During the first week in September, as our children were returning to school, the state of Florida had another human execution. By lethal injection, they killed a former minister of religion, Paul Hill, who engaged in the despicable act of murdering two people. One was a doctor and one was a security guard, both worked at a clinic where abortions were performed.
Mr. Hill claimed that his horrific acts of violence were a response to conscience issues around abortion. He went to his death justifying his barbaric and reprehensible behavior. According to the national press, there are people around the country who support his behavior. He died with no remorse.
For seventeen years, I have written this column. When I was first asked to write this column, it was not as a clergy person, but rather because of my work as a social worker and an advocate for young people and families in crisis. Rarely have I ever used this space to express my perspective as a clergy person.
However, I feel compelled as a clergy person to say shame on us for being so silent on Mr. Hill's reprehensible behavior. No matter what one's position might be on "choice," there is no major religious tradition that supports murder and violence as an option or response to a difference in belief or practice. It was very disturbing at the time of these murders that the official religious communities were so silent in expressing their outrage and condemnation of these horrific acts of hatred and violence.
As a religious leader, I cannot remain silent. Mr. Hill's behavior was and still is despicable. No matter what his alleged moral conviction, taking another's life is not an acceptable response. Hiding behind God and "so called" Christian principles is equally disturbing.
Mr. Hill needed to be held accountable for his unconscionable behavior. However, from my perspective, capital punishment is a barbaric practice. Executing someone for their crime is only further calling to question one's respect for life, even if one's personal actions are despicable.
Killing someone for killing is not going to bring the dead back. There is no empirical data that supports capital punishment as a deterrent from committing serious crimes.
How should a murderer with no remorse be held accountable? I am not a criminal justice expert. Thus my response is personal, based on experience. For the most part, incarceration does not heal or rehabilitate. Rather, people seem to become more bitter and less able to live responsibly and respectfully in the world.
If our intention is merely to punish with no hope or expectation of rehabilitation, then life in prison without parole would be appropriate. That does not mean that the person should be treated less than humanely. It also does not mean they should live in a country club type of environment.
We in public service need to respect all people, even if they are not respectful. Too many people in positions of leadership and authority are not respectful. They abuse and misuse the public trust. What kind of example are we conveying to our young people?
The new school year has just begun. I had the privilege of participating in the "Back to School" luncheon for the faculty and administration of the Port Jefferson Station School District. It was so refreshing to be among a few hundred educators who were so energized at the prospect of empowering our children. I saw teachers that I have known for twenty-five years because of my work in the community. Men and women still committed to making a difference. I met young men and women who I knew as elementary and high school student who have become the next generation of educators in our community. This enthusiasm and commitment to improving public education is refreshing.
The Port Jefferson Station school community is refreshing because even with all of the bureaucratic challenges that plague every public school district, Port Jefferson Station still consistently reaffirms its' commitment to the total growth and development of every student so "no child will ever be left behind."
Too often, as adults we are failing our children with our power of example. Our children need to see respect, responsibility, tolerance, diversity, understanding, compassion and forgiveness in us.
Those in leadership need to be especially attentive. Our religious leaders need to practice what they preach, especially within the Catholic tradition. We cannot hide behind our teachings and use them to escape being held responsible and accountable.
Our political leaders need to lead and not cop out with empty political rhetoric. They must address the real issues and stop playing games with people's lives, especially the voiceless.
Our teachers need to teach and respect the diversity and limitations of all our students. They must challenge the system of education to become more student centered.
Those in governmental human services need to be unencumbered and empowered to really help those who are in need. We need to stop setting the poor and people with special needs up for disaster. Too many of our human services sound good on paper, but de facto shackle people and render them powerless.
These are difficult days. We live in a time of great betrayal, mistrust, abuse and recklessness, but even in this climate, miracles can happen. There are continual prophetic voices emerging that call forth from us the best we have. People who are broken and wounded are being healed and transformed and are making the world a better place.
Every one of us, no matter what our religion, social status or economic circumstance, must make a positive commitment to the community we live within. If we do, the energy that will emerge will have the force to power a new social revolution that is desperately needed.