Give Us Barabbas!
Why do so many liberals who oppose capital punishment support abortion?
At age 17, I lost my unborn daughter to a coerced abortion, and that experience enflamed in me a passion as deep as a fire in a coal mine: to defend the human person from acts of violence. So l launched into pro-life activism, walking door to door lobbying strangers, then joining more organized groups, right up to and including presidential candidacies.
Over the course of years, the logic of my beliefs stretched my concern to other threatened people. I have marched, or written, or lobbied, or worked on films in defense of Serbian civilians, Iranian women, Nuban tribesmen, South Sudanese animists and Assyrian Christians. My work in cities brought me face to face with homeless Americans, some of them veterans like me. So I started a series of missions intended to highlight their human dignity. I have helped raise millions of dollars for women in crisis. I have published a book on the roots of 20th-century genocide.
Studying that subject, and learning that in the past 100 years the modern state murdered some 170 million civilians — not including casualties of war — I realized that the kind of governments ruling nowadays have no business dealing out death. So I came to embrace the idea of a moratorium on the death penalty. Until and unless we see a worldwide resurgence of respect for innocent life, I think that we should pressure our governments to stop executing even the guilty.
But right now I would like to indict a significant swath of those who agree with me on that issue. There’s a certain type of person who grabs on to the issue like a fashion accessory. You know who I’m talking about: the fashionable urban liberal for whom the death penalty is not a profound moral question, deeply connected to the modern contempt for life. No, it’s one of those tacky, “red state,” redneck things like gun rights, pickup trucks, country music and going to church. That is, it is something you ritually reject in order to mark off your status as a progressive sophisticate. Like GMOs or NASCAR or homophobia.
These lifestyle anti-deathers never follow the issue closely. You won’t find them visiting prisoners on death row, or even writing them letters. They aren’t involved in crusades like the Innocence Project, or in efforts at stomping out the national epidemic of prison rape. They don’t help groups like Prison Fellowship, which try to bring hope and healing to convicted criminals. No, the men and women on death row in America are merely abstractions to them, little plastic pawns they move around on the chessboard of their minds — as wispy and insignificant as nameless unborn children. Oh, I had to mention them, because the people I have in mind, who wax passionate over mimosas about the evil of capital punishment are always, to a person, pro-choice when it comes to abortion.
For the longest time I couldn’t wrap my head around that position. I can get how someone who views all life as cheap could favor both abortions and executions — and euthanasia, and cloning, and even the use of nuclear weapons, when it’s the utilitarian thing to do.
I can see how sincere prolifers make room for capital punishment, since killing the innocent is clearly different from killing the guilty.
What I couldn’t for decades understand is how someone can get outraged about the execution of the Boston Marathon bomber — but shrug at the deaths of a million innocent unborn Americans every year. Does the human brain even work that way?
But now I understand. It came to me not long after going to Mass on Palm Sunday. Instead of the Gospel reading that day, what we do is a Passion play. The priest speaks the parts of Jesus, the lector reads the narration, and we in the congregation get to play the Jerusalem mob. That is not as much fun as it sounds, since among our lines is “Crucify him!,” and more importantly, “Give us Barabbas!”
Having to speak those words, to put myself in the sandals of the people who had welcomed Jesus with palm fronds and hosannas, then seven days later demanded that Pilate put him to death … well, it got me thinking. It wasn’t as if Barabbas was some beloved resistance leader, as Hollywood movies would have it. No, he was simply a robber and a killer. Five minutes before Pilate offered them the choice between him and Jesus, those people had never heard his name. They knew as little about him as the lifestyle liberal knows about the killers on death row. They only knew one thing: He was guilty, while Jesus was innocent. And that is why they preferred him. And on some level, all of us do.
Because we aren’t innocent. We all have things on our conscience. We have all made grave mistakes, even if most of them don’t merit hanging. We can empathize with the guilty, can put ourselves in his place. What we cannot apprehend, because we cannot stand it, is the suffering of the innocent. It is simply too appalling. It overwhelms us and crushes us. It demands that we take action. If it really were true that a million innocent people were murdered each year in our country, we’d have to feel very differently about the place and its system of government. We would have to get angry, and underneath that, we would feel profoundly tainted. We’d feel helpless, outraged and sad.
And who really wants to feel that way? Not the lifestyle liberal, who tells himself he’s a humanist in the great Renaissance tradition. He sends checks to animal rescue shelters and buys produce from local farmers. He hopes for peaceful coexistence among the nations and despises all forms of prejudice. But underneath it all, he secretly thinks that man is no more than a brainy ape, and life is a meaningless snuff farce where the cast members die at the end. Since life is short and futile, he wants his to be cheerful. And the truly innocent, the vulnerable, are a pig’s ear found in the punchbowl. He doesn’t want to look at them. Instead he’ll drink his chai latte as he tweets: #GiveUsBarabbas.