The upcoming execution date for Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a founder of the Crips street gang, has generated a lot of commentary on the subject of killing people. Some think killing people is appropriate in certain circumstances, like war and the death penalty. Others think killing is never appropriate. Both sides bolster their arguments with clippings from their sacred texts, whatever those may be. The one thing killing does is prevent redemption in this life. So the question really is “will we permit redemption?”
Most of us have experienced redemption in daily life. We do something bad that hurts another person, confess to them, make amends and then set about rebuilding trust by behaving better. The world’s religions frame the theology of this process differently, but the behavior looks the same no matter how one understands what goes on internally or spiritually. It is a universal human process that benefits everyone involved. Should we allow something like this, or should we forever prevent it by killing the wrongdoer?
Judging only by the news reports, the families of William’s victims don’t think he has gone through the steps of redemption to their satisfaction. He has done some good and useful things that have endeared him to some, but has not confessed or made amends to them. Should we prevent him from doing those things by killing him?
Those who study victims to better learn how to meet their needs recognize that victims follow unique yet predictable patterns in their healing process. The timetable can be different and the steps rearranged, but those who heal well have some things in common. One of the most helpful things in the healing process is for the offender to go through the steps of redemption. The victim has to be ready and the offender has to be sincere, but when those things come together it is beautiful to watch. Pennsylvania has an official program to make this process possible for murderers and the families of their victims, and Californians are working to make it possible here.
Should we allow victims to seek healing in this way, or should we prevent it by killing the offender? That is really the question when we discuss the death penalty. Would it be better to work at offering victims and offenders another option?
Three of the world’s great religions honor a murderer, Moses. He fled to escape justice, and some would say he found redemption. How would the world be different if the Egyptians had caught him as he fled? The issue is complex, but death ends the discussion and closes off all other possibilities.
Duane Ruth-Heffelbower directs the graduate academic programs in leadership and peacemaking at Fresno Pacific University. He leads the Fresno Victim Offender Reconciliation Program and is on the board of the American Society of Victimology.