Killing Me Softly?

I just got an appeal in my e-mail asking me to contact my governor because the state is poised to bring back an old method of execution.  Specifically, the e-mail calls this method of execution “barbaric” and says that we need to act fast to prevent the state from taking this giant step backwards. Which got me thinking. Is it?

Why are we debating about the methods we use to kill people? Let me say that again – why are we focusing the debate on the methods we use to kill people? Has anyone noticed that we’re still killing people? Why should we be making it more socially acceptable? Why should we be making it more palatable for the public?

We don’t like to say that we kill people, so we use the word “execute.” But what does that mean? The word means to carry out or carry through.  It’s come to mean “to put to death according to law” or “to murder or assassinate” because we keep using it that way – but it’s a euphemism.  So I say if we’re going to do the deed, let’s call it what it is.  Putting to death according to the law.  We are killing people.

Now, I understand why attorneys who are appealing death sentences often appeal on the grounds of the methods used. If I were trying to save someone’s life I would use every method open to me, and that would include going after methods. But for the rest of us, I think it is distracting from the real issue. While we debate whether it’s better to hang people to death, or electrocute them, or stand them in front of firing squads, or give them lethal doses of drugs, we are still killing people. We put 28 people to death in the U.S. in 2015 (overwhelmingly black and latino).

Let us consider Exodus 20:13.  Much depends upon the translation of the Hebrew here.  Some translate ratzach as murder, and some as kill.  But the form of the verb is clear.  It is not an intense form – there is no intensity added.  The command is You shall not do ratzach.  Further, the command is in the second person singular.  It is aimed at each one of us individually.  YOU, yes YOU sitting there reading this, YOU shall not kill. Perhaps you translate that as you shall not murder.  But where do we draw that line?

When we kill people, we are diminished. J.K. Rowling has told us that this is how we create horcruxes – we divide our own souls. And we have done something irreversible. We cannot say “I’m sorry” and make it all better. It doesn’t matter how we do it. We can give people teddy bears and tuck them in and kill them in their sleep, and they will still be dead. And we will still be responsible.

Perhaps we ought to stick with the more gruesome methods of putting people to death. Perhaps we ought to go back to firing squads and hangings. Let us keep the hard truths in front of the people. Dead is dead.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.


Vengeance and the Mark of Cain

Cain was troubled.  He was deeply troubled.  He was the older brother.  He worked the land.  He kept to his business and his brother Abel kept to his business of tending the flocks.  And then there was the day that both Cain and Abel presented their offerings to the Lord.  And God preferred Abel’s offering.

Now, nowhere in the Bible does it tell us why God preferred Abel’s offering.  Maybe the Lord was just in the mood for meat that day.  Nowhere does it say that Cain’s offering was inferior.  Nowhere does it say that Abel’s heart was purer.  All it says is that the Lord preferred Abel’s offering.  But that was the start of everything.

After that, Cain was sullen.  He was moody.  He wouldn’t talk about it.  God wanted him to talk about it.  God asked him about it.  Right there in Genesis 4:6-7 God asks Cain why he’s angry, and tells him that if he doesn’t talk about it and just broods, trouble is waiting.  God knows these things.  Cain wouldn’t talk.

Then Cain, who was angry at his brother, set out to kill his brother. The first murder.  Brother against brother.  He lured Abel out into the field, and he killed him there.

Now Cain clearly knew what he had done was wrong, because he tried to hide from God. The thing is, you can’t hide from God.  And then he tried to lie to God.  That doesn’t work especially well, either.

Well, God has to deal with this.  God tells Cain that the earth will no longer yield to him, and that he will be a wanderer.  Cain is terrified, and tells the Lord that wherever he goes, people will try to harm him, but the Lord tells Cain that they won’t.  The Lord puts a mark on Cain – the mark of Cain – as a warning to others – that they may not harm him.  Only the Lord could pass judgement and mete out punishment.

No, this story didn’t literally happen.  That’s not the point.  It’s in the Bible because this problem, this brother problem, this problem of humanity, has been around…forever.  It’s in the Bible because we need to learn from it.  Because people still feel slighted and then deal with it by killing.  And then we have to figure out as a society how we deal with that.

The authorities, it seems, have caught the man who allegedly killed my friend Ross Reisner.  He was armed and in a house in Tennessee.  Another friend posted this on Facebook, and several of us have shared the story.  And of course, people have been posting comments.

There is anger.  There is sadness.  There is some relief.  Some people want vengeance.  Oh, that vengeance thing.  So first, I need to say that I begrudge no one his or her feelings. The feelings we have are the feelings we have.  We are entitled to them, and I really hate it when one person tells another “you shouldn’t feel that way,” or “don’t feel that way,” or “you should be [fill in emotion here].”  No one can dictate another person’s emotions.

I understand wanting vengeance.  Wanting and exacting are different things, though.  We have to decide as a society if we want to be in the business of exacting vengeance, or if we would rather set our sights on reform.

