B’Haalotecha, Nathan Dunlap and the Death Penalty
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
May 24, 2013
This week’s torah portion – b’haalotecha, like much of the book of Bamidbar (Numbers), is filled with harsh punishments. Things are very black and white in Bamidbar
· The Israelites as a whole are punished because they didn’t trust God and are told that they must all die in the wilderness until a new Generation is born
· The punishment for disobeying Shabbat and Passover is death
· Moses is punished because he disobeys God – he will never enter into the promised land
God’s judgment is quick and severe. Punishment abounds.
Tonight, I want to talk about how we, as a nation, view punishment – in particular, Capital punishment – the Death Penalty
Our son, Ethan, took a course on punishment and the penal system this past year. As a result, we had a lot of discussions around our dinner table about the purpose and success of our legal system. Why and how do we punish? What are the goals of having a prison system?
· Is it to protect society?
· Is it to provide justice to the victims?
· Is it to deter crime?
Each situation is different. As such, our justice system provides us with a wide variety of tools and options: from monetary fines to community service, to prison time, to the ultimate punishment – the death penalty.
Our constitution guarantees against “Cruel and unusual punishment” so the sentencing given to the guilty must not be excessive or out of the ordinary.
This past week, much of our attention here in Colorado has been focused on our Governor’s decision regarding the implementation of the Death penalty in the case of the convicted murderer, Nathan Dunlap. As I’m sure most of you know, Dunlap was sentenced to death after being found guilty of the brutal murder of four people at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant 20 years ago. Three of his victims were teenagers and the fourth was a mother of two. At the time of the murders, Dunlap himself was 19 and he has consequently spent half of his life awaiting his own execution on death row.
Everyone who is familiar with Dunlap’s case can agree that the crime he committed was horrific. He is a convicted killer. He canot be a part of society. There is no debate about his guilt. The question that faced our Governor was whether or not he would use his power as our State’s Chief Executive to stop Dunlap’s execution from taking place. As I’m sure all of us know by now, Governor Hickenlooper decided to stay the execution – at least during the time that he is in office. He did not commute Dunlop’s sentence, rather he stopped it from taking place – for the time being.
The reaction to the Governor’s decision has been intense – from all sides. Some feel that Dunlop should be put to death in order to provide justice in the aftermath of his own murderous spree. Other’s feel that the Governor did not do enough – instead of a stay of Execution, he should have commuted the sentence entirely. Others are upset that the Governor is overturning the will of the people – and that he never should have considered it in the 1st place.
Tonight, I don’t want to talk about the Governor’s decision – although, I am relieved that Dunlap will not be put to death in the near future. Instead, I want us to look at what Capital punishment really is and, most importantly, what Judaism has to say about it.
I am opposed to the death penalty. I find it immoral, inhumane and dangerous.
Rev Jim Ryan and I recently wrote an op-ed piece that was published in the Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder in which we wrote, in part:
For us, as men of God and leaders of our congregations of Colorado faithful, it is deeply troubling that our state may move forward with the execution of Nathan Dunlap. Our calling to serve God involves a responsibility to seek justice, and we must be especially mindful of our role in supporting the poor and the weak, while advocating for fairness for all. Despite his terrible crime and the suffering he caused, we pray that Mr. Dunlap will receive executive clemency and will serve his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
I am not opposed to just punishment, or tough standards for violent and murderous criminals. I am opposed to the death penalty – not because of what it does to the guilty – but what it does to all of us – you and me – here today and throughout our nation.
Ours is a society in which violence is becoming so commonplace that the threshold for events which shock, which give us pause, which cause us to cry out in horror at the inhumanity of humanity is constantly on the rise.
Murder is commonplace - both on our streets, in our homes, and in our prisons.
The death penalty, some might argue, is a deterent - is a way to show that we are in control of the most dangerous elements in our society. It is not.
The death penalty, some might argue, is the ultimate form of justice and punishment at our disposal. It is not.
You see, I do not understand how one act of violence can possibly be a moral punishment for another act of violence.
We live in a violent society. Everywhere we look in the media – in the newspapers, on te
the internet we are confronted with evidence of human brutality. This violence is reinforced through the ways
that we entertain ourselves – the films,
te levision shows, books and video
games that grow more violent every day.
