On the Tsarnaev Death Sentence
It is virtually impossible to know what caused the jurors to weep when they pronounced the death sentence on the Boston Marathon bomber last Friday. Until they speak publicly, we can only imagine the emotional and spiritual ordeal they themselves have undergone during the many weeks trial and its sentencing phase. However, their tears indicate that there is nothing emotionless, clean, or uncomplicated in the sentence they felt compelled to hand down.
The diverse and strident opinions we hear following the verdict betray how divided we are on the efficacy of capital punishment to satisfy the requirement for justice. The division is not only demographic, but also internal. One victim spoke of being simultaneously satisfied and disappointed by the sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Others lament that our judicial system prevents a jury from deciding that a death sentence is warranted, but chooses instead to sentence the culprit to imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole. If the horrible events that led to unspeakable loss bound the victims together in their common suffering, the death penalty itself seems to have driven a wedge into any possibility of community among them.
Such is the legacy of sin. In his recent book, The Road to Character, and in subsequent interviews, the social commentator David Brooks argues for a reclamation of the moral lexicon. Concepts such as sin and grace have a powerful role in helping us become better, even more holy, people. Clearly, Tsarnaev, and his hate-filled brother, engaged willingly in sins of the most egregious kind. And they did it with a premeditated coldness of heart and brutality that displayed how sin can distort and cut off a soul from the rest of humankind. The legacy of their sin now threatens to be perpetuated, and even multiplied, as we find ourselves as citizens engaged in the act of inhumanity that is state sanctioned homicide. One wonders if the tears of the jurors were provoked by the sense that they really did not have any choice in the matter. This is how sin works its nefarious power, by advancing the lie that it is inevitable. It simply must be done.
In the case of Tsarnaev, and in all cases, we have freedom to choose another course—the course of unmerited, undeserved, radical grace. As many who have experienced it will tell you, grace can be much harder, even more excruciating, to accept than the harsh punishments we mete out to one another. It’s not an accident that we in the Church rarely talk about grace apart from the crucified and risen body and blood of Jesus. For us, that death should be the only, and final, execution that can unite us.