Last Sunday was Mother's Day, but the big news was the delay in Timothy McVeigh's execution. I was assigned to preach and I knew I had to preach about the death penalty.
I told my parishioners that I used to be a crime reporter in Wisconsin where the death penalty is not used. I spent a certain amount of time around accused and convicted murderers. I saw the crime-scene photos. I heard the testimonies of the pathologists. I saw the families and friends of victims sobbing in the courtrooms and in the hallways. I saw scruffy men slicked up for trials so they looked like choir boys.
I told them that I had helped feed anti-death penalty protesters as they came to my field-education parish in San Rafael, Calif., whenever there was an execution at San Quentin. I sat vigil in the church on some of those nights, listening to the church bell ring each hour, until the call came on the cell phone telling us that the inmate had been killed.
I told them that I came out of those experiences believing deeply that our criminal justice system works amazingly well most of the time. And I came out believing that the death penalty is wrong.
I admitted that none of the facts and figures we toss around seem to be convincing enough to end the debate. Perhaps, I preached, we are looking in the wrong place.
Then I turned to the gospel for the day wherein Jesus says: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another."
I told my parishioners that it is time to stop turning this message of love into sentimentality. It is time to stop the culture of violence in which we live. It is time to stop thinking vengeance is a good thing. It is time to stop pretending that violence is something that lives only in someone else's soul.
I asked them to consider how grace is working itself out in Patrick Reeder, an ex-Marine who now coaches high school football. Timothy McVeigh killed his wife, Michelle, and his mother-in-law, Ann. It took searchers 15 days to find their bodies and then they wouldn't let Reeder see them.
That morning's New York Times magazine told about Reeder's descent into rage, sorrow and a desire for revenge. He fantasized about how he'd use his Marine Corps training to strangle McVeigh if he got the chance. He began to drink. His heart stopped twice. His therapist suggested he was trying to kill himself.
He said: "I was so consumed with anger, I was turning into a beast. I started to think, 'Who is a better person, McVeigh or me?' " He began to be appalled by what he felt was blood lust on the part of some of McVeigh's victims. He heard about a group of people who, during the trial, burst into a high school cheerleader-like chant for the death penalty: "Give me a D. Give me an E. Give me an A." He began to doubt some survivors' insistence that killing McVeigh was about justice.
He told the Times: "I can't tell you what I would do to him if he and I were locked in a room together. But whatever I did, I wouldn't call it justice. I would call it revenge."
We have been violent since Cain killed Abel. We killed Jesus in a state-sanctioned execution. In his book "Faith Seeking Understanding," Princeton Theological Seminary theologian Daniel Migliore writes that God raised Jesus from the dead to show us a way to remake the world. To create what he calls "a new humanity that no longer espouses the way of violence, that no longer needs scapegoats, that no longer will to live at the expense of victims … "
We are not all equally blameworthy for the violence and death that envelops our world, writes Migliore, but we all are caught up in its cycles. That's why Christ's execution and resurrection calls us all into compassionate solidarity with all the victims, Timothy McVeigh and Michelle and Patrick Reeder.
We also are called to recognize that God's forgiveness is greater than our guilt, even Timothy McVeigh's. The best thing I can think of to do in these next few weeks when the issue of the death penalty will be ever before us is to pray. We need to pray for McVeigh and all his victims, for all the victims of this violent world, for the strength to be compassionate instead of vengeful, for the courage to live out Jesus' new commandment.
The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is a former assistant news editor at the Missoulian. She is the curate at Christ Church, an Episcopal parish, in Short Hills, N.J. You may reach her at email@example.com.