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Notes from the Border: On sin, forgiveness and the death penalty

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Posted on October 3, 2011 | Blog Category:
By Rebecca Reimers



By coincidence, this year as the Jewish High Holidays approached I have been reading "Dead Man Walking," Sister Helen Prejean’s personal witness against the death penalty. Her account of her journey into the lives of death row inmates and their victims’ families is riveting. She quotes philosophers and criminal justice experts, cites statistics and Catholic doctrine to support her arguments for opposing the death penalty. But for me what is most timely and moving is her unrelenting focus on forgiveness, in Hebrew selichot.

Every fall, the ten-day period between the Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are devoted to reflection on the past year. It is a time for a personal reckoning of both “sins of commission”—things I have done that I should not have done—and “sins of omission”—actions I should have taken but failed to do. During the Day of Atonement, while praying and fasting as a congregation, we recite prayers of confession of sins. The wording may be arcane, but the message is clear: we are responsible for one another, for intervening when we see others doing wrong and for supporting each other to do right.

Although on Yom Kippur Jews recite prayers asking forgiveness of God, it is even more vital that as individuals we seek forgiveness from those we have wronged in the previous year. In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are obligated to apologize to those we have wronged; moreover, we promise to work hard never to commit those wrongs again. If our initial efforts are rejected, we are commanded to ask forgiveness two more times. The goal is to re-establish relationships damaged by our actions or inactions on the same footing as before. Thus, by Yom Kippur our souls are prepared for teshuvah, turning our ways back to the path of righteousness from which we, as imperfect humans, have strayed in the past year.

Perhaps even more difficult, the High Holy Days challenge us to forgive others who have wronged us—whether or not they apologize. The rabbis taught that humans were created with this capacity for granting total absolution. It may require much soul-searching and spiritual work, particularly if we have not been asked for forgiveness. Yet to carry grudges and ill-feelings toward others year after year--to feel victimized-- weighs us down. Our actions are motivated by selfishness, fear, and anger. Perhaps we even carry hatred and a desire for vengeance, or at least delight in the misfortunes of those we have not forgiven. Holding onto hurts warps our ability to act in the ways the Torah teaches us to: to treat others as we would be treated, to love others as ourselves.

And this is where Sister Helen’s message intersects so poignantly with the purpose of the Jewish High Holy Days. When the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional, it based its decision on how the death penalty was then implemented, not on the premise that state-sanctioned execution is, in and of itself, cruel and unusual punishment. State legislatures rewrote laws to provide better due process for implementing the death penalty, including separate trial and sentencing phases and automatic reviews by higher courts. As a result, she points out, the process is much more protracted than for those convicted of first-degree murder who receive mandatory life sentences without possibility of parole. In addition, opponents of the death penalty often file petitions and appeals that further delay the process.

During these delays, Sister Helen writes, “I wonder if [a prisoner’s] death sentence makes his own repentance even more difficult. Someone is trying to kill him, and this must rivet his energies on his own survival, not the pain of others.” One of the prisoners she was a spiritual advisor for refused to ask forgiveness of the father of a girl he killed because that father publicly expressed his wish to see the prisoner die. Another prisoner she worked with responded similarly when a father was quoted in the media as wanting to see the prisoner “fry.” Knowing that family members are pushing for their execution puts the prisoner on the defensive, hardly preparation for seeking forgiveness and dying with “love, and not hatred, in my heart.”

Moreover, most death row prisoners deny their responsibility for the actual murder until the very end. Perhaps they believe that confessing to the crime would undermine their case should it be retried on appeal. Prisoners often do not know until minutes before they are executed that the sentence will in fact be carried out, as governors have the power to commute sentences up until the very end. Hence, murderers have little time to seek forgiveness of those they have hurt and, if they are believers, to “make things right with their God.” Jews call this level of forgiveness kapparah. It is the highest level of remorse, the cry of a person who says, "My conscience will not let me live with myself, because of what I did to you and to our relationship." To respond positively to this is beyond human capacity, according to the rabbis. It is only God who can reach inside a person and say "Be comforted." (The Orthodox Union).

Yet the most powerful spiritual question that Sister Helen raises is whether the death penalty cripples survivors’ own need to grieve and be comforted. The retaliatory “eye for an eye” reasoning that underlies the death penalty sanctions vengeance. Seemingly endless delays in favor of the convicted murderer perfectly illustrate William Gladstone’s observation that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Without the closure of a speedy trial and mandatory life sentence, family and friends are trapped in the immediate pain of the tragedy for years. They are forced to revisit it at every stage of the death penalty appeals process. Their rage is unresolvable. The unfairness of knowing that there are those fighting to save the life of their loved one’s killer and the media circus surrounding the actual execution seem to redefine who the real victim was. The final stages of grief--acceptance and hope-- seem out of reach.

As difficult as it is to forgive, how much more so when the person we need to forgive has committed so heinous an act as murder and then does not ask forgiveness? Life in prison without possibility of parole at least provides the possibility that convicted murderers can admit to their crimes, ask forgiveness of their victims’ families and friends, and become a positive presence in the lives of other prisoners. If a prisoner’s sentence also requires some form of restitution to the family, so much the better. 

This is the kind of forgiveness we are required to seek of those we have wronged.

More importantly, the closure of a speedy trial and mandatory life sentence opens the door for survivors to begin the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding their lives in the absence of their loved ones. As Sister Helen points out, “there is no replacing the unique universe” of a murdered person. But she also insists that survivors, must continually strive to act from a place of love. Sister Helen writes, “The rage of [the father’s] pain and the agony of his loss eclipse everything else.” Her own theology, she explains, has evolved from a God who seeks human suffering to atone for sin to a God who loves and wants us to love one another. Jewish values teach us that our own spiritual health depends upon our ability to not only to ask forgiveness, but to forgive others and seek to repair broken relationships. And as impossible as it seems, there are survivors of murder victims who are able to reach this place: not only to oppose the execution of a murderer, but to forgive.

Thankfully most of us will never face the extreme spiritual circumstances that Sister Helen describes. Yet her words have given my annual quest for selichot—forgiveness-- new depth and focus. With the ritualized discipline of the High Holy Days and the support of my religious community, I once again have the choice to let go of guilt and grudges to turn my life toward the Divine Presence in the world.

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