I see little or no value to weighing in on the subject of capital punishment. People have their opinions and relatively few seem interested in changing them. But I would like to express in personal terms how I felt after the news coverage of Saddam Hussein’s hanging. I’d like to share it especially for those who support executions, not to change their opinion necessarily, but simply to make a request of them.
The best word to describe my feeling: dirty.
I felt the same way when the “Shock and Awe” campaign was launched on Baghdad. I thought of all the little children cowering in closets and under beds, feeling (I imagine) that the whole world was coming to an end. I imagined them tearfully asking their moms and dads why this was happening and who was doing this to them, and them answering, “The United States.” I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and polluted to be party to frightening innocent people, much less killing them as collateral damage. I thought of how similar “shock and awe” are to “terror,” and because I don’t want to terrorize anybody, those bombs didn’t speak for me. And yet, against my will they did, and I felt dirty.
I know that Saddam was in no way innocent. I know he deserved to be held accountable for his disregard for human rights, for human life. But even if I supported capital punishment, I think I would still have felt dirty. Perhaps I’m too morally thin-skinned, but taking the human life of a person in the name of human life brings no sense of justice or satisfaction to me. Rather, it brings the opposite.
Others see it differently, I know. Some might use Bible verses to justify “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life” (although Jesus seemed to put a rather authoritative spin on those verses, preceding them with “You have heard it said,” and following them up with “But I say to you…”). Whether executions are justified or ot, I feel dirty and ashamed whenever I hear of an execution, and Saddam’s was no different. I hope I don’t ever stop feeling that way.
I have friends who have become sexual addicts. They tell me the first time they cheated on their spouses, they felt terrible. But somehow they survived, and the next time, they still felt bad, but a little less so. By the twentieth time or the fiftieth time, they felt the tiniest pang of guilt, nothing much, really. Cheating became easy. The same thing happens with liars and spouse abusers and other addicts.
We’ve all seen similar patterns in our own lives. We become desensitized to things we shouldn’t, and as that happens, we are in such great danger of becoming worse people than we ever imagined being, ever wanted to be.
So, if you felt as I did after the execution of Saddam Hussein, dirty, I wouldn’t dismiss the feeling. I would say that it might be a redemptive dirtiness, and without it, I am afraid of what we could become.
Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) has written several books, including A New Kind of Christian, A Generous Orthodoxy, and most recently, The Secret Message of Jesus. He is a Red Letter Christian and serves as board chair for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.