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I don’t often get political in this forum, but I’m going to take a risk and go there today. As Election Day nears, it seems to me that barring any extreme revelations everyone has settled on whom they are going to vote for and why. We’ve come to terms with our decision and I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. I appreciate that during this painful election season, most of us have had to dig a little deeper than usual. Instead of simply pulling the lever along party lines, we’ve had to consider what is of ultimate importance to us, what we can live with and what we can’t live without. I think it’s healthy that my kids are being exposed to so many heated conversations at the dinner table, even though Tim and I consistently vote the same way.

But if you live in California there is an issue you may not have decided on yet: the two death penalty propositions.

Let me say right off the bat that I do not believe in the death penalty. From the research I’ve done, it fails to work as a serious deterrent to crime, as a cost-saving measure, or as an instrument of justice, but I do understand how significant it must feel when a perpetrator forfeits their life in payment for their crimes. I’m not saying it’s an easy decision to make, but if you are conflicted about which is the better option, I’m hoping you’ll read on.
For the last decades, the end-the-death-penalty movement has been growing across the nation and in each election cycle, Californians get closer and closer to making the decision to end the practice in our state. In fact, we got so close four years ago that Prop 66 was written simply to confuse the issue and keep the death penalty in place. The motto of Prop 66 is that they can “mend it not end it,” but I don’t believe that’s possible and certainly not according to their method, which is to hurry up executions by REDUCING the number of safeguards. The efficient answer isn’t the right one in this case, nor does it address any of the greatest moral and practical objections to this increasingly rare method of justice. You might be surprised to see the company we keep on a global scale by maintaining this practice. Check it out here. (Spoiler Alert: China, North Korea and Iran make the list.)

But apart from practical reasons for abolishing the death penalty, I feel even more strongly about the moral ones. As most of you know, I have some personal experience with being “pro-life.” I was raised a Catholic Christian and part of my upbringing was to honor a “consistent ethic of life,” in the words of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, from “womb to tomb.” That ethic played a huge role in my decision to change the course of my life at 19 and become a birth mother. Abortions were safe, affordable, and readily available and many friends urged me to make that decision. It could have all been over within 24 hours of that positive pregnancy test, but I believed in the value of protecting a child’s life over preserving the privileged conditions of my own. I believed it on an intellectual and moral level, but I also believed it on an instinctual one. We are made in the “image of God” and I was not about to extinguish that Divine spark. Instead, my desire has always been to nurture that spark within myself and at the very least, claim and hold space for it, especially when others don’t see it in themselves, or their enemies.

But being “pro-life” was never a political litmus test for me, because having that ethic goes so far beyond simply outlawing abortion. Conception and birth are the first steps of life, but they are not the only ones that matter. I love this statement by Sr. Joan Chittister clarifying the terms for her audience.

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It’s easy to cherish those first few breaths of innocent life, but we are by no means allowed to forget the rest. I love how Richard Rohr puts it. When people insist that “God loves innocent life,” he responds, “Oh dear, I hope not!” for who among us is innocent? Beyond the implications of what “pro-life” means when it comes to social services, education, and our moral obligations, for me, being “pro-life” is also reflected in how I respond to end of life issues such as suicide, aging, euthanasia and mental health issues.

And if you aren’t “pro-life,” but are pro-justice, then please consider the fact that innocent people die through our use of this instrument and that is not justice. More and more DNA exonerations take place every year. Additionally, prisoners on death row are overwhelmingly people of color, of poverty, and of limited mental capacity and that is not justice. Their percentages are not commensurate with the rate at which they commit heinous crimes, but are rather a direct reflection of the life-saving privilege that money, color and connections can buy. If you believe that #alllivesmatter, then voting Yes on Prop 62 and No on Prop 66 is one way to stand up and show your support for the lives that many would rather forget. Prop 66 does nothing to address these (and other) deeply unjust patterns.

Grappling with this subject is difficult, especially if you were raised to believe that all people were equal in the eyes of the law and that justice would always be served when it simply isn’t true.

I don’t have the space here for the data and detailed statistics arguing why the death penalty doesn’t work. Other people have done it passionately and effectively, so I’m sharing a list of books and films that have shaped my thoughts on the subject. And there are a lot of thoughts to be shaped!

  • Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy
  • Fr. Greg Boyle: Tattoos on the Heart
  • Sr. Helen Prejean: Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents
  • Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow
  • Thirteenth, now of Netflix

And finally, I want to address one more issue. One of the biggest arguments for keeping the death penalty in place, and one of the hardest to refute, is that  so many of the victim’s families want it to remain. I cannot even pretend to know the depth of their pain, but in the case of many families, the execution of justice through the death penalty did not bring them the relief they sought. After having gone through the process, more and more family members are speaking out against the death penalty. Here is a small collection of their testimonies, as well as the example of Tamika Brown that I wrote about in early 2015.

The bottom line? I’m voting

Yes on 62 and No on 66.

