Why I am so affected by this most recent tragedy, I do not know. Certainly the news reports are utterly filled with pain, suffering, abuse, death, corruption, rape, enslavement, war, homelessness, murder, and other disasters that afflict people. But this one — involving a person that I did not know and would never meet — took an emotional toll. Mollie Tibbetts was found dead in Iowa.
For weeks we heard the news that this vibrant University of Iowa student had gone missing while jogging and was still missing even after exhausting searches.
From all accounts Miss Tibbetts was a caring individual, well liked, was athletic, and had a bright future. She was a psychology major and undoubtedly was preparing herself to be of help and service to those who were troubled or needed the help of a caring, competent person. Almost all of her photographs on her social media page feature her with a brilliant smile. She seemed … happy.
Whatever her dreams for her life … whatever the dreams her family had for her future .. .all lie shattered and in ruins. Their anguish is unimaginable and incomprehensible. For whatever reason, this tragedy somehow touched me in a deep and inexplicable way and I, too, grieve for the life that has been lost. I grieve for the family that has been destroyed.
I am fully aware that her death was only one among the hundreds of thousands that have occurred in the world recently. Perhaps it’s because I have nine granddaughters that brings it so close to home. My oldest granddaughter is 23. The next oldest is 18. Mollie just turned 20 in May.
And, I confess, I am angry. I am furious at the animalistic brutality that infests and infects so much of the human race. This evil that manifests itself in the wanton slaughter of innocents of whatever age, gender, race, and condition.
On Aug. 18, about a month after Mollie went missing, the New York Times reported, “Pope Francis has declared the death penalty wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching that is likely to challenge Catholic politicians, judges and officials who have argued that their church was not entirely opposed to capital punishment.
“Before, church doctrine accepted the death penalty if it was ‘the only practicable way’ to defend lives … But Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are ‘an attack’ on human dignity … adding that the church would work ‘with determination’ to abolish capital punishment worldwide … Abolishing the death penalty has long been one of his top priorities, along with saving the environment and caring for immigrants and refugees.”
What about Mollie’s human dignity, Your Holiness? What about the attack on her family? What about saving other innocents and caring for victims of the monsters that prey on people who just want to live their lives in peace?
I recognize that the scriptures prohibit individuals from taking vengeance on evil-doers. Vengeance belongs to God alone. But the governing authorities have always been scripturally empowered to take lives under certain circumstances. The New Testament calls certain people “ministers of wrath.” Sometimes, God uses human devices to exact justice.
I confess, I was almost on the cusp. I listened to the voices that said, “If you are pro-life, it means you are anti-death penalty. Pro-life in one area means pro-life in all areas.” That argument is not without foundation.
But there is another view. Human life is so valuable, so sacred, that if one robs an innocent of life, then the guilty has only one payment that is sufficient — his own life is to be forfeit.
“But if the guilty is sent to prison without possibility of parole, is that a just punishment?” For whom? For the prisoner who will likely live to a ripe old age? All the while, taking his meals, working in the prison, working out in the yard, engaging in social contact with others, developing relationships, watching television, receiving visits from family members, receiving medical care, going to the dentist, reading his mail?
All at the expense of people like the Tibbetts family whose taxes go to support the murderer of their daughter?
For whom? For the families of the murdered who forever live with a hole in their hearts and a darkness in their lives as they grieve each and every day of their lives? For the families who, not only lost their child, but their grandchildren who will never be born? For the weddings they will never attend? For the graduations that will never happen? For the kisses and hugs and small personal conversations that are lost forever?
Is it just for a society that has to bear the financial burden for decades for the monsters that have been caged away?
No, I don’t think that the death penalty should be used frequently or when there is any possibility that future advancements might prove that the verdict was wrong and an innocent person was convicted. We see all too frequently that justice is not always blind, simple, or fair. There is no doubt that innocent people have been wrongly executed. When the evidence is circumstantial then caution should prevail.
But sometimes the evidence is overwhelming, incontrovertible, and irrefutable. And when it is and when the crime is so heinous, so barbaric, and so diabolical, then … well, Holy Father I think you are wrong.
Sometimes, like a rabid animal, the monster must be put down. Only then can we say that we have such a high regard for human dignity that, as a society, we will remove those from our midst who have marred and destroyed that dignity in their victims. Only then can the families of victims go to bed knowing that the person who murdered their beloved is not living off the people just a few miles down the road. Only then can we be fully assured that the killer will not kill again.
Some would declare that it is impossible for God’s will to be accomplished in the death penalty. Yet, He used that very method to assure the possibility that all humanity could be reconciled to Him. Jesus embraced the death of the cross. He said that he laid down his life freely.
That sounds foolish, and the Apostle Paul admitted that it did sound that way. Yet it was on the cross that Jesus was slain — unjustly — for all humanity. Human dignity came at a price.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City. He is the bishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U.S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]