Personally, I oppose the death penalty.  I tell you this, and I will also tell you that there are some people in this world whom I would not at all miss.  This is why we agree to live by rules in society, I think.  We don’t get to exact our own revenge.  We determine, as a society, what is right.

So now, in the case of my friend Ross’s murder, what is right?  It appears that the assailant is mentally ill.  How ill?  I don’t know.  Does that make a difference?  Should it?

We make a big stink about people getting their hands on guns, and I do think that’s a problem, but I think that spending so much time talking about that is an easy way to avoid a bigger issue.  How can we get people the mental health care they need?  What if this man had gotten appropriate mental health care?  Would my friend still be alive?  What if we stopped stigmatizing mental illness?  Would people seek the care they needed then?

This man can’t be allowed to roam the streets freely.  He’s dangerous.  Locking him up now may protect some people in the future, but it won’t bring Ross back.  Getting him help, getting him well again might be a mercy, but it won’t bring Ross back.  It might help the man to have remorse, but it won’t change the past.

I don’t have all the answers.  I know which way I lean.  The Bible tells us that this is in God’s hands.  I’d prefer that we as humans would focus on rehabilitation and leave the punishment to God.  This doesn’t seem to be how we function. I wonder, though, if anyone will find peace in this. I pray it will be so.


So Much Loss

It was a long day, mostly because I developed a mega-migraine, so I went to bed after my day-long meeting, and didn’t get online until this evening.  Eventually I thought I ought to check my e-mail, and see what was happening on Facebook.  So often, Facebook is filled with kitten memes, political rants, and pictures of culinary accomplishments.  Not today, friends, not today.

I logged on and discovered that Ross Reisner, a friend from my summers at Camp Winamac, a friend from my youth, was murdered in his home on Tuesday night.  I haven’t seen Ross since 1977, I think, but I never stopped thinking of him as my friend.

Now, Ross was allegedly shot by a disturbed man who had been renting a room from him.  Ross apparently had a restraining order against him, because the man had, it seems, attacked him with a knife once before.  I could go on here about easy access to guns.  I could go on about how we still stigmatize mental illness, how we don’t provide enough or adequate access to care.  I could go on about how we think restraining orders will help people but they’re really just an illusion.  I could go on about those things, but that’s not what this post is about.  This is about grief and loss.

So first I need to tell you about Camp Winamac and how magical and wonderful that place was.  It was a horsebackriding camp in Bennington, NH.  It wasn’t the most expensive camp. It was just the best one.  At least, it was the best one for me, and for so many other Winamacers.

There were rich kids, and poor kids and plenty of in-between kids.  And none of that mattered there.  If you wanted, you could be part of the stable crew.  That meant getting up at a quarter-to-six (which sounds better than 5:45) to muck out the stalls and feed the horses, and it meant getting a special horse assigned to you for the summer.  This wasn’t the horse that you got to ride all the time, but it was the horse that you were responsible for.  Well, I wanted.  And Ross wanted.  We were both part of the stable crew.  My horse was Inky.  Ross’s horse was a large pony named Muffin.

Ross adored Muffin.  OK, to be fair, we all adored our respective horses.  We would sometimes gently rib Ross about Muffin, because Muffin was such a good pony.  Muffin was the pony everyone wanted to ride – well-behaved, responsive, comfortable.  What’s not to like?  Come to think of it, they were a pretty good match.  I mean, I can’t recall Ross ever really getting ruffled by anyone.  He was just good-natured and kind to everyone.

A friend posted a picture of the stable crew from maybe 1974 or 1975 on Facebook.  Ross is standing right next to me, smiling, so happy to be there.  Well, we all were.  Happy to be there.  We weren’t all smiling all the time.  But I only remember Ross smiling.

Of course, it doesn’t matter that he was kind, happy, likable.  I mean, it matters to me, but he was murdered, and in that sense it really doesn’t matter how good or not good he was. No one should be murdered.

And for me, now, right now, it just tears out a page of my childhood at a time when I’ve been relying heavily on those pages.

I know this isn’t my particular and private loss.  Ross had a life partner of 25 years, and I grieve for him, too.  I know now what it is to lose a partner.  It’s just that there’s been so much loss – in and around my life – in just the last few months.

It’s a bit like if you trip and you try to get your footing again, but much of what you grab hold of is crumbling under your hands and feet.  I’m very sad.  I’m sad for myself, for my friends from camp, and certainly for Ross’s family.

I mourn all the losses in my life.  So much is disappearing so quickly.  I’ve always understood that we never know how much time we have.  I just feel like I can’t even catch my breath.

The Lord and I, I think we need to have a little talk.  I want my friends and family to be safe.  But then, ultimately, that’s the whole world, isn’t it?  I want to know that the Lord weeps with me.  That would be something, Lord, if I know you’re weeping with me.  With us.  Oh, and, when you have a moment, if you could cut us a break, that would be great.

That’s it, it’s all I’ve got.