Sunday, July 02, 2017

Members of the Household of God

You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Ephesians 2:19-20

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So, the other disciples said to him, "We have seen the Lord." But Thomas said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." John 20:24-25

God of mercy, help me to remember your loving compassion as I go forward to work for an end to the death penalty. Allow me to be a vessel for your mercy, so as to heal the broken and welcome the outcast. Amen.

The witness of St. Thomas was incomplete without his with-ness of Jesus.  In actuality, we are not told whether Thomas actually inspected the nail marks or put his hand into Jesus’ side. Virtually as soon as Jesus entered the locked upper room and issued his greeting, faith washed over Thomas as the peace of Jesus eased his doubts in his membership of the household of God.

Thomas also is the name associated with another day this week.[i]  In three more days, we will mark the 482nd anniversary of the death by the executioner’s blade of St. Thomas More, the patron of our hometown diocese of Arlington, VA.  More brought his faith into the public square even though he spent his last days locked in the Tower of London.

He refused to renounce his allegiance to the Pope in the face of mounting pressure to recognize King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England.  He not only opposed the overall Protestant Reformation but he also opposed Henry separating the Episcopal Church from the Catholic Church.  The former High Chancellor refused to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England and also refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After declining to take the Oath of Supremacy, England convicted More of treason and he was beheaded. As he stepped up to the executioner’s block, St. Thomas More reportedly said: "I die the King's good servant, but God's first."

A lesson we learn from Thomas and Thomas is how both are living witnesses to a life of virtue. The Doubter gives us a lesson in one of the three theological virtues: faith. The Scholar gives us a lesson in all the cardinal virtues that hinge on our very moral existence: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

As we approach the anniversary of the execution of St. Thomas More, with no sense of irony, the Commonwealth of Virginia scheduled another state-sponsored killing for that very date: July 6. 

This will be the third execution under (Irish Catholic) Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the 113th since 1976.  A jury convicted inmate William C. Morva of fatally shooting two men in 2006. Morva’s guilt is not in question. What is less clear is if jurors would have sentenced him to death had they been aware of the true extent of his mental illness.

Despite his undergraduate degree from The Catholic University of America and his law degree from Georgetown University, Governor McAuliffe seems contented to stand on the sidelines refusing to act -- just like his Catholic predecessors Tim Kaine and Bob McDonald -- while the state pumps lethal drugs into the veins of more prisoners.   

Catholic teaching demands a consistent ethic of life favoring a sentence imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole. The belief in the dignity of the human person is a pillar of our Catholic faith. There is no doubt in my mind that teachers taught doctrine to former Governor Kaine on his mission to Central America, to former Governor McDonald at Notre Dame and to McAuliffe at both CUA and Georgetown. Surely, all three Virginia executives know that the death penalty represents an abject failure of our society to fulfill the demands of human dignity, as evidenced by the 159 people and counting who have been exonerated due to their innocence since 1973.

Six months ago, 18 death penalty abolitionists gathered on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in protest of the use of capital punishment – including Morva’s case.  They lay flowers on the court steps in honor of the victims of violence, their families, death row inmates, the executed, and their families. They unfurled a banner reading “STOP EXECUTIONS!” That is when police moved in, encircling the group, now known in social media as the #DC18, arresting them and taking them into custody.

When a discipleship dozen of the abolitionists appeared in Washington, D.C. Superior Court, they unsuccessfully attempted to put the death penalty itself on trial. The co-defendants offered testimonies on the faith and moral motivations compelling them to stand against the kind of state-sanctioned violence that sent Jesus up Calvary carrying a cross and wearing a crown of thorns.  Thomas lived to see the day that Christ bearing his wounds returned to life.  Today’s victims of the death penalty will not be so lucky.  

Among the #DC18 is Art Laffin, a Catholic Worker from the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House whose brother was murdered by a mentally ill man.  Art and his mother long ago offered forgiveness to the man who committed the murder.  Art offered the following points in his closing statement on behalf of the 12 co-defendants: 

“Our society and criminal justice system need to reclaim its humanity and tell Derrick [Jamison, the 119th death row exoneree] and other exonerees how sorry it is for the unspeakable injustice they experienced and pledge its commitment to making sure this never happens to anyone else. I pray that each one of us in this courtroom today will make this pledge.”

For the complete text of what he said, read ‘Our Criminal Justice System Needs to Reclaim its Humanity’ published by Sojourners.

Art asked the court, “How can it be a crime to nonviolently try and stop a murder?” 

Defendant Shane Claiborne also noted poetically: “It is a strange thing to live in a country where it is legal to execute people but illegal to hold a banner in front of our highest court.”

Please consider attending a vigil at St. Mary of Sorrows Grotto on Thursday night to pray for the victims of Mr. Morva’s crime and for an end to the death penalty. While we are in the final hours of a “Fortnight for Freedom,” take the pledge to end the death penalty.

The Pledge:
“All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also in order to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom” - Pope Francis

[i] Intentionally skipping the association of Thomas Jefferson with July 4, 1776.  

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