A Christian response to McVeigh execution
Written by Lloyd Steffen
July - August 2001
The chorus of voices that swelled for Timothy McVeigh's execution included not only an overwhelming majority of citizens, but many Christians as well. However, if Christians react like everyone else, then nothing distinguishes the Christian voice. Christians need a distinctive voice, even on the issue of murder, since our tradition includes Moses, the cop killer; David, the intricate schemer who murdered with malice and premeditation; and St. Paul, the hate crime killer.
A distinctively Christian response to Timothy McVeigh's execution would hold up for critical reflection two illusions and one transforming hope.
The first illusion concerns justice. One idea of justice is that it puts right a balance of justice upset by someone's wrongdoing. The idea that killing McVeigh restored a balance of justice upset when his Ryder truck exploded seems absurd. Another justice illusion is that retribution can console victims. Retribution is concerned with visiting harm on an offender. It does not concern itself with victims, and it is an illusion to think so.
A second illusion is pastoral: that killing McVeigh helped the victim survivors experience moral closure and begin to put their lives back together. This is the saddest illusion of all.
Oklahoma City survivors who expended tremendous amounts of energy seeking vengeance for their loss now have to confront, once again, the enormity of their loss. The object of their rage is gone, and now, when they most need attention and help, I fear they will find themselves alone with their grief. All the attention prosecutors and the media gave these victim family members has disappeared. There is no story any more; the legal case is closed.
Although some predicted that with McVeigh dead these survivors would begin to heal, what is more likely to happen is that anger and rage will find other objects and tear away at other relationships. Unless rage is broken, its destructiveness finds new outlets. That is how passions and emotions work. McVeigh's death will not bring healing to the grief-stricken. It is an illusion to think so.
Christians are charged with the hard work of responding critically to the illusions that surround them, no matter how popular or widely accepted those illusions may be. With the critical work done, they can, in hope, fashion a distinctively Christian response. Love and forgiveness are still the central Christian prescriptions for healing deep pain. The Christian insight, based on hope, is that the victims of Oklahoma City will experience healing, but it will happen only when they move beyond the desire for vengeance and personal hurt to see, then attend to, the hurt of others.
The Rev. Lloyd Steffen is University Chaplain and Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa., and the author of "Executing Justice: The Moral Meaning of the Death Penalty," published by Pilgrim Press. Focus on Faith is a reader-written column to help nurture Christian faith. We welcome contributions from laity and clergy.