Last night the state of Georgia killed Troy Davis. This is certainly not the only state killing recently, but it’s been creating a bit more buzz than such deaths normally do.
Obviously the death penalty in any instance is an ethical issue. When I apply the standard of “doing only what increases wholeness in myself and in the world” to the taking of human life, I can only conclude that unless the person is a direct threat to others, it doesn’t pass the standard. I can’t see how such an act increases wholeness, nor can I see it as an expression of reverence, goodwill or justice.
Of course many people who support the death penalty do so on the very grounds that justice demands it. When such people say the word “justice,” however, what they mean is “retributive justice,” and I think we should take the time to properly identify what we’re talking about. When we identify retributive justice as simply “justice,” we imply there’s no alternative way of thinking about justice or at least not one worthy of consideration. This is not the case.
Retributive justice is the justice of giving people what we think they deserve. Another form of justice is wholistic/restorative justice. This is the justice of giving people (all people concerned) what they need to be whole, not what we think they deserve for failing to be whole.
By telling us that justice is giving people what they deserve, the supporters of retribution are giving us a false choice — either you’re for giving people what they deserve or you’re for letting them get away with hurting others. They don’t want us to think about the other alternatives, but when we think about giving people what they need as a form of justice, we realize that justice might be more than merely hurting those who hurt us. Indeed, we already have a name for that — it’s called revenge.
When we take off the nose ring of this false choice, we are able to ask some bigger questions. What does an offender need? We of course want them to recognize when they hurt others, to show some empathy, take responsibility, make amends and finally, to refrain from similar behavior in the future.
What leads to these things? What do offenders need to get there? Our current approach fails on all these points for one simple reason: the more pain you inflict on people, the more self-centered they become. If you don’t believe this, the next time you stub your toe, ask yourself what you’re thinking about as you hop around on one foot biting your lip. Prisoners in the process of getting what they deserve — be that bad food, sexual assault, physical assault or general humiliation — aren’t thinking about their victims. They’re thinking about themselves. They’re wondering if they should get a weapon or how they can turn themselves into tough guys so as not to be victims or how many hours they can manage to spend in the weight pit, or whether they should make an example of the guy who didn’t pay them back a 30-cent soup. Thus, despite its claim of being administered in the victim’s name, such justice is the one least likely to foster any awareness of the victim.
Wholistic justice asks what victims need as well. Retributive justice either ignores victims or uses them to advance its own agenda by encouraging them to seek vengeance. But who does this agenda really serve? Is it what victims really need? We don’t ask. If we did, we might see that when people are hurt they often need to be angry, but they also need to move through and beyond this anger if they’re going to be whole again. They need support and guidance to do this. They need the person who hurt them to recognize what he or she did. They may well need this person to experience reasonable punishment, to apologize and make amends. They need to know that the person isn’t just thumbing his or her nose at them and that they’re not going to victimize others in the future. This, of course, sounds a lot like the above list of what offenders need.
We see the same similarity when we expand the question further and ask what society needs. What everyone needs most of all is to be told the truth — that we can never violate another without violating ourselves. Until we get hold of this deep truth we will continue to grasp at the myth of redemptive violence; we will continue to fall prey to those who tell us, again and again, that hurting others will somehow save us. It never will. It may be necessary sometimes to do so, but there’s never any redemptive value in it.
And this, I believe, brings us to the right question in reference to the killing of Troy Davis and the death penalty in general. The question is: Is it necessary? M. Scott Peck defined evil as any killing that isn’t biologically necessary. When we begin to reduce our killing to only that which is biologically necessary, I think we’ll be much closer to the ideal of wholism.