The Death Penalty Is an Assault on Human Dignity

There is an abiding presence in Christian thought of the power of baptism. For one, most believe it “indelibly” marks the person baptized. St. Augustine, for example, defends this understanding in his Against the Letter of Parmenian, arguing against re-baptism. A more contemporary reflection on this thought underlies the drama of Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair, with an unknown baptism operative in the novel’s drama. However, other language is also used to describe baptismal effects in the Christian tradition, language that is perhaps more provocative than an indelible mark, as the latter analogously appears in other parts of life too, say when someone survives trauma, falls in love, or loses a limb.

What might appear more provocative theology and language might appear more poetic too. When once teaching those preparing to enter full communion with the Catholic Church, I employed such theology, telling in different images how Christians are Christ’s body and how by the sacrament of baptism one joins it. Paul’s ecclesial image on slides, I shared the consequence of the belief that through baptism one becomes: “Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) Further reflections on this principle are refracted through the stained-glass prism of saints: “Christ has no body on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassionately on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good . . .Christ has no body now on earth but yours!” says Teresa of Avila. “You must identify yourselves with your model, not only in order to become a faithful copy, but to become somewhat another Christ” exhorts Basil Moreau. Gerard Manely Hopkins can be added too, with his poetry:

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

I wonder however, after hearing such catechetical proposals, or reflecting on the theology of the Christian tradition, one might wonder after learning of the details of the very real execution of Dusten Lee Honken in 2020. For, I hope (and believe) the belief is more metaphysically substantial than pretty poetics.  

Honken was declared dead on July 17, 2020 at 4:36 pm at the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, thirty-six minutes after the lethal drug pentobarbital entered his veins. Honken murdered five – two men, a mother, and two children – to protect a large-scale methamphetamine operation. The pain, brutality, and evil brought to the victims of these crimes, both those killed and their loved ones, is horrifying. I do not pretend to mitigate or have us forget that evil and I encourage those reading this essay to also read this account by Courtney Crowder and Tyler J. Davis in the Des Moines Register to contend with that evil. However, the focus in this article lies more on who Honken became after his conviction, as, if it is not a fiction that Paul did not lie, that Augustine was orthodox, that the saint of Avila is right, that Moreau’s hope is founded, and that Christ plays in ten thousand places, it is hard not to say that the death penalty in America today not only farces justice and assaults human dignity; by the matter of baptismal facticities and theology, the death penalty in America has struck at the heart of the Church’s mission; Terre Haute Became Calvary and Christ killed Christ on 17th of July 2020. A second thesis easily unfolds from the first: there lies within American society an ecclesiological-fabric that demands much from social participation in a society of the baptized.   

Terre Haute Became Calvary

Honken was deemed too dangerous to freely stand in the courtroom at his trial. Yet, after the man bolted to the floor and wearing’ a stun belt in his 2004 trial was executed the seventeenth of July, his lawyer noted how Honken, “was redeemed”:

“He recognized and repented for the crimes he had committed, and spent his time in prison atoning for them. With…religious mentors, Dustin worked every day at the Catholic faith that was at the center of his life. During his time in prison, he cared for everyone he came into contact with: guards, counselors, medical staff, his fellow inmates and his legal team. Over the years he grew incredibly close to his family, becoming a true father, son, brother and friend.”

According to Sister Betty Donoghue of the Sisters of Providence, he “was at peace.”  Speaking with him a few days before his death, she was “totally amazed. He believed he would go to heaven. He is ready to meet his maker.” 

The Justice Department that ushered on his and others’ executions saw Dusten Lee Honken as a murderer. He was more. True, after his conviction he became a prisoner, but still more after this. Honken’s spiritual advisor, Father Mark O’Keefe, O.S.B, noted in his request for a delay in execution that Honken, “has been a sincere, practicing Catholic for more than 10 years. He attends Catholic Mass and receives Communion regularly; he receives Catholic ministry regularly; and he believes sincerely in the Catholic faith.” Cardinal Tobin, before wearing red, met with Honken four to five times a year. His Eminence reported before Honken’s execution that “His present spiritual guide . . . confirms that the spiritual growth in faith and compassion, which I had witnessed in our meetings some years ago, continues to this day.” As his lawyer put it, “The Dustin Honken they wanted to kill is long gone.” The Dustin they wanted to kill not only embraced his identity in Christ; if we hold the logic of the saints as our own, the Dusten they killed was Christ. Underscoring this are the reported last words of Honken: a poem by Hopkins, and a prayer to the Mary, the Mother of God. Thus, Dusten’s execution at the hands of the state beckons back to one two millennia past: two thousand years ago, Christ on Calvary told the beloved disciple to behold his Mother (John 19:25-27). On the 17th of July 2020, Terre Haute Became Calvary. Dusten recited Hopkins and beheld his Mother before he breathed his last. Yet, in a way unlike that Calvary two-thousand years ago, Christ killed Christ.

