Justice with Temperance (the Death Penalty and our Better Angels)

Melissa and Ty Jenkins, photo accessed from WCAX.com

I’m proud to live in a state that does not have the death penalty. I’m a staunch pacifist, and I believe that nonviolence isn’t weakness, but requires profound strength. It is by no means easy.

Vermont State Police arrested a couple yesterday, and charged them with second degree murder in the death of Melissa Jenkins. Allen and Patricia Prue allegedly worked together to lure Miss Jenkins out of her home, calling to ask her for assistance with their vehicle. Mr. Prue confessed to strangling the young woman outside her vehicle and then the couple allegedly worked together to dispose of her body and other evidence.

What they have done is beyond belief, defies understanding. It literally disgusts me. There’s no apparent motive,  just deranged behavior, cold-blooded and brutal slaughter. It’s inhuman. On the simplest, most reactionary level of myself, I want to see them suffer for what they did to Melissa and to her son, Ty.

But wanting them to suffer and actually advocating for it, making it happen, are entirely different things. That difference, thin a line as it may be to walk, represents for me the fullness of what it means to live with compassion, temperance, justice, and love. It is what it means to be human and to yearn for the Holy.

The comments sprout up wherever the stories about Melissa Jenkins and the Prues are posted, calling for mob justice for Melissa’s killers (“string them up in the streets!”), advocating torture, hoping for them to be strangled as Miss Jenkins was strangled, and bemoaning the fact that Vermont does not have the death penalty. Again, I don’t begrudge anyone those feelings. They come from our deep sense of moral outrage at a senseless and unthinkable crime. They bubble up out of our shared humanity and the horror of how profoundly the Prues violated the injunction to care for and protect our fellow human beings.

Allen and Patricia Prue, murder suspects in the case of Melissa Jenkins, photo accessed at WCAX.com

But we cannot become the sort of monsters who act out of our most primal instincts. That accomplishes nothing. That doesn’t separate us from the alleged murders.

I categorically oppose the death penalty. My opposition falls into two main categories.

1. The death penalty does not serve any practical purpose. It does not save money to execute criminals as compared to housing them in prisons for the durations of their lives. This is because of the lengthy (and often economically and racially biased) appeals process associated with convicted inmates on death row. Furthermore, it does not deter people from committing murder, as most murders are committed by people who are either criminally insane (and therefore incapable of grasping and being deterred by consequences), or in the heat of passion (and are therefore not thinking about consequences and not deterred by them).

But more importantly in my opinion,

2. The death penalty does not enact justice, and reduces the community seeking justice to the same level as the killers.

It’s not that we are holier-than-thou. We’re not. As I said in my post earlier this week, the fact that we all have to face is that this evil we are confronting, this instinct or propensity toward violence, is in all of us. From that post: “We are the unknown killer[s] on the roadside, separating a mother from a child, snuffing a life because we can. We are the mob before Pilate, along the road to Calvary, jeering at the foot of the cross.” Somewhere deep in our reptilian, fight or flight brains, we all have the potential to be monsters.

What makes us human, what makes us better than our brokenness, is the choice to act not out of that base, reactionary brain. What makes us a human family, a people of faith in something other or more than our own fears and faults, is the choice to live out of love.

We think, in the moment, that vengeance is justice, that it is fair to give to others what they have dished out. Even when we can acknowledge that killing the killers cannot bring back the victims, we can’t help but think it would feel really good to see that kind of retribution served. If everybody in the Northeast Kingdom got to watch the painful execution of Allen and Patricia Prue and then dance around in a modern day Purim ritual, we think that might help us heal. But the truth is, it won’t. Time will help us heal. Compassion will help us heal. Helping Melissa’s family and her son Ty (for example, there is a trust fund set up here) will help us heal. Learning to somehow trust again enough to pull our cars over and lend a helping hand– and I tell you, that will take some time for me– will help us heal.

I said on Monday that there is something stronger than violence and death and despair: Love. Love has the power to pull us up out of the darkness, away from the worst of ourselves. But we have to let it. For people of faith, we have to ask ourselves: if our religion doesn’t make us better people, doesn’t challenge us to rise above instinct, what good is it? If God– whose nature is Love– doesn’t make us more loving, then what sort of god do we serve?

We aren’t any different from the murder suspects unless we choose to be.

Will you join me in calling for justice– seasoned with temperance– for Melissa’s killers?

7 Responses

  1. Good post Becca. As a UMC pastor who lives in Texas, I can testify to several of your points: In Texas, the cost to execute someone runs well over 2.5 million dollars, whereas to house them in the prison for one year is around $28,000. Economically, it makes little sense. Secondly, it violates the basic tenants of our Christian faith and our denominational belief that it takes redemption off the table. Carla Fay Tucker was 18 when she and some friends, high on drugs, committed a heinous, terrible crime of murder. She was sentenced to death. While on death row, she became a Christian and was completely transformed. She ministered to other inmates, to guards and visitors. She was a powerful witness to the power of God in Jesus Christ to transform our lives and hearts and to become a new creation. It was argued in public and in court to commute her sentence to life without parole. Our then Gov., George W. Bush, refused to use his authority to stop the execution, and Tucker was executed.

    The murder of Melissa Jenkins is heinous as well, and the responsible persons should have justice applied to them. Killing them, either by the state’s action or by vigilante justice is not the answer. The bottom line for me is this: I cannot imagine Jesus condoning the death of anyone, and his crucifixion testifies to this very point.

    • Thank you, my brother (I presume from your blog).

      The United Methodist position on the death penalty is one that I fully support– we stand against the death penalty because it denies the possibility of transformation and it does not offer restoration.

      I agree wholeheartedly with your post, especially your last line. I can’t imagine Jesus condoning execution, and I believe his life, ministry, and particularly his death, bear powerful witness to this point.

      God’s peace from across the connection,
      Becca

  2. LOVE is absolutely stronger than any amount of evil the devil cares to dish up in this world! Every time any mention of the death penalty is made, my husband always says, “What part of “Thou shalt not kill.” do they not understand. He was a C.O., as well! Praise be!

  3. [...] Justice with Temperance (the Death Penalty and our Better Angels) [...]

  4. [...] my original post, and one that’s specific to the UMC). Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailStumbleUponLike [...]

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