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What Mercy Looks Like

When Stacy announced this symposium on Mercy and Killing, two words sprang immediately to mind: Capital Punishment. Perhaps it’s the years I spent as an anti-death penalty activist, or time talking with families of victims and condemned alike, but these two words, Mercy and Killing, are to my mind, inexorably linked to capital punishment.

I could write an essay outlining church teaching on capital punishment. I’ve done that before. I could write an essay outlining all of the many very good reasons to oppose capital punishment. I’ve done that before. Knowing the Church teaching on this issue is good (far too many don’t). Talking about the reasons why capital punishment is a bad idea is important too. But those things rarely change hearts. If I wrote a piece like that, it would bring emphatic nods from those who already agree, and would immediately raise protest from those who don’t. Which is to say, it wouldn’t make a difference at all. So I’m going to do something else entirely.

I’m going to tell you all a story. A story about Killing, a story about Mercy.

You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium when she started talking. This unassuming woman, a soft-spoken grandmother, or so we thought. A lion of truth, we would later see. She took us back in time, to a little girl with golden curls, whose smile shone like the summer sun. We felt that we were really there.

The roaring campfire in the Montana wilderness. The s’mores, the songs, the stories. The tents all pitched and ready for bed. Mom and Dad in one, the kids in another.

The scream in the night that tore a family apart. The youngest, the one with the golden curls, is gone. Ripped from the tent in the middle of the night, a jagged hole left to tell the tale. It’s 1979, there are no cell phones. Only the hunched, sobbing cries for help, rising to the night, to God.

Nightmares are made of this. Vulnerable child snatched from a peaceful family vacation by persons unknown. This woman, Marietta Jaeger Lane, is taking a room full of perfect strangers through her personal hell. The nightmare from which she’ll never wake. Her child is gone.

She sat by, impotent, as searches of the woods were made. Police called in. In the days before Amber Alerts and 24 hour TV news, there wasn’t much they could do. Agonizing days, then weeks, pass with no word of Susie.

As the days of dragging lakes and rivers for a 7 year old body went on, her rage intensified. She told us, “I said to my husband, “Even if the kidnapper were to bring Susie back, alive and well, I could kill him with my bare hands and a smile on my face.” There”s not a parent reading this who can’t sympathize with those sentiments. Who among we parents hasn’t thought to themselves, “If anyone ever hurt my child, I’d kill them.”

Which is why what happened next is so miraculous. She forgave him and her forgiveness, her mercy, eventually led to his capture.

Marietta spent every day of the first year that her Susie was gone wrestling with God and her conscience. She felt full of rage and wanted to kill the man who did this, but knew her faith as a Catholic compelled her to forgive her enemies. How could she ever accomplish this monumental task? She couldn’t. Not without God’s grace, which she begged for daily. She begged God to help her do what she needed to in order to forgive the man who kidnapped, and presumably killed, her precious child.

One year to the hour that Susie was taken, the kidnapper called Marietta at her home. Shock and rage threatened to boil up inside her at this man, mocking her pain. However, she was overcome with a wave of peace and compassion and she said to her daughter’s killer, “You must be carrying a heavy burden.”

The man broke down, wept, and stayed on the phone with Marietta for over an hour. During that time, he gave enough information about himself that he was captured, and evidence was found to charge him with the kidnap and murder of Marietta’s daughter Susie. He was eligible for the death penalty, which Marietta thought she wanted. However, something had changed within her during that year of prayer.

Here is what she told us, college kids hanging on her every word:

“I realized that to kill him in Susie’s name would not restore her life; it would only make another victim and another grieving family…Using the same mindset as killers to solve our problems demeans our own worth and dignity. Victims’ families have every right initially to feelings of revenge. But the laws of our land should not be based on bloodthirsty, gut-level state-sanctioned killings: They should call us to higher moral principles more befitting our beloved victims.”

In fact, it was only when Marietta asked the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty, and the man was offered life without parole, that he confessed to the murders of Susie and three other people. Three other families were able to find out what happened to their loved one, because of one simple woman’s earnest prayer to forgive.

That was when I learned what mercy looks like in this fallen world. What the divine mercy of Our Lord looks like when we extend it to one another. To the ones who least deserve it. I think that’s the point Blessed Pope John Paul II was making when he re-framed the discussion on the death penalty from one of “giving someone what he deserves” to “refraining from bloodshed unless there is no other means of keeping society safe”. It wasn’t about saying that some people who do horrible things don’t deserve death, because by our earthly standards, by our instinctual reactions, they do.

It’s about asking ourselves what kind of people we want to be. It’s about recognizing that we don’t have to give someone what they deserve and nothing more, not when we have a God who gave every ounce of His precious blood for our sorry, sinful, souls. Not one of us deserves it.

One of the last things Marietta said to us left me, and many others, speechless. It was as radical, and as true, a statement as I’ve ever heard. She said, “When I realized that Jesus died for and loved this man as much as He died for and loved Susie, I couldn’t knowingly ask for his death.”

Yes, that was the night I learned what mercy looks like.

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