In my article on the death penalty in last week’s edition of The Catholic Messenger, I suggested that the dark emotion of revenge is the underlying reason for capital punishment. In this article I will attempt to shine the light of Christ on this subject.
Justice and mercy are not competing values. Jesus sought justice but erred on the side of mercy. In The Joy of Love, Pope Francis writes, “[M]ercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth.”
Family members of murder victims sometimes say that they want the murderer to be put to death so they can experience closure. I acknowledge that in such situations forgiveness is very difficult and it may take a while to get there. But, as someone once said, hanging on to dark emotions like anger, grudges, bitterness and revenge is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.
True closure comes when we are able to forgive. It is a gift we give ourselves. To choose not to forgive someone is to choose to give that person continuous control and power over us emotionally and spiritually. It keeps us chained to the person.
Here are a few powerful, inspirational examples of forgiveness:
In April 1995 Bud Welch’s 23-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City along with 167 others. Bud, a Catholic, said that after her death, “I wanted [Timothy McVeigh, the killer] to fry. In fact, I’d have killed him myself if I’d had the chance.” But eventually, he realized that it was revenge and hate that had killed Julie and the others and he knew he had to move in a different direction. He started speaking out against the death penalty and finally forgave McVeigh about a year before his execution.
Just two days after nine people were killed in June 2015 inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, grieving loved ones expressed their mercy and compassion for Dylann Roof, the white supremacist gunman, even before they had a chance to bury their dead. They urged him to repent, confess his sins and turn to God.
In October 2006, Charles Roberts stormed into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and shot 10 young schoolgirls, killing five of them. He then killed himself. In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community reached out immediately to the shooter’s family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. For example, 30 Amish men and women attended Charles Roberts’ funeral. Terri Roberts, the mother of the shooter, said, “There are not words to describe how that made us feel that day. For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us — wow! Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?”
In the eyes of the world, it is crazy to forgive like these people did. But in the eyes of our Christian faith, it is even crazier not to forgive like them. People are much better than their worst acts and sins. We should not judge anyone by the worst thing they have done, as if it were the only thing they have done.
Justice is necessary, but by itself it is not enough. A world with justice alone would be a cold world. Mercy is an expression of love that goes beyond the demands of justice. It is the greatest form of justice. As Psalm 51 says, God’s justice is his mercy.
Bishop Thomas Zinkula