What Mercy Looks Like

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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.

Sarah Babbs

Sarah Babbs

Sarah Babbs is a married mother of a toddler girl, writing from Indiana where she moved for love after growing up on the east coast. Sarah and her husband, a lawyer, lead marriage prep classes for their parish in addition to daydreaming about becoming lunatic farmers. During stolen moments when the toddler sleeps and the laundry multiplies itself, Sarah writes about motherhood, Catholic social thought, and ponders the meaning of being a woman "made in the image of God". Her website is Fumbling Toward Grace.

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19 thoughts on “What Mercy Looks Like”

  1. Avatar

    Thank you. We are all called to do what Marietta did. I wish we would abolish the death penalty
    Marietta’s story also reminds us that we can get through the very worst of our nightmares with God’s help. And that is comforting. No matter how old you get, you still worry about the loss of a child.

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  3. Avatar

    Great story of mercy Sarah thanks for sharing. If we can all remember to always turn to God for his mercy and grace as Marietta did.

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  5. Avatar

    I was just having a very in-depth conversation with my high school students about the death penalty. Thank you so much for sharing! I am going to print it off and have them read it tomorrow. The thing many of them were struggling with is that God can and will forgive the worst criminal because He loves him too. I think it will really help them grasp it! Thank you!

  6. Avatar

    Some serious questions about this issue.

    Did Pope John Paul II (and later Benedict XVI) attempt or claim to change the teaching of the Church on Capital Punishment.

    What is prudential judgment? Isn’t something either moral or immoral independent on the circumstances?

    Hasn’t the Church allowed that it is the State which has the final say on whether Capital Punishment is justified or not?

    Isn’t it true that the Church may ask or beg clemency in a certain situation regarding the execution of an individual, but will never actually say that it is immoral?

    I’m interested in this question not just because of the human aspect, but also from the point of view f the development of doctrine.

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  8. Avatar

    Anthony, based on the way you asked those questions, you seem to already “know” the answer. I’m not going to try and convince you otherwise. I’m going to ask the same question I asked in the article, what kind of people do we want to be?
    Do we want to be people who give killers their “just deserts” and nothing more? Maybe you do. You are entitled to your opinion.
    This piece was not intended to be a debate on capital punishment. It’s a story about mercy and the transformations that can take place when we are merciful to others.
    I’d encourage you to read the sections of the Catechism pertaining to the death penalty to help you understand the position of the Church.

  9. Avatar

    A remarkable story of one woman’s generous, miraculous mercy. But is it possible without the backdrop of the State’s cold threat to punish a life for a life? The authority of Ceasar to wield the power of capital punishment comes from God, we know this from the witness of Jesus Christ before Pilate. The use of that power is always a particular exercise of justice and prudence, and a perogative of the State. The Church is wise to counsel mercy generally, and to celebrate heroic examples of mercy. But to insist upon it as a universal judicial norm (which the Church seems to have discovered late in the pontificate of John Paul II) is not good statecraft or theology.

  10. Avatar

    I don’t know the answer: I do know these are the questions asked by serious Catholic proponents of the death penalty and I was hoping you would have some deeper insight into these issues based on your times as an activist.

    I’ve read the sections in CCC and some say that this is a change in doctrine and that doctrine does not change, so if there’s a link you could point me too which illustrates that it is merely a development in a doctrine that the Church has always taught I would really appreciate it.

  11. Avatar

    Hi Anthony,

    I can hopefully address your question a little bit. I understand what you are asking about the “development of doctrine.”

    For all time, societies have been evolving to become more just, more moral. That doesn’t mean it was a linear development or that it happened everywhere the same way, but in general mankind has evolved to understand these things better.

    What is the central point of man’s history? The life, death and resurrection of Christ.

    At the time of Christ the “state” punished people in very cruel ways. Only now are the more developed countries coming to understand about capital punishment!

    The state always has the right of self defense, of course, but John Paul II started the discussion about whether a prisoner should be killed if a state prison is enough to keep him/her from harming other people.

    Why? Because Catholics know the value of human life, and that once a person is dead, that person cannot turn to Christ. It is about mercy and hope.

    So to give a short answer, it’s not that Truth changed, it’s that we understood it more clearly. If we can say anything evolved, it is mankind’s comprehension, not dogma. Dogma may be better articulated over time, but the Truth it communicates is immutable.

    We can say a lot more about what “Thou shall not kill” means now, but the commandment is the same.

    Does that make sense? I like to compare it to science – the laws of physics are objective truth. We learn how to articulate them better and assimilate them into our societies, but the laws themselves are what they are, independent of our opinions.

  12. Avatar

    Wow, that’s forgiveness.

    The early Christians, and saints since, were known for this kind of forgiveness, you know. And I think when we want to reject it, it shows that we have yet to really internalize the teaching and example of our Lord.

    One other thing is that the killer’s experience of her forgiveness may lead him to saving repentence. Vengeful retribution rarely does. notice she didn’t mind him going to jail – so it’s not about being soft on crime. It’s about following the teachings of Christ as literally as possible. Can anyone really think that Jesus would prefer the man to be killed?

    We have the jail system to prevent the man from harming anyone else. Therefore it is enough to punish him that way, without killing him.

  13. Avatar

    Sarah, your answer to Anthony was bitter and condescending. It is as though he had the audacity to dare question your position. Your telling him to “go read the Catechism” is weak, considering the theological debate encompasses more than simply what is in the catechism and how it is stated.

