We executed a man last week. I say we because it was done in your name and mine as citizens of the state of Tennessee. Billy Ray Irick was his name. He did a horrible thing when he was 26 years old. He raped and murdered a 7 year old girl--the daughter of a family he had been living with. There is nothing that can be said to ease the pain of a family that has suffered such a tragic loss. The act was heinous and it can’t be wished away.
All that remains then is to decide-as a society and as a community--how we wish to treat those among us who commit crimes such as this. It is troubling to me that the United States is the most industrialized nation in the world that still carries out the death penalty. That puts us in the same company as such countries as Iraq and Iran and Russia. I’m not sure what that means, but it gives me pause to see our country listed alongside of those others.
I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect the foundation of our connection to the death penalty is rooted in our Judaeo/Christian heritage. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is straightforward enough, but it did not come with any companion piece about how to punish a killer. It was Moses who later suggested that an evil act ought to be met with an equal response in Exodus 21-24. This idea wasn’t Moses’ idea. It came directly from an earlier writing known as The Code of Hammurabi.
Later, Jesus would say “you have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you do not resist evil. If someone hits you on your right cheek, offer him the left as well.” I take that to mean Jesus would not have endorsed the death penalty.
That leaves us with a quandary.
To add to the difficulty, we learn that many on death row suffer from severe mental trauma. This was true for Billy Ray Irick. We also learn that a significant number of inmates on death row were not guilty of the crime for which they were convicted. And even more troubling we learn that the vast majority of murder suspects are from the indigent population and that they have access only to a bare minimum defense from a court-appointed attorney. In other words, the deck is somewhat stacked when it comes to death row inmates.
It is a terrible thing to sit in judgment over another person’s life. But that is exactly what we are asked to do--some of us--nearly everyday in a court somewhere.
You need to answer this question for yourself--with a firm prayer life. I can only answer for myself. I for one do not give my approval for the state to execute another person in my name and in the name of “justice”. Putting another person to death for any crime only feeds what seems to be a skewed sense of revenge or retribution.
As in all other things, I prefer to allow God to be the final judge of us all.
And we should continue to offer prayers for the Dyer family who lost their little girl so tragically. Nothing we can do can ever bring her back--including taking the life of the one who took hers.