families, their friends…and his family, and his friends.
May it be so for all victims of violence and for those who protest it in all its forms.
May God have mercy and grant us all soteria.
These sites have further statistics and stories relative to this case and others.