    Stacy Trasancos, on the other hand, answers nicely. I am sort of “on the fence” with regards to this issue myself – having formerly been opposed to capital punishment entirely, I am now debating whether or not it is at very rare times the most just – and most merciful – option.

  14. Avatar

    First of all, Pope JPII advocated the limitation of capital punishment not that it was an intrinsic evil like abortion, for everyone who quotes JPII; others can quote St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquina’s on the justification of capital punishment and even warfare and self preservation, these saints teachings pretty much form the basis for these arguments for the Catholic church over the years, while the mother was correct in forgiving her daughters murderer, the state would have been justified in putting him to death, fine we can make the argument that leaving him in prison for the rest of his life leaves him an opportunity for redemption, yet he exercised his free will to commmit the crime in the first place and therefore lost grace with God, not everyone gets a second chance at redemption, how many people who live in mortal sin die all of a sudden without having that chance, in case of people on death row it can be years before they are put to death, so they do have a chance for redemption.
    Personally I wouldn’t have an issue with the abolition of capital punishment if that’s what society wants, but I don’t think this would lessen these crimes, it will probably increase them, but what really disturbs me is when liberal catholics are very loud when it comes to capital punishment but remain silent on abortion, I don’t know the figures but I don’t think that over 50 million people have been put to death by the penal system since the advent of abortion in 1973, so I think if we are really serious about the life issues and want to teach young people to value life we should start and end with the abolition of abortion, dogs and cats have more value in this country then human life in the womb.

  15. Avatar

    I’m sure Sarah didn’t mean it like that, combox communication is difficult. The Catechism does reflect what I explained, that if a prisoner can be incarcerated, he should not be killed. I think we all owe Sarah at big “thank you” for giving a different perspective to this difficult issue.

    I’m not really sure if I answered Anthony’s question though.

  16. Avatar

    I would hope I would have the courage and grace to do as the mother did, and forgive the killer of her child. She is a hero, truly.

    My question is around the status of “doctrine” regarding capital punishment. It’s obviously not clear cut, or an answer would have been provided by now.

    I have been against capital punishment all my life, and I still am, yet I have come across very intelligent, well researched and well meaning Catholics who feel that we cannot just blindly say “The Church teaches that capital punishment is wrong.” Because it doesn’t. Not on black and white, and not in so many words.

    The value that such people are supporting is: The Church never creates doctrine in error, so the doctrine cannot have changed.

    I think this is a very important topic for discussion, and I’m sorry to have tipped the boat here – that wasn’t my intention.

    So Stacy, you are right, you haven’t really answered my question, and you are most probably well aware of the problem I’m talking about.

    It’s become an important discussion in today’s Church because we have competing energies in the Church, pulling us one way and another, and so topics such as this have become a bit of a battleground.

  17. Avatar

    To me our opposition to capital punishment is very similar to our opposition to abortion. We are comparatively silent on the factors that lead to abortion, the hypersexualization of the entire culture through fashion, the soft core pornography that pumps into our homes by the hour, our acceptance of premarital lovemaking in all its various stages. When, however, all these streams converge into a mighty river that is about to cascade over that huge and fatal waterfall which is abortion on demand, THEN we take a stand, resist with all our might and wonder why we do not prevail. We cry for the unborn children, murdered in their mothers wombs, because we were too full of human respect and love of our own comfort to rid our homes of television, make sure our own daughters dressed decently, were chaperoned on dates, because our priests have not cried out full-throated and unsparingly against our sins against chastity and those of the entire culture. In short abortion is a manifestation that we have lost our nerve as Christians and want very badly to blend in with the rest of the culture. We are no longer salt and light, but disciples of the culture.

    It is the same with capital punishment. My supposition is that we are rapidly being backed into a corner where massive capital punishment may seem to be the only way to protect ourselves. We are already incarcerating 2,000,000 of our citizens. If we go over a fiscal precipice, where no one will buy our bonds, where tax revenues collapse (and this is being predicted by people who saw the housing collapse coming five years before it arrived) how willing will an impoverished citizenry be to support what they see as the indolent lives of 2,000,000 people? That combined with an explosion of crime perpetrated by a morally unformed populace under tremendous economic hardship may well lead to concentration camps and worse- much worse. If we want to put an end to capital punishment, we have to discover and extirpate the roots of violence. Perhaps Vincent Miceli’s book, The Roots of Violence, would help us do the only really effective thing in preventing capital punishment: deal with the causes of crime.

    When crime is rampant, capital punishment is sometimes the only solution. When Sixtus V became pope, Rome and environs were infested with bandits. The crime wave came to an end when Rome awoke one morning to see the Ponte d’Sant’ Angelo decorated with the heads of many of these thieves and murderers on pikes, something on the order of 18 of them.

  18. Avatar

    Anthony, I truly apologize if the tone of my comment came across as insincere. I was answering you on the fly AS I prepared to leave town for the weekend for my sister in law’s wedding! I have had people in these kind of discussions “ask” questions much in the way you did, hoping only to draw me into the rabbit hole of doctrinal debate. I’ve done it so many times, I did not want this post to turn into that at all. I’m sorry that I did not take your comment more seriously.
    Stacy did a wonderful job answering it, and said basically what I would have done.

    In the end I really truly believe that it boils down to what kind of people do we want to be? I believe it’s also equally clear that we are called to be people of mercy. It’s not as though the government were made up of aliens, it’s made up of us. So when we ask, what kind of people do we want to be, it has everything to do with not just our own hearts, but with our laws as well.

    God bless!

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