Compounding this phenomenon is the fact there is very little left today that is shocking.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes the following:
"Once, there was magic and a sense of mystery in our lives. Once (in our childhood and in the childhood of the human race) there were places that were unlike all other places, and moments in time that were different from ordinary time. They added color, texture, and excitement to our lives. But today no place is off limits to human ingenuity. WE have become so good at unraveling mysteries that few things still mystify us, and in the process we may have become the people to whom the late philosopher Joseph Campbell addressed this warning: 'When you get to be older and the concerns of the day have been attended to, and you turn to the inner life - well, if you don't know where it is or what it is, you'll be sorry.'
We have largely lost the capacity for reverence, the sense of awe that comes from realizing how much greater God is than we are. We have lost it, paradoxically, because the twentieth century teaches us both how great we are and how small we are."
We have become immune not only to the beauty and wonder that surrounds us, but also to the ugliness and evil that, unfortunately, pervade our everyday lives. It is not our “…capacity for reverence…” that is being lost, but our ability to be shocked as well.
The fact that the United States of America is the only Democratic country in which Capital Punishment is permitted……
The fact that other nations that share our penchant for ultimate vengance include Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, , Jordon, Kuwait, Libya, North Korea, Malaysia, Morocco, , Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, United States, Vietnam and Yemen…..
The fact that over half of those on death row are people of color, through they represent only 20% of the country’s population……
The fact that nearly half of those executed in the last two decades have been people of color, with blacks alone accounting for 38%. All told, 82% have been put to death for the murder of a white person. Only 3% were white people who had been convicted of killing people of African, Asian or Hispanic descent…...
These facts should give us pause…….And yet – they don’t. We don’t even think about them. We turn aside from the injustice of our current system in order to ignore iur current reality in favor of a belief that Capital punishment somehow brings us justice, closure, deterence….
My friends, the truth is that the death penalty is legally sanctioned murder - nothing more and nothing less.
There are those who may argue that the Bible does not prohibit Capital Punishment. This is true - to a point. And yet, as Judaism has evolved over the centuries, we have also developed a reticence to impose the death penalty. The Rabbis of old made it practically impossible to impose the death penalty. In the 65 year history of the State of Israel only one person has ever been executed by a court of law - Adolph Eichman - the architect of Hitler’s Final Solution and even that execution was hotly debated within the courts and around the kitchen tables of every citizen in the Jewish State.
For me, the central issue is truly none of the above. For me the issue of Capital punishment revolves not around how we see the most evil elements of society - but how we perceive ourselves. Are we going to allow our fear of crime, our desire for vengeance, our BOTTOM LINE mentality to govern how we conduct ourselves? Capital punishment is a quick fix - it may be popular with the voters – it may make some of us feel good - or politicians look good as they get tough on crime - but ultimately, I believe that it lessens our own humanity when we take the life of another person.
Those who have committed atrocities need to be punished. They cannot be a part of a civilized society. But, I firmly believe, one of the prices of being “civilized” is taking on a responsibility to act in a way that is consistent with our own internal holiness.
All religious traditions teach that one day humanity will be judged. I believe that our judgment will not merely revolve around how we treated the best elements of our society – but how we treated the worst elements of our society. There is evil in the world. There are predators and murderers among us who deserve to be separated and cut off from society. For some there can be no rehabilitation. And yet, the price we pay for living in a civilized, moral society, is living with the fact that we cannot totally eliminate this evil. But we can assert that we – as a society will not allow ourselves to stoop to their level. We will not allow ourselves to become murderers as well.
In the book of Genesis we learn that we are all created in the Image of God. There is a spark of holiness inside every human being. All life is holy - even that of the most damaged and evil members of our society. When we take a life - whether that life has committed murder or not - we are diminishing the image of God. Yes, the murderer has done the same - but the fact that we claim to be a moral society calls us to rise above our desire for vengeance and understand that one act of murder does not make up for another.
It is our sacred task to preserve the humanity that God has implanted within us - as difficult sometimes as that might be. May we be strong in our reslove.