A spiritual perspective on California’s death penalty initiatives

A spiritual perspective on California’s death penalty initiatives

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The question isn’t whether we should let criminals off the hook, but whether we have anything to lose by giving them the opportunity to reform.

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PETALUMA, CA, Oct. 3, 2016 – “Two rival death penalty initiatives are on the November ballot,” writes Fresno Bee (California) columnist Andrew Fiala. “Proposition 62 seeks to abolish the death penalty. Proposition 66 intends to make it more efficient. The moral questions raised are complex.”

Complex indeed, although I probably would have gone with “perplexing” or “myriad.” All the more reason, then, to keep this particular discussion focused on just one question: Is there anyone who is not capable of being redeemed?

Of course, no one can say for sure. That doesn’t mean, however, that the question is not everyone’s to consider.

Thousands of years ago, at least for the nascent Jewish nation, it wasn’t so much a matter of one’s ability as it was their worthiness of redemption. “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him,” it says in the Bible. “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Whoever wrote this wasn’t saying people can’t be redeemed, only that in certain situations, they shouldn’t be allowed to.

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Years later, it was a Jewish reformer who called this theology into question. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” said Jesus during his Sermon on the Mount, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

As a kid it was pretty easy for me to understand the downside of taking an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” approach to justice. As the ever-thoughtful Tevye says in “Fiddler on the Roof,” this would eventually leave “the whole world… blind and toothless.” But I still didn’t get the part about turning the other cheek. Somehow that sounded weak, if not unwise.

But then, probably sometime in my early teens, I ran across what Christian theologian Mary Baker Eddy had to say on the subject. “’Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” she wrote, quoting Jesus, in her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. “That is, Fear not that he will smite thee again for thy forbearance.”

I don’t think she was suggesting that we should let those who have done something wrong off the hook, but rather, that we can’t be harmed by giving them the opportunity to improve themselves, to be reformed, to be redeemed.

There were those in Eddy’s day, and many today in fact who are familiar with her work as the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, who would say that her approach to redemption was to pretend that evil did not exist, that God was incapable of creating sinners and, therefore, that there was no need for punishment or reformation of any kind. This, however, was not how Eddy saw things.

“A sinner is not reformed merely by assuring him that he cannot be a sinner because there is no sin,” she wrote in Science and Health. “To put down the claim of sin, you must detect it, remove the mask, point out the illusion, and thus get the victory over sin and so prove its unreality.”

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For Eddy, “put[ting] down the claim of sin” – exposing its unreality by challenging its veracity – involved a willingness to see one’s self as something besides a mortal personality defined by mortal circumstances; to reject the idea that once you’ve chosen a particular path in life, there’s no turning back; to dismiss the notion that the grace of God is available to some but not all, and even then only in certain situations.

She didn’t see redemption as merely possible, but inevitable – a divinely inspired, divinely supported process born of an innate though sometimes latent desire in all of us to live our lives in concert with God or good, as she often defined God.

Eddy also didn’t see herself as being in a position to influence her fellow voters on the deeply moral political decisions of her day. “I am asked, ‘What are your politics?’” she writes in The First Church of Christ, Scientist and Miscellany. “I have none, in reality, other than to help support a righteous government; to love God supremely, and my neighbor as myself.”

Regardless of what we decide in November with regard to the death penalty, we would do well to follow her lead.

Eric Nelson writes about the link between consciousness and health from his perspective as a practitioner of Christian Science. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs. Continue the conversation on Facebook.

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