Among the Homies

Greg Boyle, S.J.

Over the past week, my thoughts about political matters have taken a sort of geographical turn, after going to see Father Gregory Boyle lecture at Boston College High School. The Jesuit priest is well known for his work with gang members in Los Angeles, far too many of whom he has buried over the years. Speaking to a lively overflow crowd in the school gym on a Tuesday night, Boyle did a remarkable riff on the Beatitudes, the eight “blessed are the … ” declarations by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

He noted that some translations of the sermon say “happy” instead of “blessed.” And, he pointed out that many biblical scholars are thrilled with neither word, because the more precise (if cumbersome) rendering of the passage from the Gospel of Matthew would be—“You’re in the right place.” That is: You’re in the right place if you’re merciful. You’re in the right place if you hunger and thirst for justice. And so on.

“It’s about social location. It’s about where we choose to stand,” said Boyle, who delivered the second annual Dowmel Lecture sponsored by the New England Province of the Society of Jesus on June 5. Then he offered this bracing interpretation—“The Beatitudes is not a spirituality. It’s a geography. It tells us where to stand.”

In the Lowly Places

Boyle takes his inspiration in part from Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola, who instructed his recruits to “see Jesus standing in the lowly places.” He has inhabited such a place since the mid-1980s, when he arrived in East Los Angeles—often called the gang capital of the world—as a young pastor and quickly decided that presiding over funerals wasn’t going to be his signal contribution to gang members and their families. Two years later, in 1988, he started Homeboy Industries, a now-thriving collection of enterprises that include baking, silk-screening, tattoo-removal, landscaping, and other homie-staffed businesses.

Boyle, a gentle soul who looked pleasantly rumpled in an old black blazer and an unpressed pale-blue shirt, recounted the Homeboy story with grace and wry humor. (The whole story is told beautifully in his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, published in 2010 by Free Press).

In the beginning, he went looking for what he called “felony-friendly” employers who might want to hire the young ex-cons, and who were (not surprising to hear) few and far between. Then he got the idea to start some businesses—like Homeboy Plumbing, which didn’t exactly catch on. “Who knew? People didn’t want to have gang members in their homes,” Boyle said, tossing up his hands in mock amazement. “Who saw that coming?”

The Jesuit even made a joke with regard to the leukemia he has recently battled (and which is now in remission). He noted that he when he has an appointment at the hospital, he always gets a ride from a homie—which is “clearly more harrowing than the chemotherapy itself.”

Today, Homeboy Industries employs approximately 300 of those who used to run with gangs. One of its newer ventures, HomeGirl Café, staffed by female ex-gang members (“waitresses with attitude,” Boyle quips), serves about 2,000 customers a week at three sites. The broader organization also provides an array of social services such as tutoring and job training to more than 1,000 homeboys and homegirls each month. The vast bulk of them are on probation or parole.

What Boyle hopes for is hope itself. “Gangs are places kids go where they have encountered a life of misery,” he told the 500 or so lecture goers, among them students who read the Spanish-language edition of his book in a “Spanish Liberation Theology” class at the Jesuit high school, and who turned out wearing black-and-white Homeboy Industries T-shirts. “Nobody ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.”

Anyone with a Pulse?

During the Q&A, a young African American man asked the Jesuit if a white guy like him could really connect with these troubled young people of color. Boyle has a ruddy face and a bushy white beard—he could not be mistaken for a homie.

“Who can do this?” he asked rhetorically. “Anyone with a pulse. You can do it,” he said running a finger from one side of the audience to the other (over a crowd that included no slim share of Irish Catholic suburbanites). “If you’re receiving people and loving people, nobody will ever say, ‘You don’t understand.’ ”

The problems of the world are immense, and there will always be plenty of room for debate about the best solutions. But there is perhaps a simpler way of looking at the social challenges, the way of the Beatitudes. As Greg Boyle suggests, the clearest task of faith is not necessarily to take the right stands on issues, which are perpetually open to argument. The unmistakable task is to stand in the right places, with the lowly, despised, and afflicted.

