The Most Holy Trinity
2015 – Cycle B
Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Psalm 33; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28:16-20
Are the virtues of justice and mercy at odds with each other?
Consider the ancient story of Cain and his brother Abel. Cain was resentful of his brother. After premeditation Cain invited Abel into the fields where he attacked and murdered him. Guilty Cain compounds the act with lies to escape being held responsible. Cain is punished for his act by becoming a restless wanderer on the face of the earth. Yet there is a curious detail. Cain releasing that anyone may kill him on sight makes complaint to God who in turn places a mark on Cain so that, “if anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold.” [Genesis 4:1-16]. God punishes yet protects the guilty Cain. Five generations later in Cain’s family line a second murder is recorded; this one by Lamech. The commentary? “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” [Genesis 4:23-24]. Are we to perceive that God’s protection widens through the generations?
Consider the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Their act of disobedience separated them from God, each other and creation. An act which introduced mistrust and blame, pain in child birth and struggle in farming and ultimately death into the story; yet what is God’s response? God makes clothes from leather for the humans to cover their nakedness and though banned from Eden God settles them east of Eden; the same land into which Cain will wander and settle.
The East, where the suns rises, has always been considered the place where God dwells. Are we to conclude that in their sin and guilt God draws Cain, Lamech, Adam and Eve, humanity closer to himself?
What is going on in these ancient stories? What truth do they convey? What of justice and mercy – for all are guilty?
There are consequences – punishments – for our sins. Most consequences are combined within our bad choices; a fundamental consequence is separation. Remember your last argument, your last lie, your last act of dishonesty or blaming someone else to escape being held personally responsible?
In all these situations what is needed is not punishment but restoration; restoration of that which has been separated. These all too human situations call for a mercy which gives birth to a justice; God’s justice. For what often passes as human justice is simply another name for revenge. And revenge is an insatiable dragon that devours the lives of all the people involved.
Consider other stories.
The woman caught in the act of committing adultery. More obviously is going on here than a mere sexual indiscretion. After meting out a justice rooted in mercy which saves her life, “Let the person among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at here” [John 8:7]. Jesus sends her home to reflect and restores her to her husband(?), her family?
Peter’s three lies. Imagine the feelings in the pit of Peter’s stomach when he first encounters Jesus after the resurrection. It would seem that was punishment enough. Yet separation is restored by a three-fold declaration of love. Have you ever considered what the end result would have been for Judas had he not committed suicide? Did Jesus not love him as deeply as Peter? What did Jesus see in Judas that Judas did not see in himself? Suicide prevented any possibility of a restoration in the relationship between him, Jesus and the disciples.
And finally the guilty thief crucified alongside Jesus…a simple, “Remember me…” [Luke 23:42] was the path to restoration of the breach within this man. John’s Gospel portrays Mary at the foot of the cross. Was she standing there alone or with the two other mothers? Was their pain and grief less because their sons were guilty? How would you feel if it was your child? Would guilt or innocence matter?
So why all these stories and questions?
On Friday, 15 May 2015 a federal jury sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his participation in the Boston Marathon bombing on 15 April 2013. The bombing killed 8-year-old Martin Richard and left his sister Jane without a leg. Also killed was 23-year-old Lingzi Lu, a Boston University graduate student from China and Krystle Marie Campbell, a 29-year-old from Arlington. Two-hundred-sixty people were injured. Videos show Tsarnaev standing behind the Richard family moments before the bomb went off. He knew children would be involved. He and his brother Tamerlan killed an MIT policeman, carjacked an SUV, and initiated an exchange of gunfire during which his brother was killed.
The act was premeditated. The defendant admitted to a role in the bombings. Littler to no remorse has been shown though Sister of Saint Joseph, Helen Prejean, who has met with Tsarnaev testified she believed he was sincere in his regret voiced to her. The outcome of this penalty phase was that the jury sentenced Tsarnaev to death.
Is the death penalty justice?
Yes it is, if your concept of justice is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…” [Exodus 21:24]…therefore a life for a life. Is that your concept of justice as a Christian?
What is the purpose of legitimate punishment?
The Catholic Church teaches: Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party. [Catechism of the Catholic Church #2266]
Like Judas’ suicide, the death penalty precludes any possibility of reflection, repentance and restoration which a life sentence without the possibility of parole would offer. Are there acts that place a person beyond redemption? Our ancient stories and the Gospels show us a God who desires not retaliation but healing. And let’s be honest, scars remain.
Do the biblical stories inform your understanding of the sacredness of all human life, of justice and mercy? If not, why not?
The Christian community is not the State but the Christian community has the responsibility of voicing its values in the public square in regard to the sanctity of all human life, even the life of a person which has chosen to act intentionally and aggressively against another person or society. Though the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty by legitimate authority our reflections have moved beyond that position. “Today…as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from them the possibility of redeeming themselves – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”” [Catechism of the Catholic Church #2267]
Like Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, and the women, are we not to walk with the condemned toward redemption and healing? And like John are we not to be present as he was to Mary to those whose lives have been irrevocably changed because of violence?
The virtues of justice and mercy at not at odds with each other; they are braided together so that all may experience healing.