Death as penalty diminishes society
The debate on the death penalty is being revived in the light—or, more appropriately, in the darkness—of the brutal killings we hear and read about in the daily news. Where is our society going? How can there be so much violence in our midst?
Against the belief in the absolute worth of human life, every killing is senseless. When the social foundation proceeds from the truism that “unconditionally, your life is precious, my life is precious, too, a child’s life is precious, even a dying person’s life is precious,” then there can be no justification for the arbitrary termination of life. Killers do not subscribe to the absolute worth of human life; they fail to recognize this fundamental truth. Violence is rationalized when people take the mindset of killers. The government prescribing the death penalty is rationalizing violence. It is, by itself, an act of violence.
Violence proceeds from the perspective of power. The executions of American and British journalists and aid workers by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) are, to civil society, senseless brutalities. To the Isis jihadists, these are part of their crusade of retaliation against the perceived violence against them by the Western world. The last war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinians, including women and children, and close to 100 Israelis. The civil war in Syria has seen hundreds of thousands dead, and counting. The strife in Ukraine and in parts of Africa has resulted in countless deaths. Violence and counterviolence make up an endless cycle. Who will break it?
The death of noncombatants cannot simply be taken for granted as collateral damage, “unavoidable” after supposed great pains are taken to prevent them. Every single life is valuable, equally. The kin of victims of heinous crimes who are calling for the revival of the death penalty are understandably disconsolate and demanding remedy in the tenor of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The call is for justice. But what justice is served by executing the murderers?
The much-anticipated visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines in January is a unique opportunity for Filipinos to revisit the fundamental tenets of their faith. It is apropos that the question of the death penalty be viewed against the perspective of the Christian faith. The raison d’etre of Christianity, Jesus Christ, was sentenced to die on the cross—a most ignominious death. He, who Christians believe to be God, chose to accept and go through His death sentence rather than use His power to resist His persecutors.
Those who advocate the death penalty may argue that this perspective may be begging the question. It was a different death sentence, imposed by people who “do not know what they are doing,” it may be said. Society and, in general, humanity, has the right, obligation and responsibility to defend itself against the threat of violence from those who are evil and will cause death and destruction. But the question of life and death cannot exclusively be a social or human issue. The Giver of everyone’s life must not be sidelined when it is His gift to humanity that is on the chopping block.
Jesus’ death on the cross will have to be the bar against which every life-and-death debate is measured. Every violent death can potentially lead to some understanding of life viewed against the Crucifixion. Is this a religious bias in confronting the issue? It is a bias if the Crucifixion was but a dubious historical event that started a religion. The historical authenticity, however, is solidly withstanding the test of time: that there was this man, Jesus, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, and went around and in Jerusalem as a young man sharing the message that the Creator’s love for all, unconditionally and without exception, is real.
The death on the cross, beyond being a sacrifice and the offering of Jesus’ life, projects the greater reality that the gift of life transcends everyone’s mortality. From our conception—i.e, since that time when our unique identity was defined by our Creator—our destiny, in fact our true nature and only reality, is immortality. Whatever our state in life, we are much greater than what our “packaging” may seem to project. What others and we ourselves may see is less than who we actually are. The challenge is for us to discover it, and once it is found, keep it in our awareness, then live a life called for by that realization.
The culture of life needs to be rediscovered. What persists in our world is a culture of death. Humanity easily forgets the great gift of life beyond anyone can imagine that everyone has been blessed with. And this blessing proceeds from only one fundamental truth: The Creator is sharing immortality with everyone created, out of unconditional love. We have life because we are loved. When we recognize this truth, our mortality is transcended. And we would want everyone to discover this, even those we may see as evil.
The victims of violent killings deserve all the tears humanity can shed for them. Such deaths demand the strongest condemnation possible. Yet calling for vengeance will not be honoring their memories. No death is meaningless. Just as the living is invited to allow themselves to be used for the spread of the message of God’s Love, the victims of violent killings have been used by Jesus to say with Him: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
In revisiting the death penalty issue, the fundamental question is: Can we love even the unlovable? The bottom line is still and will always be love, as that is what everyone has from God. “All you need is love,” the Beatles sang, “love is all you need.” Death, particularly brutal killing, will only be conquered by love.
Danilo S. Venida ([email protected]) holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from the University of the Philippines and the Center for Research and Communication/University of Asia and the Pacific. He is a former president of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and is now a business consultant.
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