I wrote the following a few years ago about September 11th, Iraq, and President Bush; and was so proud of myself that I posted the sermon it was in to Happy Cindy.
"Sometimes I enjoy some of those earlier [spiritual development] states. I sometimes find comfort in the mythic literal faith of elementary school children in a universe where the good guys always win, its easy to tell them from the bad guys, and the answer to the bad guys is to simply “Poof!” make them go away. I’ll tell you a secret – I love shoot ‘em up movies. I get a great deal of pleasure in those films where there is a Bruce Willis or Stephen Seagal as the one guy against a gang of evildoers, or an environment-destroying corporation in Alaska.
But regardless of whatever moment of surety those bits of fiction give me; those are not the places from which I can make moral decisions for the real world. We must make our moral decisions based on the highest and best state of faith and humanity that we can. We must make our decisions based not on the comfortable or emotionally reactive state of faith, but on the appropriate one."
Several years ago I supervised a student employee for a couple of years at Hampshire College. Although I tried not to have favorites, Erin Runnion was one of mine. She was an open, loving, smart, creative young woman with a heart of gold.
She had a child, Samantha. I remember holding Samantha as an infant, and looking up from her eyes with awe and wonder and telling Erin that this girl was an Old Soul, that she was a special gift to humanity. There was something special about Samantha, and I knew it with that kind of knowing that isn't cognitive or intellectual, but a heart-knowing. I felt the gift that was Samantha, and spoke of it in a distinctly un-Cindy-like fashion.
Five years later I was flipping channels and I saw Erin Runnion on television talking about the abduction, rape, and murder of her daughter. I thought the woman looked like Erin, until she talked about the abduction. I resumed flipping, thinking to myself, "That's a terrible thing to happen to someone, I wonder why she looks so much like Erin. I won't watch any news today." It wasn't until the next morning when my brain would allow me to recognize that it really was Erin, and she was talking about Samantha.
In the time since, Erin has done what I expected her to. She's turned this into an opportunity to create peace and justice and protect children at The Joyful Child.
When this predator was caught, I found myself wishing it was Andy Sipowitz who caught him, and that Andy beat the crap out of him. Andy always said that you only beat a man when you know he's guilty, not just because you think he is. It was not a good moment in my moral development. I don't believe in police violence, ever, but there I was, wishing for it.
Over the past years I have watched the news of the trial, and was glad that the evidence so clearly showed the man guilty, and that he was convicted.
During the penalty phase, we learned of the horrific abuse and violence this man experienced himself, yet like many predators, he showed no remorse. I watched a man who had so viciously broken a little girl, who was himself broken, and I had to keep reminding myself that I have a faith in people, in a sacred continuity that spans all time and space, that connects us all.
But he broke that continuity, by his own actions. And now he's been given the death penalty, and I have the conflicting emotions I expected.
I always knew that one day my mythic-literal faith desire for Andy Sipowitz to beat the crap out of a pedophile would somehow meet a real life experience and not remain in a Sunday afternoon movie or Tuesday night (always after the Religious Education Committee meeting) NYPD Blue, and that I'd have to look carefully at the ways my moral and ethical beliefs and desires didn't always match. But I never expected it to be quite this close to home.
Someone once suggested that the proper punishment for murderers was for them to have to watch home movies of their victims for the rest of their lives -- just project them on the wall in their cell. I like that, except making a shamed, broken man more shamed or guilty isn't redemptive.
Is there redemption for him? I don't know.
I know that my desire to see him die for what he did to Samantha says more about me than it does about him. And killing him for what he did says more about us as a people than it does about him or his crime.
But if anyone should die for a crime, it should be this particular crime against children.
But I oppose the death penalty, and will continue to, even when my feelings don't match my beliefs; because these feelings are from an old, wounded place, not the place of hope, faith, and belief that humanity can do better tomorrow than we did yesterday.
I still believe this: "We must make our moral decisions based on the highest and best state of faith and humanity that we can. We must make our decisions based not on the comfortable or emotionally reactive state of faith, but on the appropriate one."
I still believe it, but I'm not quite as full of myself about it as when I wrote it about September 11th and President Bush.