I was surprised to learn, recently, that some officials in the Chinese Communist Party read the Bible. You just never know about people.
I saw an article about this in Harper’s Magazine. The article discussed the story of Jesus and the crowd that was preparing to stone the woman “taken in adultery.” The biblical account in Harpers was from the most unlikely source: in a law and ethics textbook published by the Chinese Communist Party. It read as follows:
“Once upon a time Jesus spoke to an angry crowd who wanted to kill a guilty woman. ‘Of all of you, he who can say he has never done anything wrong can come forward and kill her.’
After the crowd heard this they stepped back. When the crowd retreated, Jesus raised the stone and killed the woman and said, ‘I am also a sinner, but if the law can only be executed by a spotless person then the law will die.’”
The Chinese take on the classic story was certainly a new way of seeing an old and treasured story of Jesus’ benignity and wisdom. It was arguing, I believe, that if only those who are spotless –– those with clean hands –– can carry out the requirements of the law, no justice could be done because no one would qualify. Imagine spotless lawyers, sinless policemen or just judges. The Chinese communists are on to something.
Human beings are flawed. All civilizations assume this. Living compromised and broken lives, is not an aberration for some, but a condition of all. Societies hope for the best, but do what they can with what they have. Diogenes, we must remember, is still looking for an honest man or woman. After so many years you’d think he’d lower the bar some.
Societies have always executed certain offenders as specified in their laws. As I think about this, everyone involved in the making of that decision of taking a life, is a flawed human being. We assume –– even hope –– that those assigned such tasks are basically good people that will act justly and mercifully.
In a 24-year career, retiring in 1956, Albert Pierrepoint executed 435 people as the Chief Executioner of the United Kingdom. He worked two jobs: one as the Chief Executioner and the other as a publican –– this isn’t a British party affiliation; it’s what tavern proprietors are called. His pub was curiously named, “Help the Poor Struggler.” Pierrepoint was totally professional in his duties as hangman and something of a bon vivant in his other job at the pub; he held sing-along sessions with his regulars, one of whom he had the unhappy occasion to have to execute.
In his autobiography, Pierrepoint wrote: “A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me after decisions have been made which I cannot alter. He is a man she is a woman who the church says still merits some mercy. The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give to them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death. The gentleness must remain.”
I found his comment about dignity and gentleness remarkable considering the brutality that he had to exercise in the performance of his responsibilities. That he was able to sustain some refinement of his sensibilities, even care, when performing violence on another human being, is mind boggling.
Reading about his extraordinary career, I had mixed feelings. He was reputedly “a decent chap” who dealt kindly and mercifully in his professional duties. Still there is something primal in me and I believe in many of us that finds taking of any life abhorrent but for this caveat: when it settles scores, it feels good.
As I thought more about this I noticed that my own feeling of abhorrence of Pierrepoint’s taking a life mitigated considerably when I learned that of the 435 persons that Pierrepoint executed, 200 were Nazi war criminals. Since these were members of the party that architected and supported the Holocaust, their deaths at the hangman’s rope didn’t bother me all that much. Didn’t the Nazis deserve it? Did the others, though? This matter of capital punishment I find is a sticky wicket, and as I later learned, Pierrepoint himself thought so, too.
After his career as Chief Executioner ended, Pierrepoint wrote a memoir. In it he said:
“All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any . . . capital punishment in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.”
The issue of capital punishment is as controversial as it is emotional as it throws a bright light on the darker places of the human heart, i.e., our appetites for revenge. And from that dark place, when we feel personally or collectively violated, the law of the claw is the most satisfying to consider: an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth. It’s instinctive.
I was encouraged to see the Chinese Communists for whom state power is not to be questioned, would even bother to consider the legitimacy, if not the morality, of state executions. I could be reading this incorrectly, but I thought their ethical take on the issue was that since no one can claim the moral high ground when it comes to virtue, executions are not to be seen as rectifying moral abuses, but just a dirty job that someone, who claims no moral superiority to the condemned, is sanctioned to do.
As hard as I tried to get this matter to come out even, at least in my own mind, I just couldn’t. It was too complicated. I could see no tidy resolution. One thought did occur to me, though. If all our dealings, legal or otherwise, were conducted mercifully, who knows how things might turn out. The kind of aura that merciful attitudes cast on interpersonal dealings, often lead to pleasant surprises, unseen possibilities. Blessed are the merciful, the Beatitudes tell us. The one who blesses others, will in turn, receive blessings.
Sadly, this is a hard sell even among Christians and I’m sure it was never published in his communist manifesto, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.