I am with a group of men in prison. We are in a seminar I have been leading for some weeks. Most are many years into serving life sentences. One young man, however, expects to be released soon.
We get to talking about justice. “When we were outside,” the older men say, “if someone dissed (wronged) us, we had to fight but we didn’t have to win. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be a man.”
“You’re out of touch,” says the younger man. “If someone disses me, I have to waste them–I have to kill them.” His classmates–all of whom have been convicted of taking a life–are appalled.
My argument is this: the death penalty fuels the very phenomenon it claims to suppress. Taking a life–whether on the streets or in the courtroom–is driven by the same motive: to do justice. Both are part of the same cycle of violence.
At this Christmas season, it bears considering that this cycle of violence is what Jesus was trying to break when he preached against vengeance, even when someone is clearly wronged, as Jesus was when put to death. This is not just mushy idealism or preachy Christianity. Actually the lesson Jesus taught is supported by current experience.
In Canada, homicides actually decreased when the death penalty was eliminated. Homicides sometimes rise after executions and homicide rates are often higher in locales that use the death penalty. Why?
Perhaps it is linked to an observation made by James Gilligan, a university-based psychiatrist who treated and studied Massachusetts prisoners for more than 10 years: “All violence is an effort to do justice, or to undo injustice.” In my experience, Gilligan’s observation rings true–whether it is ordinary street crime or terrorism. Violence reflects a tit-for-tat worldview: it is people giving to other people what they “deserve.”
No credible evidence exists that the death penalty deters would-be killers or causes the murder rate to go down. Gilligan offers a possible explanation for why the contrary seems to be true. Rather than undermine a tit-for-tat worldview–as Jesus tried to do–it confirms it. Rather than slowing the cycle, it feeds it.
Giving people what they deserve–death for death–thus does not make rational or empirical sense. But it does make emotional and intuitive sense. In working with victims of crimes over many years, I have come to some understanding of why they wish the one who killed their loved one to suffer. Unlike Jesus who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” I too feel the urge for vengeance sometimes. But I try to resist the urge to act on this feeling, as I believe our society should similarly resist it.
I don’t discount the need for victims to “balance the score.” In fact, I think it reflects the human need for making things even. When you receive a gift, don’t you feel an obligation to return the favor in most cases?
Ironically, the urge to exchange Christmas gifts and the urge to revenge may come from the same instinct: a need for reciprocity or balance. Yet there are other, more life-giving, ways to achieve this sense of reciprocity and justice.
Victims and society at large need validation and vindication after murder or other violent crimes. The death penalty, however, is not the way to accomplish this. In fact, it apparently leads to more murders. What if Jesus had taught the opposite–if he had told his followers to exact an “eye for an eye” for every wrongdoing committed against them? If so, I doubt many of us Christians would be around to celebrate his birth at this season.
Howard Zehr is co-director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and a leading expert on “restorative justice.”