Geography. …read more

The Bonhoeffer Café

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—theologian, pacifist, almost assassin of Adolph Hitler—continues to fascinate. This summer will bring the perennial crop of academic conferences about the German Lutheran’s life and legacy. The Beams Are Creaking, a biographical play about Bonhoeffer, is currently being presented by Houston’s A. D. Players. And I just heard this past week about a new café not far from where I live—Bonhoeffer’s, in Nashua, New Hampshire, which uses proceeds to aid orphans and refugees in impoverished countries.

Bonhoeffer was on the menu this past February at the always-strange National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. During his keynote speech, bestselling conservative author Eric Metaxas claimed that George W. Bush had recently read his 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer. Then he handed a copy of the 608-page doorstop to the man sitting a few feet away from him—Barack Obama—and said jejunely, “No pressure.” With Obama straining to smile, Metaxas also suggested that legal abortion was akin to Nazism.

Bonhoeffer is in perpetual “vogue,” as the Christian literary review Books & Culture has pronounced. That’s an ironic way of commending the clergyman who railed against superficiality in all matters religious, and could not indulge what he called “cheap grace,” the easy path to discipleship.

One lesson of Bonhoeffer’s witness is that the Christian Church must always be a church, must always pay ultimate loyalty to God, not to false gods, which for Bonhoeffer included Nazi ideology. While still in his twenties, Bonhoeffer, who began his theological career at the University of Berlin, emerged at the forefront of the Confessing Church, an ecclesial movement that arose in 1934 with a call for German Christians to resist the Third Reich.

Bonhoeffer’s Choice

There are incongruities in the Bonhoeffer story, and the most tantalizing has to do with the choice that sealed his martyrdom. He was a pacifist who never renounced his belief that violence is antithetical to Christian faith, as revealed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. And yet beginning in early 1938, he joined in a succession of conspiracies to murder Hitler, while spying for the Allies. This turn from pure nonviolence has led some, including conservative Christians like Metaxas, to fancy that Bonhoeffer would have cheered America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But this conjecture seems to miss an essential point about the man and his thinking. Scholars note that Bonhoeffer—who recorded his thoughts in letters smuggled out of prison—did not rationalize his actions other than to say that the situation was extreme. The theologian felt that his decision to join in the conspiracies against the Fuhrer “was not justified by law or principle, but rather was a free act of Christian responsibility, for which he threw himself on the mercy of God,” Clifford Green, a Lutheran minister and eminent Bonhoeffer scholar who taught at Hartford Theological Seminary, told me a few years ago.

This ethic may be too subtle for retail politics, but it’s powerful still. In the most acute moral emergencies, we can do what we have to do, to stop a tyrant or head off genocide. But let’s not fool ourselves. There will be plenty to atone for, and little cause for self-congratulation.

What is indisputable is that Bonhoeffer accepted “the cost of discipleship,” which are the title words of his 1937 classic. On the morning of April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp, he was stripped, led naked to the gallows, and hung for his part in the plots to assassinate Hitler. At that moment, historians say, Bonhoeffer could hear American artillery in the distance.

He was 39 years old. Two weeks later, the Allies liberated the city. …read more

The Return of Mother Jones

Coming to a post office near you?

With all the problems to ponder—war, hunger, intolerance, and the like—it’s impressive that some on the left would find time to push for getting one of their foremothers onto a 45-cent stamp. But that’s what some are trying to do with the dowdy visage of Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones.”

The latest lobbying of the U.S. Postal Service on this front has come in an article published last week in the Huffington Post, under the headline, “If Elvis can get his own stamp, why not Mother Jones?”

“By all accounts Mary was a brilliant, charismatic speaker, and a fearless, dedicated champion of social justice,” Los Angeles playwright David Macaray wrote. He was speaking on a first-name basis about the Irish-born labor activist who fought captains of American industry for decades around the turn of the 20th century, and often prevailed. “The authorities (politicians, mine owners, business groups) were terrified of her,” Macaray reports.

The fusty image of Mother Jones, in her laced black dress and black bonnet, has crept back into political consciousness over the past few decades. Some have discovered her through the left-leaning national magazine that bears her name. Others have encountered her fiery rhetoric on T-shirts, like one that proclaims: “Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living.”

For the American Left, or what’s left of it, there’s much to commemorate here. There may also be some inconvenient truths about Mother Jones, depending on one’s particular leftish leaning. And these make her all the more interesting, someone I’d actually like to see on a postage stamp.

Jones biographer Dale Fetherling found the right label for the mother of all union agitators. He called her a “conservative radical.”

