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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’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Julie-Rodriguez-1-e1319489646953.jpg[/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.