Statement by Archbishop of Atlanta on the Death Penalty, 1992

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

Article appearing in the September 3, 1992 edition of The Georgia Bulletin

It happened during the festive season of Christmas and New Year's, 1982. Then Bishop Lyke, auxiliary of the Cleveland diocese, had traveled south to Texas, to officiate at the joyful nuptials of close friends.

I remember vividly when the phone call came, one of those calls out of our worst dreams. The voice at the other end said, "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Bishop, but your brother Amos has been killed." Incredulously, I listened as the details of a senseless, violent murder were described to me. I put down the phone, my first thoughts were of the necessity of keeping this news to myself. I didn't want to spoil the joyful celebration of my friends' marriage. And so I performed the marriage with this grievous event locked in my silence, one of the few occasions in my career when the pleasure of presiding at the liturgy was heavily tempered by the simultaneous burden of personal sorrow.

After the ceremony, I returned to my hotel, and there, let loose the grief I felt at this tragedy for my family. I struggled through that 'dark night of the soul' alone in my hotel room. My reason and my emotions tangled in equal fulmination, as I argued and reargued the meaning and implications of this event in my life. My brother was gone, in the 'twinkling of an eye.' What was to he done now, what was to he said, what was to be demanded, and what was to be forgiven'?

By the time I arrived in Chicago to be with family and friends united in sorrow and strength, I had come to terms with the meaning of this violence, and I knew that I must follow the model of the Lord, and teach His way of mercy, His way of forgiveness.

Archbishop Lyke, who on one day of the week was joyfully attending the marriage of friends in Texas, a few days later found himself presiding at the funeral of his own slain brother. In his homily on that occasion, he offered advice and consolation, and counseled those who listened to follow the way of the Lord.

For those who killed my brother, we beg God's mercy and forgiveness. With St. Paul we believe deeply that we shall overcome evil with good. We listen intently to Christ's words, 'Love your enemies; pray for your persecutors.'

While we would want. . . justice, I would not desire the death penalty. Capital punishment is inconsistent with the way and thinking of Jesus, who could have called up twelve legions of angels to His defense, but instead chose to die that even His enemies might have life.

In a very real way, we are all on trial. So much of what all of us do fosters a climate of violence in our society and feeds the systems of aggression that cheapen human life.

When we attempt to solve family problems through physical force or vitriolic words, when we applaud the injury of others; when we view television programs or attend movies wherein violence is glorified; when we use or condone the use of drugs; when we join gangs that bring, fear or terror to our neighborhoods; when we purchase 'hot' goods; when we participate in these and so many like activities, we support and feed the climate of violence and hee systems of aggression. It is not the four people who killed my brother who are on trial. We are all on trial.

Christ's attitude was one of peace. He sent His disciples to bring peace from house to house and from town to town, He exhorted His disciples to prefer peace to vengeance of any kind; He begged us to love our enemies, to always be humble, and to forgive without limits.

The bottom line is this: we cannot believe that Christ is "the resurrection and the life," we cannot believe "if we die with Christ, we shall also rise with Him" unless we follow His way of peace and caring. We cannot profess one belief without the other. We shall not possess His "new life," unless we overcome evil with good.