(We Become What We Hate. . . )
Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Bobby Kennedy, says it very well in The Case Against the Death Penalty, by Hugo Bedau: “I was eight years old when my father was murdered. It is almost impossible to describe the pain of losing a parent to a senseless murder. But even as a child one thing was clear to me: I didn’t want the killer, in turn, to be killed. I remember lying in bed and praying, ‘Please, God. Please don’t take his life, too.’ I saw nothing that could be accomplished in the loss of one life being answered with the loss of another. And I knew, far too vividly, the anguish that would spread through another family—another set of parents, children, brothers, and sisters thrown into grief.”
The death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1972 (though later reinstated, state by state, after 1976). As a result, there were few executions in the ’70s, and little discussion of the issue. In 1982, as an activist for Central American issues, I began reading the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), a weekly newspaper which included a running total of the number of people executed in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. I remember, the capital punishment column used a cross for its logo. And I remember thinking—Jesus was also a victim of the death penalty.
Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation The question about the death penalty that I was asked most often as a high school teacher was, what if it was your son or wife that was murdered? Would you still be against capital punishment?
I can answer with an emphatic yes. But, not being a family member of a murder victim, my answer is only hypothetical. Yet there are people who can give such an answer from experience. One day, two years ago, five people who had lost family members to murder shared their painful stories in my classroom. They recounted how they personally came to oppose the death penalty. It was the most remarkable and gratifying teaching day in my career. Students told me after class, and for months following, that they had never before experienced anything like it. My students were shocked and inspired by the desire of the victim’s families to move beyond feelings of revenge. Even after 11 years of religion classes, never before had spirituality been so real for them. Before them stood people who had experienced what can only be called the ultimate nightmare—yet these same people had moved out of the abyss of retaliation and were liberated from the burden of hatred.
The media often do not report the stories of family members of murder victims who oppose the execution of their loved one’s murderer. Yet some of the most passionate, outspoken abolitionists come from Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR).
One of those who spoke in my classroom, Marietta Jaeger, was a founding member of MVFR. Her young daughter was brutally raped and murdered. Jaeger said, “Concerning the claim of justice for the victim’s family, I say that there is no number of retaliatory deaths that would compensate to me the inestimable value of my daughter’s life, nor would they restore her to my arms. To say that the death of any person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones who are victims. We cannot put a price on their lives. That kind of justice would only dehumanize and degrade us because it legitimates an animal instinct for gut-level, blood-thirsty revenge.”
MVFR believes that “Capital punish-ment is an expensive, ineffective and barbaric response to violent crime. It does not help families or nations to heal.”
Despite his own brother, President Kennedy, being assassinated, Robert Kennedy spoke out against counter violence: “Whenever any American’s life is taken by another unnecessarily—whether it is done in the name of the law or in defiance of law—in an attack of violence or in response to violence—the whole nation is degraded.”
Coretta Scott King, wife of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “unequivocally” opposes the death penalty: “As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses. An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder.”
Compelling Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty On the surface, the death penalty primarily concerns people on death row, and the family members of the victims of homicide. But over the last seven years, as I have studied this issue, it has become painfully clear that it cuts across the spectrum of spiritual, moral, legal, social justice, and even economic issues. Thus, for the following reasons, I spend both my energy and my financial resources to end the death penalty.