April 15, 2008

He's Guilty, But I'm Not Celebrating

Some people are rejoicing today. The front page of the Honolulu Advertiser reports that 23-year-old Kirk Lankford has been found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 21-year-old Masumi Watanabe, described as "a painfully shy woman" sent from Japan to Hawaii to learn independence. For those of us who have been following this trial, it's been a very interesting case with many surprising developments. If you want to get caught up, here's an article summarizing the events.

I cannot definitively say whether this was the right verdict or not, but for the most part, I believe in our criminal justice system. The local news media has reported that most people in Hawaii appear to agree with this verdict so far. Am I personally convinced that Mr. Lankford 'intentionally' killed Ms. Watanabe as the jury has concluded? I'm still not sure, but that fact that he changed his story over the course of the trial only weakened his defense. I didn't see all the evidence, but the jury reached a verdict in just a day and a half. As the events unfolded, I have been vacillating between compassion for Kirk Lankford, who like myself is a church-going young husband and father of a young son, and sympathy for the grieving Watanabe family whose daughter was taken at a time in her life when she was just beginning to discover herself.

Second-degree murder usually carries a sentence of life with the possibility of parole, but City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle will seek life without the possibility of parole, arguing that Lankford has a history of violence. Personally, I have yet to hear substantial evidence of such a history. I still remember reading about Lankford's arrest last April which surprised his friends and neighbors who said he was a loving family member who led prayers in church. What a difference a year makes. I was reading more about the trial this morning when I was struck by the comments and reactions to the verdict posted on a newspaper's online message board. All the comments supported the verdict and many were disturbingly triumphant. Here's a sampling:

"it is really too bad this state does not have the Death Penalty."
"his hell on EARTH is coming, but it will not be anything like the day he faces judgement before God."
"well kirk, now instead of admitting and being accountable for your actions, now you get to spend possibly the rest of your life in Halawa [prison]- the place where they love young men like you, and you also leave your wife and your child to fend for themselves."
"All you inmates at OCCC [Oahu Community Correctional Center] now torture this guy until he tells what he did to the body and bring peace to the Watanabe families hearts and minds."
"nothing is more satisfying than seeing a lawyer talking out of his a** and his defendant soon to be taking it up his a**. Damn it was a good day!"

Obviously, these comments are knee-jerk reactions. I do realize that blogs and message boards don't always bring out the best in people. Maybe I should just dismiss these angry words and treat them as I would restroom stall graffiti- just flush the toilet and move on. After all, what's the use in thinking too hard about words that were hardly given any thought to begin with? Their comments aren't worth my attention, right? People can be thoughtless in an environment of online anonymity. In fact, the very nature of the blogosphere almost encourages people be thoughtless sometimes. People don't really mean those things, do they?

I hope not, but I know better. I know myself and the angry, malicious thoughts I sometimes have- I might even be in danger of thinking some right now! I've seen the culture of revenge and retaliation that has spawned bumper stickers that say "I don't get back, I just get even." The myth of redemptive violence is alive and well from the halls of Congress to the kindergarten playground. It's ok to kill someone as long as it's for a just cause. We own guns out of self-defense. We start wars out of self-defense. We execute criminals out of self defense. We kill people in order to teach them not to kill. Self defense may have saved our lives but it has killed our souls!

I didn't want this to become a rant about the death penalty (perhaps it's already too late for that), but it's hard to escape the moral and spiritual dimensions of this issue that deals so directly with the sanctity of human life. I find the Bible to be very clear about the difference between revenge and restorative justice. Justice as described in the Scriptures always has to do with making things right and restoring things to the way they were meant to be in the first place. The intent of any punishment should be to bring wholeness to the victims, their families and yes, even the offenders. Punishment and discipline can be helpful tools in facilitating this restoration, but they are only a means to an end. Prison sentences, fines and community service are not ends in themselves, but a means of bringing wholeness and fairness out of a twisted situation.

As Shane Claiborne likes to say, "There are some things worth dying for but nothing worth killing for." Regardless of who the criminal is or what the crime was, I can't picture Jesus dancing on anyone's grave or celebrating someone's execution. His famous interaction with the adulterous woman facing the death penalty is often spiritualized into a feel-good story about how God forgave a lucky sinner, but it's rarely used as a model for criminal justice. We get distracted by the mysterious writing in the sand and his exhortation to "go and sin no more" as if the entire point of the story is to avoid sin, since Jesus might not be so merciful next time.

When someone on the message board (finally) commented that wishing for Mr. Lankford's torture was going too far, a response was posted saying, "You are sick for thinking he is human."

Well, I guess there are at least two of us who happen to think that Kirk Lankford is still human. What bothers me is not that he was found guilty, but that so many people are delighting in his suffering. If that means I'm "sick" then you can refer me to a specialist because I believe that no human being deserves to be tortured or raped no matter what their crime was. What type of society are we when we relish the thought of someone being sodomized in prison? Where is the comfort in that? Why are we so angry? Why are we so quick to punish criminals and send them to the grave? What has corrupted our souls to the point that we enjoy seeing the death of another child of God? Have we learned anything since we put Jesus to death?

Dallas Willard says, "Christian spiritual formation is inescapably a matter of recognizing in ourselves the idea systems of evil that govern the present age and respective culture, as well as those that constitute a life away from God."

It's pretty easy to recognize evil in the thoughtless actions of criminals and the thoughtless words of angry bloggers. It's much harder to look for the Kirk Lankford in me. What would I have done if I had struck a pedestrian with my work truck while on the job and no one was around? Would have gone to the authorities right away with the truth, risking my job and good name? I might not have been so foolish as to dump the body in the ocean and lie about it, but I've certainly done my share of stupid things.

Part of me wants to visit Mr. Lankford in prison. I should at least write to him. Because of Hawaii's overcrowded prisons, he may likely be incarcerated across the ocean in Arizona or even farther east. How does that provide "correction" or rehabilitation or restoration or wholeness? This much is true: another child became fatherless today as his father faces a lifetime in prison. No one should be celebrating.

1 comment:

becs said...

Preach it!

I'm disgusted with those who are so cruel as to rejoice in the suffering of another.

In fact, I'm so angry at them I wish they were in prison taking it up the a**...

... not very Christian-like, I know. In fact, I should have just as much compassion on them as I do for Kirk. Yet I don't! I'm just as guilty as they are, just that my anger is directed in another direction.

I'll visit Kirk with you if you want to go (assuming he doesn't get farmed off to the mainland.)