She was a God-fearing widow who saw her labor activism as a divine calling: “We are doing God’s holy work. We are putting the fear of God into the robbers” of the poor. She broke with the socialists, ridiculing their ideology as “mostly sentiment, and that’s why it [socialism] will never work.” She appalled the suffragists, declaring that “home training of the child should be her [women’s] task, and it is the most beautiful of tasks.” (She herself had lost her husband and four children in a yellow-fever epidemic that blazed through Memphis in 1867.)

Mother Jones was a lifelong Roman Catholic, albeit an irreverent one. She saved some of her sharpest barbs for priests and nuns who fled the fight for social justice. During the Colorado coal strike of 1913-1914, she called the Sisters of Charity “moral cowards … owned body and soul by the Rockefeller interests.” The sisters had let the state militia use their hospital in Trinidad as a prison for union organizers—including Mother Jones.

In the end, she was feted far and wide. On May 1, 1930, her 93rd birthday, even John D. Rockefeller Jr. cabled a warm message to her in Washington, D.C., where she spent her final years with friends. In a reply dictated from her sickbed, Jones told her natural enemy he had “a Christian heart.”

Seven months later, Jones passed away. She was given a high requiem Mass at St. Gabriel Church in Washington, where thousands came to view her body in a gray casket with black rosary beads wrapped around her fingers. …read more

The Blessings of Unfreedom

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: mugshot in the gulag

Yesterday, an estimated two thousand people filled the National Cathedral in Washington for a memorial service that celebrated the post-incarceration life of Charles W. Colson, the Watergate conspirator-turned-evangelical who died last month. Colson was part of an infamous group of men in the Nixon White House who could be charitably described as revolting. In 1974 he went to prison for Watergate-related crimes including the cover-up that toppled a president. Seven months later, he was “born again,” as he proclaimed upon release—a changed man.

Many were skeptical of his jailhouse conversion, then and for years afterward. But Colson eventually proved them wrong as he dedicated the second half of his life to serving the spiritual needs of his fellow sinners in the slammer, through his organization, Prison Fellowship Ministries.

This basic story line and its variations are not unfamiliar. Many have gained remarkable insights into themselves and their world, peering out from behind bars. Some, like Colson, were incredibly guilty; some were ultimately vindicated; others were prisoners of conscience or of politics. Nelson Mandela, to name a revered one, was a violent revolutionary, overflowing with resentment (and not without cause), when thrown into the cramped prison cell that contained him for 27 years, courtesy of South Africa’s white minority regime. He came out a reconciler. Mandela’s honored guest at his 1994 presidential inauguration was his white jailer.

Some inmates have reached a level of consciousness where they could see themselves as radically free. They might even look upon the rest of us, on the outside, as existing in a kind of spiritual incarceration. Such was the illumination given to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn during his eight years in the Russian gulags after World War II.

Mistaken as Alive

In his 1973 classic The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn recalled when he and his fellow political captives were transferred from one slave labor camp to another, on a regular passenger train. They were dressed in ordinary clothes because the gulags were a state secret. “You sit on ancient passenger benches, and you hear strange and insignificant conversations,” he wrote of train-station palaver about trivialities such as family members who don’t wipe their feet after they walk through the apartment door. “The only one there who is alive, truly alive, is incorporeal you, and all these others are simply mistaken in thinking themselves alive.”

These quotes come from a handy sourcebook, Foundations of Theological Study, edited by Richard Viladesau and Mark Massa, S.J. Solzhenitsyn continues:

So what’s this about unwiped feet? And what’s this about a mother-in-law? What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune; and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well.

Viladesau and Massa note in their introduction to the excerpt from The Gulag Archipelago that Solzhenitsyn’s train-station experience amounted to a spiritual awakening. Though his circumstances were extraordinary, he seemed to speak for Mandela, Colson, and many others unknown when he wrote: “I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: Bless you, prison!” …read more

When the Group Becomes God

Over the edge

Extreme nationalism appears to be strutting back into the news. It is a bit like extreme sports, in that it usually involves a high level of danger, although cliff jumpers and other athletic extremists pose a danger mainly to themselves, unlike their political counterparts, who are inclined to take entire societies over the edge. Ultranationalists are conspiring in many places including Turkey, where fascists are once again threatening to massacre Armenians; India, where Hindu nationalists have been dragging worshipers out of Christian churches and thrashing them; and even in Holland, where anti-immigrant Dutch nationalists are stirring in one of the world’s most politically correct countries.

