Unconscionable : On Capital Punishment, Law, and Identity

The Shema is a Jewish statement of creed that serves as a centerpiece of the morning, evening, and pre-bed prayer services. After the Shema we see the VaAhavta which spells out some of the central practices of this faith statement. I was thinking about these statements in that they are both found in Va’etchanan, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Take to heart these instructions with which I מְצַוְּךָ֛- charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

The charge – מְצַוְּךָ֛ is to keep the Mitzvot– Commandments. In this sense traditionally Jewish identity is defined as how we live our live by these laws. This is interesting in juxtaposition to Christian’s identity which often is defined around love and not law. For Judaism our commitment to law is our expression of our love. 

I was thinking about this idea of identity recently when watching an extraordinary TED talk by Byran Stevenson. It really is a must watch:

The topic of how we need to talk about an injustice is very compelling. For me the most brilliant part of his talk is how he framed the conversation about the legal system in America around the idea of identity.

Once Stevenson was giving a lecture in Germany about the death penalty. There he said:

It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, “Well you know it’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about.” He said, “We don’t have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany.” And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, “There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.” And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable.

In America we clearly disassociate ourselves from the law. It is unconscionable how these laws are radically unjust to people of color.  And for many of us who are not subject to this discrimination we have the luxury of being unconscious about the impact of this legal system. Our laws should manifest our attempt to bring about justice in the world. What would it look like if we identified ourselves by our laws? It seems that our laws are mostly punitive. What would our laws look like if they were framed as an expression of love?

These questions come to a head when we discuss capital punishment. About this Stevenson says:

In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed? And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?

Our faith in law needs to be an identity that is wrapped up in seeing the infinite worth of every human being. It is unconscionable to abide a law that falls short of recognizing this fact. In each and everyone of us is an element of the divine. We need to express our love to God by how we write and live out our legal system.

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