THE BLOG
10/04/2011 04:01 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2011

The Death Penalty Is America's Blind Spot

I have a clean driving license -- no points. Not that this  distinction is of much import in my life these days, as we no longer have a car. And it must be said that I was not always so pure: I was penalized two points for a moving violation years ago, when I broadsided a brand-new Volkswagon at a gas station.

"What are you doing?!? the owner screamed. It was a reasonable question. "You backed right into me!"

The pavement wasn't  wet and I wasn't going more than four miles an hour. The VW wasn't moving at all. It was broad daylight. I was wearing my distance glasses. I had not been drinking, nor was I fatigued. I just didn't see her car -- it was black, and it was in my blind spot. Anybody who's ever backed up or overtaken another car on a two-lane road knows about the blind spot. You have to look twice when you look behind you before passing, not once.  

It certainly looked to my horrified victim like a deliberate act. Or an incredibly stupid one, which I guess is what it was. "You were in my blind spot," I said, apologizing over and over as we stood there waiting for the police to come. "I didn't see you." Not surprisingly, my explanation was not particularly well-received, and who could blame her?

I thought of this when the news came over the radio that the Supreme Court had refused to overturn Georgia's execution order in the Troy Davis case. It seemed his innocence had not been proven to everyone's satisfaction, a standard in American jurisprudence new to me. I thought we operated under a presumption of innocence here, and that it was guilt that needed to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But what do I know? I am neither a lawyer nor a judge.

But I am a  priest and a religious journalist, and as such am charged with pondering and commenting on what faith may say to us about the way in which we conduct our life together: a communal life lived not only with our co-religionists, but with the larger society in which we find ourselves. Faith is not only about the sublime and nourishing personal sense of God's love, though it certainly is about that. As central as the encounter with Christ is, it does not exist in a social vacuum. Faith is not faith without ethics.  

Christians believe in a life larger than the life we experience as physical beings. We believe there is more to life than meets the eye, that a spiritual dimension, mysterious and beyond our capacity to describe in the concrete ways we use to describe events in the world, is part of human reality. It is true that we affirm it without understanding very much about it at all, but our answer to "Is this all there is?" is a solid "No."

That said, we also affirm the sanctity of earthly life. We don't think it doesn't matter what happens here because we're all going to heaven anyway. We don't think we'd be better off dead. Life matters. Death is an enemy. We found hospitals, sit on their ethics committees, visit the sick. We stand against death, until the moment comes when it is time to leave this world, when life in the body at last becomes too heavy to lift. Then Death, too, becomes an angel, setting the strong spirit free to enter the immediacy of God's unfiltered presence.

Human beings do not have the right to end life prematurely, before that last moment arrives. We need not torture the dying with heroic lifesaving measures after it has become clear that these will not avail, but we can't kill people to whom death has not already laid claim. Even soldiers, who must stand ready to take life in the line of duty, do not escape the stain -- just ask somebody who has had to do it. The Christian theory of the just war, in which self-defense is broadly defined to include the prevention of a greater violence, does not provide a road to the taking of life that avoids the stain. It may mitigate, but it does not absolve. This is one of the many reasons why we recognize a duty to care for soldiers and military veterans: not just because they must sacrifice their safety on our behalf,  but also because they must sacrifice their innocence.

That Troy Davis may have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed may someday be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. If it is, he will join the ranks -- not small in number -- of innocents killed by the state. Even a supporter of the death penalty must acknowledge this as tragic.   

But the greater tragedy is that Americans think capital punishment is ever appropriate. That we do not ask ourselves why it is that we cling to it, in company with regimes we consider wholesale violators of the human rights about which we are very willing to lecture them every chance we get. That we do so in the face of abundant clear evidence that capital punishment fails to deter violent crime. This cognitive dissonance bewilders the countries we like to believe admire us and our way of life. They do admire us, in many ways. But not in that one.  

America has a blind spot.  

The death penalty panders to the basest part of our personalities: our craving for revenge. Everybody has this craving, but we learn in early childhood that violence does not bring about peace. Our parents teach us to talk things out, rather than hitting each other, when we disagree. Growing up is a process of  learning to say no to ourselves about many things, and revenge is one of them. This is not easy: the desire for revenge is a natural desire, upon which we must learn not to act. Punishment in the service of restraining evil? Yes. In the service of exacting payment of a debt to society? In order to ensure society's safety? Yes, there are criminals who must never again be allowed to go free. But revenge? No. Though we acknowledge our primitive longing for it, we must learn to say no. Revenge is far from a solution to violence. It fuels it.

Mature individuals have learned to control this universal urge. Many societies have learned to control it. But not ours. Can we really call ourselves civilized until we do?

China, together with Iran, North Korea, Yemen and the United States, carried out the most executions last year. Runners up include Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Libya under Muamar Qaddafi. In Europe, only Belarus retains the death penalty in its law; abolition is required of European Union member states. See a complete listing of state-sponsored executions carried out worldwide last year.