Some of the reporting has come by way of remembrance. Last month the world marked twenty years since old hatreds rematerialized in the former Yugoslavia, which was splitting apart as nationalism replaced Communism. Serbian forces bombarded Muslim neighborhoods in Sarajevo, launching the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and nearly a decade of extreme ethnicity throughout the Balkans. “Ethnic cleansing” became a grim catchphrase.

In a May 3 Op-Ed in the New York Times, a 31-year-old physical therapist in Queens told of how, as a seven-year-old “Bosniak” (a Muslim in Bosnia), he pledged with his classmates to spread unity in what was still Yugoslavia. He did so at a multiethnic school, in front of his favorite teacher, a Serb. Five years later, he bumped into that teacher, who had traded in his chalk and clipboard for a Serbian Army uniform:

“Hey, teacher,” I called. He knocked the grocery bag out of my hand, saying, “Balije don’t need bread.” (“Balije” was a slur for Bosniak.) Holding me by my hair, he rested his rifle against my head. “It’s jammed,” he complained. As I ran away, I caught him waving a three-finger salute, a gesture of Serbian nationalism based on the Orthodox sign of the cross.

Note the “sign of the cross.” There were many symbols of faith deployed in the ethnic crossfires, which led otherwise astute observers to a specious conclusion about the nature of that conflict in the former Yugoslavia. At the time, the redoubtable Henry Kissinger declared that it was a “religious war,” not an ethnic one, “since all the groups are of the same ethnic stock”—Slavs, namely. But of course, Yugoslavia had been Communist, and its population largely atheist or at least secular, for nearly a half-century before the Balkans exploded again. So, Kissinger and others left us chewing on the paradox of a religious war fought largely by irreligious people.

Ultimate Concern

In a way Kissinger was right, though not in the way he intended. In the throes of such fanaticism, one’s ethnicity or nationality takes on a kind of absolute significance. It becomes an “ultimate concern,” not merely a “preliminary concern.” It turns into a god.

Here I’m speaking the language of Paul Tillich (1886-1965). “The religious concern is ultimate; it excludes all other concerns from ultimate significance; it makes them preliminary,” the German-born Lutheran wrote in his classic Systematic Theology (Vol. 1). This ultimate concern is total, Tillich adds: “no part of ourselves is excluded from it; there is no place to flee from it.”

What happens when something less than the divine—or less than a transcendent value—is invested with ultimate concern? People begin bowing to false deities, Tillich says.

Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy. Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance …

More than nationalism comes to mind. National security or the market can become a creeping absolute, especially in a time of international crisis or extreme inequality. Tillich also italicizes—“Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being and non-being.” In the case of exaggerated nationalism, it is all too predictably a path to non-being—over the cliff. …read more

God and Consolidated Edison

During this year of recrimination over a supposed “war on religion,” I’ve been collecting tidbits about a special flock of writers and intellectuals who want to make love, not war, with organized religion. Every last one of them is a card-carrying atheist.

This crowd is rebelling against the so-called New Atheists, who served up a brash assortment of down-with-God books during the mid-00s and who are now apparently the old-new atheists. One of the really new atheists is the Swiss-born London intellectual Alain de Botton, who has turned heads on both sides of the Atlantic with his book Religion for Atheists. In it, de Botton argues that one can be “left cold” by religious doctrines and still treasure “the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring.”

He would like to see your local atheists build “a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” like friendship. Or mimic other faith establishments like the Franciscan retreat house—by opening up “a secular hotel for the soul,” a place of quiet reflection and personal enrichment, he suggests.

Among the new-new atheists, I also count the Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson (beliefs in immortality and divine justice “give priceless comfort” and “steel resolution in difficult times,” he writes in a new book); German philosopher Jurgen Habermas (liberal democratic society cannot flourish without “the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love,” he concludes); magazine publisher Bruce Shelman (An Atheist Defends Religion is his offering to the genre); and other secular souls in that choir. Their standard refrain is that religion contributes to both social cohesion and personal contentment.

