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Lent and the Hidden Cost of Capital Punishment

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Christianity is an odd religion in that the central human figure, Christ, is executed by the state. We don't see that in other faiths: Siddhartha Gautama Buddha died of food poisoning at age 80, and the Prophet Muhammad died of natural causes at 63.

It should mean something to Christians, then, that an execution is at the center of the faith and this season of Lent. One part of that meaning could have something to do with those who were a part of the process -- the prosecutor, the judges, the witnesses and executioners. The process of execution led them all to some form of ruin: Judas, the government cooperator, was torn asunder; Peter, called to be a witness, denied Christ; Caiaphus, the prosecutor, was so tortured he tore at his clothes; Pilate, the person who decided clemency, was tortured by the decision; and even the Centurion guard at the execution itself cried out at the injustice he saw.

These broken people of the gospels foreshadow a terrible cost hidden within our current use of the death penalty.

In modern America, we leave the job of looking a man in the eye and saying, "we have chosen that you die," to jurors -- average citizens plucked from their lives and paid $40 a day to make this cruelest choice. How is that fair? I have spoken to some capital jurors, and it is often a haunting decision. Certainly, given the exonerations we have seen, there must always be that most terrible thought: "What if we were wrong?" One of the great crimes of the condemned in these cases is the fear that they wrought in innocents. How ironic, then, that the process of killing the condemned would create such fear in people equally innocent, whose only crime was to show up dutifully for jury service.

Death is different. Capital cases chew up many of those involved, including the victims' family members who are put through lengthy appeals, the jailers who must oversee the killing of someone they have come to know, the prosecutors who must argue for death, and the defense attorneys whose representation ends unforgettably with the stark and intentional death of their client at the hands of the state.

The characters in the story of Lent are people who are very real in their strengths and weaknesses. It must mean something that they are shown in the gospels as so tortured by being a part of the machinery of death. The question left to us by this aspect of the gospel story is nothing less than this: Setting all else aside, is the death penalty worth the cost to these innocents, the citizen-jurors and dutiful workers?

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