Australia is currently wrestling with many issues: children in detention camps; child sex abuse; asylum seekers; domestic violence; terrorism; how we relate to the religious ‘other’? – to name a few. All very significant and pressing, requiring continued reflection and action on our part. I choose today to attend to the case of the two awaiting execution on death row in Bali.
In hearing their story, and in their impending death, I am uneasy, disturbed, anxious and helpless.
Capital punishment has not been high on the agenda of any theological reflection on my part, despite the fact that India practices it. Since 1983, Indian courts have handed down the death penalty only for the ‘rarest of rare’ cases.
In the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape and murder of Jyothi Pandey, new laws were introduced to specify the death penalty for murder cases where rapes are involved.
I must confess, however, that in this case I was leaning towards favouring it because of the ‘bestial’ and brazen nature of the rape. These were not human beings in my opinion; their action forfeited their right to live, once and for all is what I thought. In the interest of public health and safety of women they needed to be punished and destroyed.
I realise now that it was an immediate reaction stemming from anger and hurt, of one who like many others wanted to see them pay for their sins.
The case of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has provided opportunity for me to revisit my own stance on the issue and give it some further reflection. I write unaware of the outcome.
I am hesitant to some degree to comment on a polarising subject such as this; but I also feel that we need to refresh our minds periodically on this complex and crucial subject – and particularly at this time. And when better to renew our minds on this subject than this time of lent with its focus on suffering, pain, uncertainty, mercy, justice, life and death?
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock asks Portia, why he should show mercy on Antonia and Portia responds…
The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty / Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings, / But mercy is above this sceptred sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself. And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That, in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.
It has been a while since I have read this play or reflected upon it … but I think Portia is declaring something about her understanding of God – a characteristic of God – God as merciful and unconditionally so.
Our Scriptures uphold this truth about God, as one who shows mercy freely, even against the obligations of the literal law (Exod 33:19). God’s mercy defines not only God’s being but also God’s relationship with the world and humanity.
So, when we show mercy we emulate God. God through God’s Spirit is working in the world to inspire in us the value system that would make us holy, make us merciful, because such is the God we confess and declare our faith in. God’s Spirit I believe is at work amongst all those wanting to honour life – life in all those on death row despite the horror of their crimes.
In the light of this issue, I remind myself that Jesus himself did not die a natural death.
He suffered the death penalty for what was considered an act of treason or in modern terms – the charge of ‘terrorism’ perhaps? Yet, his life and ministry, I would claim, has provided valuable and meaningful purpose not only for the individual but also for society.
In his life and work Jesus Christ upheld the sanctity of human life. He taught us through example that we do not have the right to eclipse or smother this sacred spark of life within us.
We are called as individuals, as the Church, to fan the spark into a flame, to maintain it, nurture it, even in the most dubious and unfavourable of persons. We would perhaps all be there if not for the grace and mercy of God.
It is essential that we cling to the belief that there lies within us as individuals and the Church the capacity to reclaim and restore people from whatever evil he or she has fallen into. Our Scriptures teach us that Christ himself lived and died to redeem and reclaim not some sinners but all, irrespective of type.
In his capacity as the Son of Man, the Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth, Christ prayed and sought mercy and forgiveness for all – oppressors and victims of oppression. As he prays for the oppressors of the world, he also empowers the victims to be transformed from seeking vengeance to seeking forgiveness for their tormentors.
It is through this transformation they become partners with God in God’s incessant act of redemptive transformation of sinful humanity into a human community of peace, justice and love.
Our silence in the face of powers that be, whether State, religion or culture, that seek to extinguish life, is a declaration of defeat. Of irreversible defeat of the power of God’s love and mercy, and in us whom he has called to share with him his saving and redeeming work.
Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon
Coordinator of Studies, Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament
Pilgrim Theological College