What does all this tell us other than the obvious—that not all atheists are damning religion? I might have to get back to you on that, but I can’t think of much offhand. These writers are commendably fair-minded, but they aren’t showering us with insights about faith and society. They’re the latest in a long and fairly insipid tradition of believers and unbelievers alike who have applauded religion as a useful buttress of society—a public utility of sorts. They seem to have trouble distinguishing between religious faith and the National Grid, between God and Con Ed.

A stinging response to this flurry of faith-friendliness has come from the impious British literary critic Terry Eagleton. Writing in The Guardian he pointed out that some great thinkers such as Machiavelli, Voltaire, and Diderot held to the view that “I don’t believe myself, but it is politically prudent that you should.” That slogan is alive and well, Eagleton reports. Back in January he had this to say in a preview of de Botton’s Religion for Atheists:

What this book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal. Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularized religion has long been one bogus solution on offer.

Invisible Mortar

I don’t think Eagleton doubts that religion serves all these ends and then some: he points without elaborating to Machiavelli’s observation that religious ideas are an excellent way to “terrorize the mob.” The question, which reaches beyond his polemic, is whether the public-utility view of religion is adequate. It does have its merits. It reminds us of how religion has often provided a sense of shared purpose, “a kind of invisible mortar for our common life,” as described last week by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion. But as Douthat notes, religion has also supplied moral critiques of our public life. That too has been a vital function though not an unmixed blessing.

Martin Luther King and the liberal ministers, rabbis, and priests who coalesced during the 1960s epitomized the less-convenient role of religion in America. They called on the forces of faith to confront society and its unjust structures, not prop them up. Like the Hebrew prophets they condemned far more than they condoned.

Then came the conservative evangelicals in the late 1970s. They showed that two ideological sides could play this unruly game of prophetic politics. Conservative Catholics and Republican office-holders increasingly allied with them. So now we have a culture war against the so-called “war on religion” and other furious confrontations—a style of religious-political engagement sure to stay with us through the election year. …read more

From a Reporter’s Notebook: Values and Votes in 2012

TheoPol has been out in fora land this week, attending two public forums and a few less-public discussions in Washington and Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The public highlights were “Election 2012: The Values Behind the Issues,” a forum sponsored by Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center on Tuesday night; and “Is Religious Liberty Under Threat in America?” held one night later at Boston College under the auspices of BC’s Church in the 21st Century Center and Law School. Here are some noteworthy remarks by the notable speakers at those events.

Heard in Georgetown

E.J. Dionne of Brookings Institution and the Washington Post: The Catholic Church’s job in the political order is “to make us all feel guilty about something, to force liberals to think about the life issues and force conservatives to think about the poor. The Church now may be falling down on about half its job, making only half of us [the liberals] feel guilty…. I worry very much that the focus is on attempting to push Catholic social teaching and social justice to the back of the bus.”

Amy Sullivan of Time magazine, referring to explanations by spokesmen for the bishops that they haven’t the time to address both social issues like abortion and matters like peace and justice: ”The bishops are certainly skilled enough to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

David Gibson of Religion News Service, adapting a witticism often heard in relation to American Jews: “Mormons really are like everyone else, but only more so…. They’re clean-cut, clean-living. They lead upstanding lives. They’re the perfect amalgam of the American dream and the Protestant ethic.”

Tom Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter, after citing an Illinois Catholic bishop who compared “extreme secularist” President Obama with Hitler and Stalin: “When you’re using the most extreme language, there’s no way to step back, no way to admit nuance or different ways to think about an issue…. Religion in the public realm is almost destroying itself, because it isn’t real religion. It’s politics.”

… in Chestnut Hill

The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir of Harvard Divinity School, speaking of the mandate for contraception coverage in President Obama’s healthcare reform law and efforts to reach a compromise with Catholic institutions that oppose the mandate: “You go for the [negotiated] common ground, but if you can’t get to common ground, you keep the law and allow a broad exemption” for all religious institutions.

Cathleen Kaveny of Notre Dame Law School, on that same point: “We’ve got to protect religious institutions, but I keep thinking of the people who work for them and who might not agree with them [about the alleged immorality of artificial contraception]. What do we owe to the people who disagree with them?”

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, on the largely ignored question of religious liberty worldwide and the estimated 150,000 Christians who die in sectarian violence each year: “In the past hour, 17 Christians have been killed on this planet.”

