Monday, April 18, 2005

Speaking of faith

Grrr... I had a sizable post written up when, in searching for a particular link, my Explorer froze up. Pinche fucking spyware sites, pinche fucking explorer.

Anyway, I was writing that one of the best shows on radio (or TV) these days is Speaking of Faith. It's a thoughtful, intelligent program that provides the most interesting and well-reasoned discussions of faith, religion and politics in America you are likely to find. The host, Krista Tippett, has a remarkable grasp on religious concepts and issues, and it shows through in the quality of the programming.

This weekend's program (listen here) was on religion and the death penalty in the US. One of the interviewees was Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote Dead Man Walking. She made a comment which raised issues abou the death penalty I had never previously considered. Roughly paraphrasing, she said that by sentencing people to death we freeze them in the moment of time when they comment their crime. In effect, society denies the potential for personal redemption or growth and instead elevates the values of retribution, restriction and deterrence.

I think that's right. Moreover, as a secular observer, I think it's what the death penalty ought to be doing. History shows us, of course, that people can and do change while on death row. Carla Fay Tucker's conversion from murderous drug addict to born-again prison preacher is a good example. Nonetheless, I would argue that post-conviction conversions have no bearing on the original crime and punishment. Ultimately, the death penalty is about retribution. There is no proof to suggest that the death penalty deters violent murders, and life imprisonment is equally effective at restricting murderers' actions. The sole remaining reason for state-sponsored killing is retribution. I, for one, have no problem with that justification. Retribution isn't necessarily civilized and it certainly isn't pretty, but if states settle on that as a proper punishment, then I can accept that.

My problem with the death penalty stems from the problems of uncertainty and bias. If the state is going to exercise its powers of coercion to execute people, than it damn well better do it with the highest degree of neutrality and accuracy possible. And that, my friends, near to impossible. Prosecutors, police, juries and judges are all flawed. Bias runs rampant in our society, including bias against race, religion and economic class. The fact that most people on death row in America are poor, black males is NOT indicative of innate tendencies in those people, but of innate biases in our system. And that reason alone, should be sufficient to render the death penalty invalid. Until we can create a criminal justice system that doesn't just aspire to neutrality and accuracy, but can actually achieve it, I don't think we ought to be executing anyone.

Thus, to get back to my original intention with this post, if you can, listen to Speaking of Faith. I think you will find it to be rewarding and thought-provoking.