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The Death Penalty, Cowboy Culture and G.K. Chesterton

May 2, AD 2012 8 Comments

I sometimes sing Toby Keith’s song “Beer For My Horses”  to get on my sister’s nerves:

“Grand pappy told my pappy back in my day son

A man had to answer for the wicked that he’d done

Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree

Round up all of them bad boys, hang them high in the street

For all the people to see

That justice is the one thing you should always find

You got to saddle up your boys; you got to draw a hard line…”

She is shocked every time and says, “Hey, that’s about lynching!” And it is… but I think it’s a pretty funny song. I love country music and cowboy culture and I think it reflects the true American heart, which I love. Yet how is it possible that this wonderful, Christian culture be the one of the few developed countries in favor of capital punishment? “Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the United States are the only developed countries that have retained the death penalty.” (Wikipedia) I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence. It’s part of a conscious, well-formed cultural identity. The thinking behind this particular aspect isn’t necessarily bad… actually, it’s virtuous, just incomplete.

It’s virtuous because justice is good and necessary. There is virtue in “drawing a hard line”, in working to eliminate crime and “evil forces”. It’s brave to stand up for what’s right, because that always means simultaneously taking a stand against what’s wrong. It’s fair to honor the victim and restore what’s been lost. I love this no-nonsense, right and wrong approach to life. I feel it’s so lacking in Europe and is a welcome balance to relativism.

Yet it’s also incomplete. Justice for the victim/society is lacking because it’s an isolated virtue. It needs to be stretched to include a complementary and paradoxical virtue: justice for the criminal. A total vision must include not only the criminal’s condemnation but also his salvation. Not only his death but his life. I love Simcha Fisher’s article “Robins” because it beautifully expressed two opposing and complementary ideas. Life often calls for integration of seemingly opposite realities and the death penalty, I would say, is a partial view to the extreme. It’s a justice so isolated that it’s injustice and cruelty.

A quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy really sheds light on this:

“When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone made because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

“There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only collect fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labeled egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness. They have parted His garments among them, for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.”

(In Chapter III, The Suicide of Thought)

No worldview is as complete and integrated as the Catholic worldview. The virtue of justice, wandering alone in the US, has gone mad and has done some terrible damage. How beautiful it is to belong to a Church where there is a FOURfold system of cardinal virtues, where love for a baby in the womb and love for a criminal (“I was in prison and you visited me” Mt 25:36) are all part of being pro-life and where sacred Tradition has been integrating and rereading Christ and his Bride for over 2,000 years.





[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Julie Rodrigues is a 25-year-old Portuguese-American who grew up in California, but moved to Portugal for college and has been there ever since. She has a degree in Theology from the Catholic University of Lisbon, is currently teaching English and has special interest in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She blogs at Marta, Julie e Maria.[/author_info] [/author]

About the Author:

Julie Machado is a 30-year-old wife, mother and Portuguese-American who grew up in California, but moved to Portugal for college and has been there ever since. She has a degree in Theology from the Catholic University of Lisbon and has special interest in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She blogs at Marta, Julie e Maria.
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  • Stilbelieve

    The love for the soul of the guilty is different than the love for the innocent unborn. The former comes from compassion, compassion for what that person will be going through, compassion for their soul, while at the same time it is a compassion that requires work because it is guarded knowing what that person was capable of doing. The love of the innocent unborn is filled with hope, it is unlimited, unguarded, and free. The word “prolife” does not mean the same thing in these two instances and they should never have been tied together. The taken of a guilty life is not evil. No one involved with it will lose their soul. It is not even sin. The taking of innocent life of the unborn is an intrinsic evil which brings damnation to all persons’ souls involved. The word “prolife” is diluted and weakened when used to argue against capital punishment. Those who do use it to defend their position then have the responsibility to prove society has the wherewithal to guarantee that capital offenders will never be able to harm innocent people again. That would be the prolife thing to do. Their problem is they can not prove society can be protected from further harm by such people. They erroneously make the assumption that an evil mind can be controlled locked behind bars. Reality is it can’t. Just ask the people responsible for protecting society from such individuals. 9-11 showed us the genius of evil. Being prolife is not being naive.

  • WF

    There are some separated virtues wandering around mad in this piece. There is no moral equivalence between taking the life of an innocent child and taking the life of a murderer. It’s become popular among JPII Catholics to think that the Catholic Church is against the death penalty, but it is neither doctrine nor the constant teaching of the Church. All of the popes prior to JPII endorsed “cowboy” justice, too.

  • Abigail C. Reimel

    I agree with Stilbelieve. Regardless of my opinions of the death penalty, I do not think that it is a “pro-life” issue. The pro-life movement seeks to end crimes against innocent life, such as abortion and euthanasia. Unfortunately, it seems that many anti-war people have aligned themselves with the pro-life movement without considering that the context and reason for killing is totally different. When a mother kills her child, or a nurse overdoses her elderly patient so that he’ll die more quickly, they’re not trying to carry out justice, or trying to protect their values, they simple want to rid themselves of an “inconvenience” (most of the time). Though I do think it is important to extend love to everyone- including criminals- I wish this issue would be separated from the pro-life movement. Also, I feel like many people forget that the Church has not taken an official stance on this issue, and it is not wrong for Catholics to be in support of the death penalty. Honestly, though I think life imprisonment would be just as good, this is one area that I haven’t quite formed a total opinion of yet. God bless your efforts, though, for we do indeed need to remember that Christ is in everyone.

  • Richard

    WF, your right in saying there has not been a constant Church teaching on Capital punishment. The early Church generally found taking human life to be incompatible with the life and teachings of Jesus. Later, after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, opposition to the death penalty declined. Augustine recognized the death penalty as a means of deterring the wicked and protecting the innocent. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed this position. I would say that over the past 30-40 years the Church’s view is making the circle back to the early Church. Pope John Paul II expressed a stronger position against the death penalty in his encyclical “The Gospel of Life”. He stressed that situations where its use is necessary to protect society have become “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” this is also given in the CCC, #2267. Pope John Paul II called the death penalty “cruel and unnecessary” and affirmed that the “dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” Many people today are divided into the two or three fields of Pro-life, that of abortion, euthanasia/assisted suicide and capital punishment. I’m active with 40 Days for Life, but I’m also outspoken on the issues of euthanasia/assisted suicide and capital punishment. If euthanasia/assisted suicide were to become the law, there would be no need for assisted living or senior citizen homes. At least today there is a lengthy legal system to capital punishment, unlike the days of old when convicted of a crime they took you out and strung you up (Hang them High) or tied you to a post and shot you.

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  • I just wanted to point out that G.K.C. was a fan of cowboy culture too: