For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium.
The law does not address and cannot balance man's "warring instincts." So while executing murderers may rid society of the truly twisted, it does not "untwist" future societies.
It is partly this internal war in man, or his state in general, that causes me confliction regarding the death penalty.
In the previous post I used the Wayne Adam Ford verdict as a springboard to consider the subject. My final two points touch upon this interior dissonance.
Part of the defense strategy in the Ford case was to highlight the killer's troubled upbringing. This is a typical tactic nowadays, but its effectiveness is debatable and, in many cases, problematic. Most people have had a less than ideal upbringing. Whether it's abuse or abandonment, rage or frigidity, legalism or license, none of us were raised in a perfect home. What's more, we manage to refrain from going psycho. Because of this, I often wonder if the "troubled childhood" invocation elicits skepticism and annoyance rather than empathy.
Nevertheless, I am one of those bleeding hearts that believes a difficult, dysfunctional upbringing can cripple us -- emotionally, spiritually, socially, sexually -- for life. We are damaged goods. And while the roots of evil run deep, the awful fruit takes on a myriad of forms.
I pastored a church for eleven years. No amount of education or training could have prepared me for the depths of brokenness I would encounter in others (and eventually, myself). If you preach to pain, it's said, you'll always have an audience. The truth is our churches are full of dysfunctional, hurting people, some of whom are a tick away from criminal or psychotic behavior. This is representative of our society in general.
I was raised in an alcoholic home. My father was often AWOL and when he was there, he was cold, critical, angry and violent. I was eventually kicked out of the house when I turned eighteen. It took me years to unravel the depths of insecurity and hurt that saddled me and tainted my personality.
Near the end of his life -- the last ten years of which he spent sober and repentant -- my Dad told me about the abuse he underwent as a kid, something he'd refrained from for fifty-plus years. His real father abandoned the family when my Dad was five or six. Enter the stepfather, a cruel man who beat his stepson and left him, for the most part, orphaned. I spoke to a relative once who told the story of the day she found my Dad locked in a closet, squatting in feces, naked and bruised.
Is it any wonder my Dad became a violent alcoholic? But is his awful upbringing any excuse?
You can call this a sob story...but it's my sob story; it's left me intimately scarred and, ultimately, grateful. I cannot excuse my Dad's treatment of his family. But neither can I blow off the damage inflicted upon that lost, little boy.
And somewhere in this there is a balance.
There's no question but that my own history and upbringing informs (perhaps taints is a better word) my perspective. While we can never excuse criminal behavior on the basis of a difficult upbringing, I believe we cannot dismiss or devalue the psychological damage, pain, loss, regret, isolation and utter helplessness that torment some people.
Jesus seemed to address this impressionable, tender pliability in children and spoke some of His harshest words against those who mishandled them:
And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! (Matt. 18:5-7 NIV)
In this verse, the millstone is not reserved for the one who sins, but for the one who "causes one of these little ones" to sin. Notice, it's not the sin but the forces or people which propel someone toward sin that Jesus addresses. Somewhere along the way, Wayne Adam Ford was an innocent child, one of these "little ones". What changed him? What "caused" him to sin? Does it matter? Christ appears to suggest it does.
My father's alcoholism tore our family apart. His actions shaped my life, crippled my emotions, reverberate inside me to this day. In many ways, he has caused me to sin. But somewhere behind that facade, underneath his rage, was a "little one" whimpering alone in a dark closet.
People aren't born to be alcoholics, thieves and serial killers. There are processes that get them there. While the law may address the crime it cannot address these processes, these "warring instincts," these spiritual, psychological and sociological forces that make monsters out of men. And without accurate discernment of the forces and compassion for those in their grip, capital punishment should be the last resort.