The sanctity or sacredness of human life is a concept people of faith understand and accept, especially when it’s in reference to the unborn. It becomes more challenging when defending the life of criminals, especially murderers.
No better example stands before us today than the life of Dylann Roof, a 22-year-old, self-proclaimed white supremacist who shot and killed nine black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. His only motive for gunning down the nine worshippers, who were in the midst of a closing prayer when Roof pulled out a 45-caliber Glock semiautomatic handgun and fired on them, was their skin color.
Last month, a Charleston jury convicted Roof of 33 federal charges, including hate crimes for targeting his victims on the basis of their race. During a sentencing phase on Jan. 10, jurors reached the unanimous decision to sentence Roof to death.
The death penalty has come under serious criticism in recent years. Not only because it is a very antiquated form of punishment, but because it is unfairly applied and inhumane. From a Christian perspective, capital punishment not only snuffs out a human life, it obliterates the possibilities of remorse, conversion and forgiveness that are central to our faith, a lesson first taught to us by Jesus as he hung from the cross.
The Roof death sentence came six days before the celebration of Rev. Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 16. Rev. King, like the nine people at Emanuel AME Church, was assassinated because of the color of his skin. Yet Rev. King also opposed capital punishment.
In a 1957 interview with Ebony magazine, Rev. King was asked about the death penalty.
“I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime,” he said. “Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”
If he were alive today, Rev. Martin Luther King would have asked jurors in South Carolina to spare the life of Dylann Roof.
Another minister, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, did speak out against the death sentence.
“We are all sinners, but through the Father’s loving mercy and Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice upon the cross, we have been offered the gift of eternal life,” said Bishop Guglielmone in a statement released after the Dylann Roof sentencing. “The Catholic opposition to the death penalty, therefore, is rooted in God’s mercy. The church believes the right to life is paramount to every other right as it affords the opportunity for conversion, even of the hardened sinner,” Bishop Guglielmone said.
The violence and hate which can lead someone to kill is no different than the vengeance or retribution that moves a civilized society to support capital punishment.
Again, the words of Martin Luther King offer wisdom and guidance, especially for lawmakers in the 19 states without the death penalty, including Wisconsin, who may seek to legalize the death penalty at some time in the future:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” he said in a sermon titled, “Loving Your Enemies.” “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”