This morning I was listening to This American Life from 29 July, a show in two acts about thugs and various kinds of thuggery. In the first act, a man in Egypt is subjected to the nightmare of beatings, torture, false imprisonment and then charged with being a thug, all because he wasn’t going along with the military coup before and during the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.
In the second act, a social worker fights to redeem a young man who enters the criminal justice system who she is determined to save and believes in against all evidence to the contrary. As the story goes, he is eventually connected to a horrific murder, goes to prison, escapes, and kills two more people before he is finally caught and sentence to death row. Through it all, the woman maintains his innocence—until he finally confesses to the murder he was originally accused of, as well as another murder that he was never suspected of, because “he found God . . . and needed to atone for what he’d done.”
Later on, she goes to visit him in the maximum security prison where he will eventually face execution. He began to change, the story went, one day while flipping through the trial documents.
He looked at the photo of his victim, the girl he killed, alive and beautiful. Then he held it side-by-side with her autopsy photo and thought, I did that. He pauses and puts a hand over his face, as if he’s collecting himself enough to continue. But watching Kenneth relive this is like watching a bad play. The words are disconnected from his gestures. He makes a show of weeping, lowering his eyes, shaking his head, and covering his face with his arms. When he looks up again, I don’t see any tears.
The crime for which he went to prison involved robbing two female university students, then later kidnapping them, taking them out into the middle of nowhere and shooting both of them. One girl died; another survived and managed to get to help. “He went back, he said, let them beg for their lives, and shot them, over and over.”
Then the victims of his prison break. A farmer, the one with the truck, was trying to run away when Kenneth gunned him down. And finally, this. After the car chase in Missouri, state troopers made Kenneth walk over and look at the lifeless body of the delivery driver, thinking Kenneth would be remorseful. Instead, Kenneth says all he saw was the man who got in the way of his escape, and he spit on the body.
In one of the earlier episodes of the fourth season of Torchwood: Miracle Day, a child molester and murderer (Bill Pullman in a fantastic change of role for him) is executed by lethal injection, but due to The Blessing (the event by which everyone in the world stops dying) occurring just before his execution is carried out, he survives and is released since he cannot be tried or executed for the same crime twice. In the second episode, he is confronted during a TV interview à la 60 Minutes with the image of the girl he brutally killed. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he says, weeping, tears welling up in his eyes.
“What good is ‘sorry,’ Mr Danes?” the interviewer scoffs. “Is it going to do anything for Mrs Cabina every morning when she wakes up?”
What is it about “finding God” that is supposed to engender sympathy or forgiveness for even the most savage of criminals? As if praying a prayer erases a multitude of wrongs – if not on earth then in heaven. This is one of my primary objections to Christianity: that you could savagely murder a room full of people and then have a pang of conscience, ask for God’s forgiveness, be rightly executed for your crime, and go straight to heaven to be with Jesus for all eternity without a blemish on your soul. Because Jesus paid it all.
Quick primer in atonement theology. There are two main schools of thought here:
- The Christus Victor, or ransom, theory: Humanity is enslaved to Satan on account of the Fall, wherein Adam and Eve imputed Original Sin to all their descendants. The best analogy here is in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Edmund betrays his brother and sisters to the White Witch (the Satan figure in Narnia) and becomes her slave since every traitor is her lawful prey. To save him from death, Aslan (the Christ figure) dies in his place, but because of the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time, “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [i.e., the Cross] would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
- The Penal substitution, or satisfaction, theory: Same premise as Christus victor; but here, God is the Righteous Judge and humanity is the Wretched Criminal. “Sin” is the inexorable debt to be repaid to God for Man’s rebellion against him, and Man is automatically found guilty by God, the only perfect being in existence; and so he is condemned to be separated from God for all eternity in Hell (e.g., life in prison). But Jesus, the perfect sinless Son of God (don’t get me started on trinitarian theology), is sent to serve that sentence and is born the God-man and executed, thus fulfilling the conditions of the sentence. And God declares the debt as having been paid in full.
Richard Dawkins responded to the theology of atonement, how Abraham and Isaac prefigures the Crucifixion, and Original Sin in an interview with Howard Conder this past March. Dawkins said: “The idea that God could only forgive our sins by having his Son tortured to death as a scapegoat is, surely from an objective point of view, a deeply unpleasant idea. If God wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn’t he just forgive them?