Christ Killed Christ

By the same baptismal logic by which Dusten became a Christ, it was a Christ who put Dusten on the Cross. The lethal injection that killed Honken was administered under the direction of then Attorney General of the United States: William P. Barr. The now former Attorney Generaldirected “the way for the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two decade lapse.” Barr thus moved forward Honken’s execution long delayed. Like Honken, myself, and perhaps you, however, Barr was baptized. Likewise, perhaps like you, myself, and Honken, is a Catholic.

In virtue of the indelibility of baptism’s effect on the person, and the becoming Christ that it incurs, it is hard not to conclude a further horror: pentobarbital flowing into lovely “limbs . . . not his,” directed there by one bearing a face in which “Christ plays:” Christ as Pilate and Christ convicted. “The man they killed today” his lawyer observed, “was a human being, who could have spent the rest of his days helping others.” Not only that, if his execution had been stayed or his sentence commuted to life without parole, Honken could have continued to be Christ’s hands and eyes and ears to inmates. Honken could have continued to extended love in friendship and fatherhood and prayer. Yet, despite pleas from the hierarchy, the former Presidential administration did not change its course. No, the President, who said “[t]ogether, we must protect, cherish, and defend the dignity and sanctity of every human life,” did not commute the sentences of men and a woman on federal death row to life without parole like he could have done. Rather, his Attorney General directed federal executions resume, and so Christ stopped Christ’s heart from beating.

Mission and Witness Rooted in Love

The Church (and I say this broadly) claims a mission deeply rooted in a unity which mirrors and participates in Divine love. Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of John, for example, prays that we “may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17: 21) This is not outside of a Christian liturgical memory, as in the Roman Catholic Church’s Preface for the Transfiguration, praying that, “how in the Body of the whole Church is to be fulfilled what so wonderfully shone forth in its Head.” Saint Paul, as another example, reminded the Christians in Ephesus of the praxis of unity in the Body of Christ, that “living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body . . . with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:16)

For Christianity to strive towards its end, it is clear how essential it is that Christians, those who make up the Body of Christ, all be one in love, so that all may believe, so that all may know they too are invited to embrace divine sonship or daughterhood through the Church. “Love that is practiced,” reflects Hans Urs Von Balthasar on the Evangelist, “contains the ability to demonstrate itself as the truth.” So there is a “burden” enmeshed in Christ’s fixing the Church’s mission in its unity and love: any sin committed, any schism, anything done against fellow Christians, undermines the savor of those who believe they are to be the salt of the earth; each act against love is a rebellion against a mission empowered by unity and forged in love.

Detecting an Autoimmune Disease in the Body of Christ

“The Church” as philosopher Rémi Brague has noted, “has no existence outside of concrete individuals.” And as already established, one becomes one of those concrete individuals via baptism. The trouble is not being one of those concrete individuals once one’s been baptized.  As Henry characterizes it in the The End of the Affair, it’s like an “infection”; however, it’s an infection of the kind one can’t quite rid oneself. In turn, we can see the grace of an unknown baptism at play in the novel’s drama. Describing it as an “infection” is perhaps impious, but we can find baptism, by its incorporative nature, does establish the setting for an autoimmune like disease: it is key to making the Body, and Christians, still with freewill, can make themselves cells of a Body attacking itself.  