Vincent Rougeau, dean of Boston College Law School: “We need to think about how we could engage [and support] Christians and other religious believers around the world,” in a genuine campaign for religious freedom. …read more

Last Rites for Capital Punishment?

Model of a late 19th century French guillotine

On September 10, 1977, France raised the 88-pound blade of its guillotine one last time and let it drop on a Tunisian immigrant who had sexually tortured and murdered a young French nanny, lopping off his head in just a fraction of a second. After that, a cry of “off with their heads” heard anywhere in the Western world would likely suggest little more than a taste for metaphor, not a thirst for blood. And soon, all manner of executions, not just the heads-roll variety, would be declared illegal throughout Western Europe. In due time scores of countries elsewhere—from Mexico and the Philippines to Cambodia and Rwanda—would put away their death penalty statutes. Only the rare developed nation would kill to show that killing is unacceptable.

The United States would be rare. Lethal injections, electrocutions, and other means of judicial death would offer an eye-popping display of American exceptionalism. The death penalty is still all too with us in America, and only eight other countries, with not a democracy among them, executed more than two or three people last year. That said, in recent years we have become less exceptional on this score.

The latest case in point is Connecticut, where lawmakers voted yesterday to abolish new death sentences. Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has vowed to sign the measure, which will make Connecticut the fifth state in the past five years to forsake punishment by death. (The others are New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Illinois; California voters will probably have their say at the ballot box in November.)

The biggest story, however, is not about the handful of states that are shuttering their death houses altogether. It’s about the slow death of capital punishment throughout the country, though I’d lay emphasis on slow. The numbers of executions as well as new death sentences have been falling steadily in recent years. In 2011, 43 people were executed nationwide, a 56-percent drop since 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Even Texas has been less eager to administer the heart-stopping potassium chloride and other lethally injected drugs. Texas extended the death protocol to 13 inmates in 2011, compared to 24 two years earlier. That’s just one way of sizing it up, though. Another way is to note that if Texas were a country, it would rank eighth in reported executions worldwide, right behind North Korea and the rest of the United States, but way ahead of countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

Moral Principle, Political Reality

For decades many in the United States have opposed capital punishment on moral and religious grounds. Such a culturally conservative force as the American Catholic hierarchy has repeatedly denounced the practice as a violation of the sanctity of human life. To me, one of the most cogent moral arguments against the death penalty came from Pope John Paul II. He argued time and again that the only possible justification for capital punishment (or any use of deadly force) would be strict self-defense—which rules out the death penalty in almost every conceivable circumstance. That’s because, as John Paul noted, there are many other ways of protecting society against a killer, ways known collectively as the modern penal system.

As someone who dislikes capital punishment for more or less those reasons, I’d be happy to give the credit for its decline to the abolitionists and their excellent principles. But I’d be kidding myself.

It’s not moral revulsion against the whole idea of capital punishment that has thinned the execution ranks. It is the well-founded fear of executing the innocent, a real possibility brought to light not by moral arguments but by the evidentiary wonders of DNA, which has led to multiple exonerations in recent years. Polls show that most though a declining number of Americans still support capital punishment at least in theory, and the basic reason is that most inmates on death row are not innocent. They’re guilty as hell.

So, Americans haven’t yet had a moral conversion on this issue. And that’s okay. In a pluralistic society, citizens—even those on the same side of an issue—will bring diverse values and considerations to the table of public conversation. When it comes to the death penalty, some worry about faulty procedures that could lead to wrongful execution or simply about the costs of seemingly endless appeals. It’s the job of others including the theologically motivated to add moral principles to the mix, and to do so with humility and what the Declaration of Independence refers to as a “decent respect” for the opinions of humankind. It’s fair to say that many different opinions have coalesced to put the greatest pressure on capital punishment in decades.

Counting on Conservatives

What might eventually tip the scales toward abolition is not liberal outrage but conservative caution. True, many conservatives have taken the untenable view that government—which, in their minds, is incapable of adequately performing a simple task like creating a construction job or an affordable housing unit—is somehow so adept and infallible that it can be trusted to make ultimate decisions about life and death. This logic is no longer flying with increasing numbers of Americans, however. And they include many who lean right.

The last words here go to Richard Viguerie, a father of what used to be called the New Right, now known as the Tea Party.

Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life. In other words, it’s a government system that kills people (his emphasis)….

The death penalty system is flawed and untrustworthy because human institutions always are [my emphasis]. But even when guilt is certain, there are many downsides to the death penalty system. I’ve heard enough about the pain and suffering of families of victims caused by the long, drawn-out, and even intrusive legal process. Perhaps, then, it’s time for America to re-examine the death penalty system, whether it works, and whom it hurts. …read more

Penitence and Politics

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998

Some recent political volleys invite another go at the much-parodied line from Love Story that love means never having to say you’re sorry. The 2012 take might be that loving the United States of America means never saying we’re sorry for its misdeeds. Thus we have Mitt Romney’s campaign book No Apology: Believe in America, and the accusation by him and others that President Obama has flown off on “apology tours,” which is by and large a fantasy but involves a few instances in which Obama—like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him—has tendered apologies to people abroad for things done in America’s name. In February Rick Santorum chided the president for apologizing after the U.S. military inadvertently burned Qurans in Afghanistan. Weeks later, Santorum popped up on the apology circuit himself, telling interviewers that America owed one to the families of 16 Afghan civilians massacred by a U.S. soldier.

Contrition can be as dishonorable from a certain patriotic view as it is desirable from a theological perspective. But as the Christian season of Lent draws to a close, it’s worth noting the times when a spirit of penitence has helped transform relationships at various levels of fractious societies.

The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which fashioned a peace there in 1998, was built in part on myriad acts of apology. Catholic and Protestant religious leaders helped set the tone by exchanging mutual apologies for atrocities committed historically by their communities. Paramilitary leaders on both sides followed with their own gestures of repentance, some more heartfelt than others.

In a number of strife-ridden countries, apology and its near twin, acknowledgment, have lighted paths to justice and social healing. In South Africa, those who committed human rights crimes during decades of white minority rule were given a choice: tell the truth for all to hear or face prosecution. In Rwanda, repentance became the signature piece of national reconciliation efforts following the tribal genocide in 1994.

Ritualized Lamentation

At times theological resources have helped bring crucial acknowledgments to the surface. In one of the longest-running efforts at post-conflict reconciliation, people who took warring sides in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s have come together for ecumenical and interfaith seminars in church basements. These are mostly laypeople from the Croatian Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, and ethnic Albanian Muslim communities. With the help of third-party facilitators, they have dug deeply into the tradition of laments, the communal expressions of grief and distress in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Rev. David Steele, a United Church of Christ minister and an American conflict-resolution expert, led many of the original seminars in the wake of brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns in the Balkans. He explained to me recently that the purpose of ritualized lamentation in ancient Israel was to “offer up to God all injury and hurt so that God could heal the pain and bring justice.” Steele’s own purpose is not simply to help people voice their grievances against other communities. He also brings them to the verge of acknowledging wrongdoing by their own groups. This too is part of the lament motif. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, identifies the suffering of the Jews but also asks his people to critically examine themselves and their society.

In another conversation I had with Steele almost a decade ago, he related that during one Serb-Croat seminar, it was time for the Croats to acknowledge how they as a community have afflicted the Serbs. One Croat man reversed the dynamic, however. He began recalling a horrible atrocity committed by Serbs during the war, in which soldiers dragged patients out of a hospital in eastern Croatia and executed them en masse in a field nearby.

As he was talking about it, he was getting more and more agitated, more angry. Finally, one Serb who had been a soldier during the war, a layperson, simply spoke up and said: “That happened. I know it happened. And it was wrong.” And there was silence at that point. And what happened was, even though this Croat was turning the whole thing around, attacking the other group rather than his own group, this Serb man was sensitive and courageous enough to recognize that this needed an acknowledgment that it was a terrible crime. And that was enough, at least at that moment, to satisfy this Croat.

The process can be volatile, whether in a post-conflict setting or in the election-year partisan crossfire. Different groups may have drastically different perceptions of the reality surrounding their conflicts. And there’s always a chance of miscalculation: in the Balkans, people were constantly worried that a confession of terrible deeds done to their enemies would only serve to justify retaliation.

Still, a contrite word has often given people what they seem to need the most—not vengeance, not even procedural justice, but a painfully honest telling of injuries they have suffered. And that’s worth acknowledging. …read more