Just a few days after I was born, Ronald Ryan became the last person to be executed in Australia. His controversial trial, and hanging, triggered the abolition of the death penalty in our country.
This means I am among the very first Australians to live their entire life in a society that refuses to kill one of their own – regardless of the heinousness of their crimes.
I am glad about this.
I am not glad because I’m against the idea of punishment. Anyone who has been seriously wronged knows that the deep intuitive longing for justice usually includes the offender “paying for it” in some sense. Rehabilitation is a noble goal for our justice system, but not in a way that ignores proper retribution.
What do I mean by proper retribution? I’m still not sure in practice. A simple “eye for an eye” is unworkable (how can the offences of a mass murderer carry a proportional punishment?), and fails to allow for clemency. Still, very serious crimes do seem to warrant very serious punishment.
Along those lines, I do think that a reasonable case can be made for the death penalty as a just punishment. It also seems possible that it could produce some good, even for the offender – by forcing them to face up to the wrong they’ve done, and so opening up redemptive possibilities. This is especially true if you hold that this life is not all there is. The dramatic transformation of Andrew Chan as he faced death in a Balinese prison is a case in point.
Nevertheless, I remain deeply grateful that Australians don’t live with the death penalty. Partly, this is because I don’t trust human justice systems to be reliable enough to deal with people so drastically and permanently. There are any number of cases – Ronald Ryan’s included – where justice has not been “simple,” but heavily influenced by political, racial and ideological factors. In a world of flawed human knowing and deciding, the risk of killing innocents just seems too high.
Primarily, however, I am glad because, in a world of brokenness and violence, I want to be a person who hopes for better, and the death penalty radically diminishes hope. Fyodor Dostoevsky – himself famously pardoned from a death sentence – grasped the link between hope and the death penalty. In The Idiot he wrote:
“To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands. Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood, or something of that sort, must surely hope to escape till the very last minute … But in the other case all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain. There is the sentence, and the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape, and there is no torture in the world more terrible. You may lead a soldier out and set him facing the cannon in battle and fire at him and he’ll still hope; but read a sentence of certain death over the same soldier, and he will go out of his mind or burst into tears. Who can tell whether human nature is able to bear this without madness?”
For Dostoevsky, the death penalty was devastating because it eliminates all hope for continued physical life on earth. This is true, of course, but to me, it seems even more hopeless than that. In the condemned criminal’s situation, I would want to cling not just to life itself, but to the possibility of transformation, redemption, even reconciliation.
It may be that the death penalty satisfies justice – but if so, that is all it does.
It is telling that Ronald Ryan’s last words – addressed to his daughters – were concerned not with saving his life, but with salvaging his parental legacy. He wrote: “With regard to my guilt I say only that I am innocent of intent and have a clear conscience in the matter.” We cannot know the truth about Ryan’s conscience and whether it had pricked this repeat offender towards redemption. My hope is that it had – but if not, his hanging certainly eliminated any chance it would.
Often, of course, this sort of hope is against reasonable hope. It would be naive not to recognise the reality that some individuals simply will not be reformed – perhaps cannot be reformed. Still, I hope because I have seen miraculous turnarounds.
I have a friend who is a true sociopath. He was jailed for a nearly successful attempt to murder his father with a hammer while studying chemistry to engineer the explosive destruction of thousands. Beyond hope – most others’ and his own – he reluctantly recognised his spiritual poverty through being rudely confronted by the extraordinary love of a cell-mate who responded to his persistent malevolence, not with justice, but with patient humour and grace. This encounter, transcending the will of the justice system, set him on the pathway to deep rehabilitation.
There’s an important clue in my friend’s story. Hoping for the redemption of the offender, hoping in justice or the justice system, is not enough. In the words of Nelson Mandela (who ought to know), “in the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.”
It may be in its favour that the death penalty satisfies justice, but if so, that is all it does. What goes against the death penalty is that it cuts off abruptly the possibilities for a wrongdoer to discover the sort of redemption that transcends justice.
I am glad, then, to celebrate my half-century with the demise of the death penalty. Not because it is necessarily morally wrong, but because it shows that I live in a society that embraces hope, however remote, and the possibility of a second chance.
This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.
Richard Shumack is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity, specialising in philosophy of religion. He has a PhD in Islamic Philosophy and is also Director of Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology. He is the author of The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity.