The Worth and Dignity of Every Convict

My fellow Americans, your government has allowed a group of citizens, acting as a duly convened jury, to sentence a man to death. The man did things that are terrible, and there is no doubt of his involvement, which makes this an excellent time to address capital punishment from a Unitarian Universalist perspective.

It doesn’t matter what he did, our faith requires us to care out who he could become.

Our most often quoted Principle, the only one some people can quote, is the first. Our first Principle states our commitment to affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”. It is pretty straight forward in its meaning, unlike some of the others (more on words like “responsible” and “spiritual growth” in the future), and it does not make distinctions for bad people, sick people, or people who oppose our world view. The Principle doesn’t ask that they even commit to viewing us with the same value. It is our aspiration to see every person for who they can be, at their best, no matter what their lives have brought them too so far.

Let me share my metaphor: Every person is recognized as having inherent worth, making each life precious, like a hunk of metal. Forces shape that metal into art, or a tool, or maybe into a weapon. Some art is recognized almost universally as beautiful, while other art has a limited appeal. Some tools are well crafted or specialized, and others are rough or multipurpose. Some weapons are defensive, while others are for hunting, and still others are used for violent and unsavory purposes. The metal is still the same, and can be re-purposed with the right technique. Sword can become plows. The same knife that kills can carve art or food. Art goes through phases; what was ugly or dangerous today could be beautiful and useful in a year’s time. Every life is like this. We all make bad choices, and when you make enough of them, human nature is to label you for the life you have lived. What we cannot forget, as Unitarian Universalists, is that a living person is capable of change and their destiny is not fixed by their past.

There are people in the world who hurt others; they do bad things. Maybe it is because they are greedy, or lack empathy, or are scared, or are convinced of some faith that you and I find unfathomable. We must understand that they are all acting on human urges. We owe it to our own humanity to reach out to these people, for as long as it takes or until they pass away; each of them is every bit as much a part of the human tapestry as we are, and learning from them expands our understanding of human nature. Trying to bring them to a healthy place is a sacrament to our aspirations. Treating them as people who are hurting and in need shows that our Principles are not words to brighten our spirits, but actionable promises on the path to creating the Beloved Community.

It is not right that we should take the life of a person who is already at our mercy. If we had mercy, that would never be an option. Our whole system of “justice” and “retribution” is broken and nearly void of any attempt at rehabilitation or healing. Nothing so clearly points out how much we have resigned ourselves to that as the fact that there are people we have decided to kill rather than attempt to reach. It is wrong, and our Principles require us to say so. Once a person’s Worth and Dignity are up for debate, the concept of inherency is gone, and with it the idea that there are “rights” as opposed to privileges to be given and taken based on compliance.

Forgiveness may not be possible. Reconciliation is not assured. The perpetrator may never come to a place where they feel guilt or sorrow. We can’t know if we don’t wait. We don’t have to like them or what they’ve done, but we have to affirm their right to live and our hope for change. Every day that person wakes, they might choose to be a better person. We owe it to our own humanity to give them reasons and opportunities to change. We owe it to ourselves to give them every chance to be their best.

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