For more information, you can check out Death Penalty Information Center, or Yeson62.com 

Finally, if you are Catholic and want to hear an extensive interview with Jennifer Bonakdar, Yes on Prop 62 leader, as well as Beth Webb, a sister of a murder victim, who is opposed to capital punishment, you can tune in HERE to the Immaculate Heart Radio replay.

 

 

Author’s Note: My editor, a.k.a. my sweet husband, commented that people might not get past the treatise on theology that kicks off this post. He thought I should ask you to PLEASE stick with it and watch the video at the end. It’s worth it. Thanks!

I woke early this morning, like 4 a.m. early, and decided to tackle one of my theology chapters for the Living School. I find it much easier to get through this type of work with a well-rested mind. What looks like gibberish at 10 p.m. somehow becomes intelligible after seven hours of sleep. This particular chapter was from a book called Christophany by Raimon Pannikar. Here is a sample:

Here we see clearly delineated a twofold dimension of Christianity that a dualistic vision of reality has difficulty keeping in harmony, despite the fact that nonduality is the quintessence of Christ’s mystery – totus Deus et totus homo (“The whole God and the whole man”) according to the classical expression. An inevitable consequence of this “panhistorical” vision of Christianity would be that the eucharist cannot be Christ’s real and true presence, but only an anamnesis (“memory”) of a past fact. In other words, without a mystical vision, the Eucharistic reality disappears.

After reading it the first time, there was nothing “clearly delineated,” and no “inevitable consequence” was obvious to me. However, after several passes a modicum of understanding emerged. If his meaning is crystal clear to you, leave a comment below and we will discuss.

However, if that paragraph of theology leaves you cold, read on.

I will confess, there is some part of me that loves academic work. I love the puzzle, the working things out, the “Aha” moment when I finally grasp the author’s point. It’s even better when I have not just comprehension, but also an opinion on their argument. That is a true victory!

But as I find myself being intellectually and egoically seduced by the power of knowledge, I also know, in the pit of my stomach, that it’s “nothing but straw,” as Thomas Aquinas infamously said in the final days of his life. Ultimately, on a cold day, in the concrete reality of our lives, most of what has been written about God would be most useful as fuel for a fire to keep us warm. Theology simply falls short of experiential knowledge. Simply put, our study of the Divine has far less of an impact on us than our experience of it.

The only theology we truly need to know is that God is Love with a capital L. Jesus gave us only two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. Like Hillel, he thought the rest would take care of itself. St. Augustine said simply, “Love God and do as you please.” But even this simple theology is worthless if we are not Loved in real life, in real ways, by real people, intentionally, compassionately, fiercely and unconditionally. Without the lived experience of deeply committed Love, by parent, spouse, friend or community, even this theology can be twisted and misunderstood.

I know academic studies of theology, philosophy and the like are crucially important disciplines. They elevate and animate conversations at the highest levels and shape our educational system and our vision of the world. They record the evolution of our collective consciousness. Without Plato, Socrates, Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, without Descartes and Voltaire, Locke and Hobbes, and countless others, we would not be where we are today. But these subjects are not for everyone and I am grateful for the “1%ers” who study them responsibly and have an opportunity to influence our world.

I know what they’ve done is good, but I read a story about Tamika Brown today, who is the embodiment of a lived theology of Love and

I am convinced that if all the theology in the world from every culture and religion, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and every other, ceased to exist tomorrow and instead we all Loved like this, the world would be a better place.

Two years ago, Tamika’s son, Richie Knight, was stabbed to death when he was 19 years old. His killer was Ian Lorne Ellis, a 17-year-old young man from the neighborhood, who Richie had been in confrontations with in the months before the murder. Ellis pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and will serve twenty-one years in prison. This is what Tamika had to say to him in the courtroom on the day of his sentencing.

“Only God knows why I’m not angry, or why I don’t hate you. Would it shock you to hear that I love you? I thought to myself one day a while back, ‘Don’t lock him up. Sentence him to my home. Let him be my son that he took away from me.’”

Can you imagine if we all sought justice this way? If loss opened us up and allowed us to give birth to something new and miraculous, instead of hardening our hearts, seeking retribution?

Tamika sang to her son’s killer about the source of her Love, starting with the song, “He Cares,” but changing a few words on the spot:

“So you think that you can’t make it through,/ Just remember that my God cares for you…/Don’t give up, don’t give in/ Today make Jesus Christ your number one friend.”

In suffering, Tamika knew Love, but instead of sharing it only with her friends and family, she extended it to the other, her enemy. No one can say this is soft, or easy, or wishy-washy theology. This is Love from its the deepest source, in any culture and by any name. She changed the equation. We are accused and we get defensive; we are Loved and we can be transformed.

Theology is all well and good, but it should never trump the embodied reality of Love. Think of France and Nigeria. Think of Israel and Palestine, ISIS and Iraq. Think of Leelah Alcorn. All these tragedies were based on mistaken theologies, ones that said there was a something greater than Love. We have to do better.

I may study theology, but I choose Love.

If you want to read the local news story, click here.