I’ve been reading and hearing variants of the words in this headline since Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev* was killed in a gun battle with police.
Things Christians Shouldn’t Say: “I hope he’s in Hell.”
Since the capture of his brother, Dzhokhar, I’ve also seen various sadistic fantasies about how he should be treated, each more lurid than the last, all of them steeped in blood and violence.
I understand the impulse behind that: I really do. It’s hard to express outrage commensurate with the crimes these two committed, and even harder to comprehend the impulse behind them. The reasonable mind rejects the idea that human beings can be this callous and evil, and since reason seems to have no place in the equation, the mind moves downward into sadism to try to grasp their wickedness and respond in kind.
And that’s exactly the wrong way to respond. The mind needs to move upward to God.
Violence certainly wasn’t the first response of those in Boston: the people who rushed to the aid of others, and the city united in tragedy and willing to assert their pride and fight back. I don’t doubt that many Bostonians still would like “just five minutes with Dzhokhar,” but many seemed more likely to do what humans usually do in response to tragedy, disaster, and violence: become closer to their neighbors, hug their kids tightly, and do good.
The normal human response to the vile acts of these people is to seek revenge and want blood. That’s certainly my first impulse, and it was the impulse that drove the ancient world up until a Man who was also God came along and said, No: you have to do better. Jesus didn’t tell us not to have enemies. He didn’t even tell us not to fight. (Matt 5:39 must be considered alongside Luke 22:36.) He did, however, tell us to love our enemies and pray for them, because he wanted our enemies to be saved as well.
That’s the horrible-wonderful part of this Christianity thing. The proper, Christian response to something like the bombings is the best possible response: help those in need, pray for both victims and the perpetrators, and then just place it all in the hands of God. Because we don’t know what He has planned.
Hell for Tamerlan?
I only turn on TV news if something really big is breaking. At 8 on Friday Fox was on, and Bill O’ Reilly came on and did what the Catholic Church doesn’t actually do: he declared that someone is in Hell. Here was my initial reaction:
Tamerlan may in fact be in Hell.
Oddly enough, I hope he’s not.
Yeah, we’re pretty perverse, us Christians.
I’d rather think that, after his brother dragged his body under the wheel of his getaway car, and as he breathed his last, he was visited by Christ, repented, and found salvation.
It’s a horrible thought, isn’t it?
Justice–God’s justice, more than man’s–would seem to demand eternal punishment. Hell is, in fact, wholly just for those who violate laws of God and man. Nothing would be more just, then, for Tamerlan to spend eternity to swimming in the lake of fire.
But we have to ask, again: is that what Jesus wanted? After all, he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, and he made no real distinction about the nature, gravity, or wickedness of the sins.
Surely the Christian-hunter Saul should have been knocked from his horse and straight into Sheol for his sins, yet he became one of the greatest of all Christians. Weren’t there thousands of people better suited for the job of Apostle to the Gentiles? And wasn’t Jesus trying to tell us–and the early Church–something very important by selecting a man with blood on his hands to write half of his New Testament? Rather than sending him to Hell, He caught him up to the Third Heaven.
In short, don’t be so hasty in consigning others to damnation. The Church definitively pronounces on those who it thinks is in Heaven, but makes no such pronouncements of those it believes to be in Hell.
And last I checked, it hadn’t delegated that power to Bill O’Reilly.
As for the other half of this headline: people should never use the word “hope” in this way. Hope is one of the theological virtues: the things which allow us to know God and conform to his will. It is a powerful virtue, and should never be used so callously as to wish the opposite of what God would want.
God may in fact will the damnation of of Tamerlan as an act of his divine justice, but he would never want any of his children to “hope” for it. We hope in salvation. That hope should extend to our enemies, with the desire that God’s will be done, because we cannot see all ends. Hell is a place of no hope, no love, no faith. Given that our mandate as Christian is to live with and preach those virtues, we certainly shouldn’t be so quick to abuse them for the purpose of vengeance.
Eternal justice is God’s alone. He can exercise it quite well without your help.
Death for Dzhokhar?
And now it’s time to really confuse my readers, some of whom objected to my suggestion of mercy for abortion butcher and serial killer Kermit Gosnell. Given that the last few popes have urged that the death penalty no longer be applied, this seems wholly reasonable, since both justice and public safety can be maintained by keeping Gosnell in prison for life.
I’m not sure the same can be said in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. This would seem perverse, since Gosnell killed many more people than Tsarnaev, but the key here is the issue of public safety.
If Dzhokhar is convicted and imprisoned for life, two possible scenarios need to be considered. Will a Muslim radical who killed Americans on American soil in an act of jihad become a folk hero to Muslim radicals around the world? Israel already faces issues with terrorists kidnapping their citizens and soldiers and demanding the release of radical prisoners. In addition, there’s a danger of a long prison sentence allowing Dzhokhar to continue to spread his message and radicalize others. He might have 60, 70 years left to him.
And can you imagine him ever being released?
If you can’t, then you really need to acquaint yourselves with the names Bill Ayers, Kathy Boudin, and Bernardine Dohrn, and then imagine 30 years from now, a “rehabilitated” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev getting a cushy teaching post at Columbia.
Weighed against this, you have the obvious witness to mercy, the denial of a martyr’s death, and the possibility that Dzhokhar will repent and embrace Christ.
Support for the death penalty is not akin to support for abortion. Abortion, as the taking of an innocent life, is always gravely evil. The key word there is not “life” but “innocent.” In the case of the death penalty, we are not talking about taking an innocent life, but one that is guilty of crimes against God and man. Support for it is a matter of prudential judgment. Bernardin’s “seamless garment” argument is theological nonsense.
After considering the Gosnell case, I think mercy is warranted because both punishment of the wicked and protection of society are honored by life in prison, which, given his age, will not be long. I also believe that responding to the poster boy for the Culture of Death and the abortion industry with a plea for mercy is a powerful and needed witness for a Culture of Life.
In the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, we need to consider other issues, however.
Is it possible he will ever get out? Given his age and our short memories, yes, it’s possible.
Is it possible he will be a danger to the public if he is imprisoned for life? Given his motives (radical religious fundamentalism acting in a global war against American citizens and interests), it seems quite obvious that he could be.
It’s too early to tell whether the death penalty will be pursued, and whether Catholics should support it if it is pursued. It’s still an open question for me, but I think as the story and case comes to light, Catholics should be able to learn what they can and make a prudential judgment about the support for, or rejection of, the application of the death penalty.
We do well to reject the death penalty whenever we can. Doing so promotes a wider culture of life and exercises the most powerful witness to God: mercy.
But there may be times when its application is in the good of society, if only to protect society in a way life in prison cannot. The Boston bombings may be one of those cases.
UPDATE: Just to put this all in context for those reaching all the way back to Trent for their thoughts on the death penalty, here is where matters stand:
CCC 2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
*Here’s a child-rearing tip the Tsarnaev’s should have considered: naming your son after one of history’s most notorious mass-murderers probably isn’t such a hot idea. He was pretty much the Muslim Hitler.