“If there’s something I can’t stand about Christianity, it’s this obnoxious doctrine of Original Sin, which I think is actually a hideous, and demeaning and a vengeful doctrine. It’s the idea that one can be absolved; that a sin by somebody else has to be paid for by a different person, which is a horrible idea.
“It would be persuasive if the judge said, you’re forgiven. That would be great. That would the kind of thing one could empathize with. But that’s not what he said. He said, ‘Okay, we’re going to hang somebody else for your crime’.
“I think it’s a horrible idea that – given that the judge is all-powerful; given that the judge has the power to forgive if he wants to – the only way he can do it is to sacrifice his son. I mean, what an incredibly unpleasant way to do it, given that you have the power to forgive, that you are all-powerful!”
So what’s so wrong with a murderer (or anyone else for that matter—liar, adulterer, thief, homosexual, or whatever else you call a “sin”) being forgiven and getting off scot-free? Or with Jesus paying your sin-debt for you? It’s precisely that—you get off scot-free. And let’s say that the people you killed weren’t Christians. Let’s say you tortured them—horribly—before you then murdered them, had that pang of conscience later after you realized what you did, prayed “the prayer” and were “saved.” The problem is that you sent however many into an eternity in hell (because they weren’t “saved”) while you yourself skip out of jail into a blissful eternity in heaven and Jesus pays the $200.
What kind of a theology is this? To borrow from Julia Sweeney Letting Go of God, it would be as though Hitler had a “come to Jesus” moment right before he died. According to atonement theology, if he was truly sincere, no one would sit him down and say, “You fucked up, buddy! Now you’re going to spend an eternity in hell!” Quite the opposite. His sin of having murdered millions of people (among other things) would be expunged, paid for on the Cross by Jesus.
Supposing an inmate who suffocated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz ran into the man responsible for their death in heaven? Or Susie Cabina running into Oswald Danes who raped and murdered her as a 12-year-old? Or Cecil Boren or Dominique Hurd meeting Kenneth Williams (the kid from the This American Life story earlier)? Or conversely, any of them going to hell and learning that their murderer had been pardoned by God?
Now, it may be fair to say that I just don’t like this arrangement because I don’t think it’s just. God sees all sins as equal, and if a sinner truly repents, who are we to begrudge God for granting pardon since we are just as guilty as the murderer? Does that make me the Unmerciful Servant whose debt the king forgave? Or a grumbling vineyard worker who resented the owner for paying those who showed up at the last shift the same as those who had worked all day? Possibly—to both.
However, as to the question of whether a murderer who “found God” should be worthy of our forgiveness, I say the only person who can truly forgive the wrong is the victim him or herself.
In Tony Kushner’s play Perestroika, Ethel Rosenberg returns to haunt Roy Cohn, who effectively killed her by pulling strings with the presiding judge to get a death sentence. As Roy lies dying of AIDS, Ethel stands at his bedside.
I decided to come here so I could see could I forgive you. You who I have hated so terribly I have born my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needle-sharp little star in the sky out of it. It’s the star of Ethel Rosenberg’s Hatred, and it burns every year for one night only, June Nineteen. It burns acid green.
I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. Hoping I’d get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, ’cause you’re dying in shit, Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die all anyone will say is: Better he had never lived at all.
In the scene that follows, Roy feigns reverting to a childlike state, calling for his mother, begging her to sing to him. At first, Ethel is bitter, angry, and refuses, but finally relents when he persists. She sings him an old Yiddish song, “Shteit a bocher.” Then, once she thinks he’s dead and turns to go, he suddenly sits up and exclaims, “I can’t believe you fell for that ma stuff, I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing! I WIN!” After which he actually dies.
Towards the end of the play, Ethel returns in a final gesture of forgiveness to help Louis say Kaddish over Roy. They end with the blessing, “Oseh sholom bimromov, hu ya-aseh sholom olenu v’al col Yisroel v’imru omain. You sonofabitch.” The Hebrew translates to, “He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel; and say, ‘Amen’.”
So in the end, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, a God who pardons the unpardonable and allows his son to be tortured to death for our sins is utterly offensive. On the other hand, what are the limits of forgiveness in light of eternity? What is the extent of forgiveness? And what is the extent of retribution?
Many friends of mine say that the criminal justice system should be restorative instead of merely punitive—that the purpose should be to eventually restore an individual to right standing in society (provided that there is no danger posed to society). But to what extent can a debt be considered “paid”? Does such a person deserve to walk free, or receive our collective forgiveness?