Rachel Bomberger is the Internet Marketing Manager at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and thinking things through. She hates finding herself in the middle of any heated controversy.
When it comes to the so-called “hot button” political issues, I generally know my own mind. Abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, evolution, gun control, climate change, environmental conservation, the federal deficit, the wars overseas, school choice, equal rights — I may not be walking picket lines or marching on Washington, but at least on these issues I have the peace of mind that comes from knowing where I stand.
But when it comes to capital punishment — to the death penalty — I’m not so sure.
As a child, I sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and learned that we’re all God’s children and that we should look after one another. I also learned “Thou shalt not kill”: that we should never, ever hurt one another — and that there are consequences and punishments coming to us when we do hurt one another.
I should have known — but didn’t yet — that there would be an internal controversy brewing.
In Bible class at my conservative Christian high school, I memorized Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” That made sense to fourteen-year-old me, in a simple, clear-cut, black-and-white, eye-for-an-eye kind of way. Kill and be killed. Simple.
Sixteen-year-old me, however, studying civics in a public high school, began to encounter questions that sent spidery cracks through the porcelain surface of my adolescent certainty. Should we allow the death penalty even if we know that men are statistically more likely to be executed than women? If minorities are much more likely to be executed than whites? If poor people are much, much more likely to be executed than rich people? Should we allow the death penalty even if we know there’s a chance that we may end up wrongfully executing an innocent person? If we know that innocent people have been wrongly executed in the past?
No, I thought. No, we shouldn’t. If we can’t be completely fair and just and holy about it, I concluded, then we just shouldn’t execute anybody at all. Once again: problem solved.
This resolution got me through the end of high school and college, but twenty-something-year-old me had other factors to work into the equation. Twenty-something-year-old me had babies. With those precious darlings came a kind of fear I didn’t know I was capable of and, with it, an intense passion for making sure that nobody would ever harm them. Ever. And if someone did hurt or — heaven forbid — kill one of my children . . . for that person, I felt, death would not be too harsh a punishment.
This time, though, the problem was not so easily resolved. My own motherhood made me aware that even the most hardened offender was some mother’s baby, a soul as dear to God as my own dear children. With newfound maternal empathy, I knew, too, that if my children ever committed the worst of crimes, I would want them to have every possible opportunity to be turned back to the right.
What about the thief on the cross, I thought? What about the redemption of St. Paul (who once presided so cold-bloodedly at the murder of Stephen)? What about “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword” and “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”?
In the end, I came to the conclusion that it was easier not to think about the death penalty issue at all than to try and reconcile all the myriad biblical, theological, and practical pros and cons. The easiest thing to do was to let myself slink away from the debate altogether and get cozy in a kind of comfortable and permanent ambivalence.
It was there, in that state of mildly uneasy complacency, that I encountered Father W. Paul Jones’s book A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk, and, with it, Clayton Anthony Fountain.
Clayton Fountain was a soldier in Vietnam when he murdered his sergeant and was incarcerated for the crime. In prison, he killed four more people in succession, violently and without remorse. “The simple facts are indisputable,” Jones writes. “He was a hardened killer, convicted of murdering in cold blood five different people at five different times with no apparent motive.”
Fountain was a ruthless murderer — a worthless criminal if ever there was one. Desperate, angry, and scared, authorities condemned Fountain to live out his days in solitary confinement. They couldn’t execute Fountain, since the death penalty wasn’t a legal option in 1984, but they could (and did) seal him off alive from the almost all human contact in a tomb of impenetrable concrete and steel.
Then, in the fifteen-year period following 1989, something amazing happened — something that few people ever believed and even fewer understood. Fountain was transformed. He became a Christian. He was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. He went from being “both incorrigible and uncontrollable” to being gentle, even meek. He began studying for the priesthood, though he knew that the prison would be his only ministry. He turned his cell into a holy hermitage.
W. Paul Jones, who served as Fountain’s spiritual advisor during the last six years of Fountain’s earthly sojourn, witnessed the miracle firsthand, and Jones tells the entire story simply and sincerely.
I found myself shuddering in horror at Fountain’s bloody crimes, reading wide-eyed and awe-filled as his spiritual metamorphosis unfolded, and — spoiler alert — weeping uncontrollably at the end. (I was in my office for the sobfest, back to the door, hoping desperately that no one would interrupt me until I’d turned the last page, dabbed the tears away, and managed to compose myself.)
Now, having finished the book, the capital punishment controversy that has always perplexed me has taken on even more nuance. If the death penalty had been legal after Fountain’s first (or second, or third, or fourth) murder, he would almost certainly have been subjected to it, and the lives of his remaining victims might have been spared.
But the great miracle of his transformation would never have taken place, and Fountain’s clear and powerful witness to the limitlessness of God’s redeeming grace would have been lost. Jones points this out plainly: “What a tragedy it would have been if society had executed Clayton Fountain on his downward spiral, stamping out forever the possibility of his incredible pilgrimage on the upward slope. The most basic of human questions, perhaps, is this: Are there limits to God’s mercy? Clayton Fountain taught me the answer: No. Absolutely none.”
Now, a little more grown up than I’ve ever been, I still sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” I still remember the Bible verses I memorized in high school. I’m teaching my children the Ten Commandments. I still care deeply about justice and compassion for all and just as deeply about keeping my children (and everyone’s children) safe from harm.
But I still don’t know where I stand on the death penalty. After reading A Different Kind of Cell, I think that, although my complacency has been shattered, my mind is perhaps even more muddled and unsure than it was before.
Maybe, though, that’s exactly as it should be.