 Christians remain a part of Christ’s Body even when they commit acts of hate, injustice, division, and aid in bringing suffering and death into the world; no matter the stage for their acts, Christians are Christians. So we talk of Christians like, C.S. Lewis, “objectively,” not “spoiling it” by calling all the baptized “good men” or by spiritualizing it to include all who are “‘far closer to the spirit of Christ’ that the less satisfactory of the disciples.” Christians are Christians even if they’re bad Christians or don’t know they’re Christians. And when any of these Christians attack one another, the Body attacks itself like one with an autoimmune disorder, working against Christ’s prayer as rendered in John, undermining the appearance of authenticity in Christian claims and witnesses, striking at the heart of the Church’s mission rooted in love and seeking to draw all to the Father through itself. Yet, as the execution of Dusten Lee Honken shows, this disease’s symptoms appear in more than just a Church “proper” whatever that may be; the auto-immune disease shows itself not just attacking in the Parish hall or rectory, in a bible study or in liturgical fights, in sexual abuse or in the home: the autoimmune disease shows itself in public society. In the case of Dusten Lee Honken, a U.S. Federal penitentiary; it was there that Christ killed Christ and it was the law that held the door open for the killing.

Seeing the Fabric

If one agrees with Archbishop Sheen or Pope Francis that Christendom is dead, or “at its end,” they cannot deny that the baptized in the West wander about Christendom’s ruins. And yet, as Bishop William Wack, C.S.C., like the late Sheen, noted in his recent pastoral letter to the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida, Christianity is not dead. Christians are not dead; rather, the baptized largely populate the space in which Christendom has been declared without a pulse.

Consider the United States: according to Pew, 88.1% of the U.S. Congress professes Christian faith, and 63% of the United States does the same. Thus, a majority of the population of the United States is a part of the “Body of Christ” in some way or another according to the baptismal-ecclesiological understanding that we contend here, even if they are living out baptism according to different denominational logics. To underscore this further, while I do not have the numbers, I think it likely that a good number of the religiously unaffiliated, 29% of the U.S. population, were baptized at some point in their past, whether known or unknown to them. If this is the case, the number of Christians (from a perspective of baptismal-theology) in the United States is actually larger than 63%. Even if they are thus part of the “baptized-lost”—lost in terms of self, existentially and ecclesiologically unaware of the import and extent of their incorporation by baptism—they are Christian. They too make up the “concrete existence” of the Church. Even members of the self-professed Christians can probably find themselves characterized in some way by the “baptized-lost” descriptor. And yet what emerges here is of great importance to Christians: because Christians, the baptized, are there, even if Christendom is dead, by the theo-logic articulated here, the social world can be seen as having an ecclesiological fabric. But then Christians need to realize something more: in light of the call to love and unity rooted in their mission, the impact of acting within an ecclesiological fabric notably extending into the public domain.

Enwrapped in the Fabric

Enwrapped in the fabric, Christians need to face a couple of things: the fact that whenever they legislate, live, hate, lie, whisper, gossip, attack, or slander, by the demographics, they have a high chance of doing so to fellow Christians. Likewise, (we) Christians should come to face the fact that their belief holds that when any (of us) in the 63+% slander, attack, gossip, whisper, lie, hate, live and legislate against another—anywhere and at any time: at home, in the workplace, on the ballot or at the bar, at the corner store, walking down the sidewalk, waiting at a traffic light, anywhere!—we catalyze the spread of the auto-immune disease, disordering Christ’s Body, working against Christ’s Johannine prayer for a unity forged in love. By doing that, Christians embrace the capacity they uniquely possess to disorder Christ’s appearing in the world; as Hans Urs Von Balthasar observed, Christians, not the unbaptized, carry the power to make the Church seem a “useless enigma, which as such deservedly provokes contradiction and blasphemy (Romans 2:24).” 

Hence, even if Christendom is dead, the current situation of Christian participation in U.S. politics is ecclesiological. Because Christians are at the table, whether self-aware Christians or non-aware Christians, believing Christians ought to understand that the decisions they make are a matter pertaining to the Christianity’s mission. When they work against it, they rend more tears in the fabric; Honken’s death at Barr’s direction was just one tear in the social-ecclesiological fabric in the U.S., it is just one symptom of the Body’s autoimmune style sickness that is riddled into our social life. How many more are there? Even if we cannot name a number, do they not emerge in the content and quality of our discourse, legislation, relationships, and structures of (in)justice? In those, and I imagine more, we find ourselves bombarded with symptoms of an auto-immune disease that can lead one to wonder “why join” a Body bearing such. How we live together as Christians, including towards Christians unaware of their baptism, matters in regard to embracing or rejecting working towards the end of Christ’s prayer to the Father in John, that “they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21) Such awareness should impact the leading of our lives together and even the legislation of our laws.

A Dangerous Way?

One might contend, however, that pushing Christians to consider this view of political and social participation is a dangerous door to walk through. Especially in a time when nationalism and us-them rhetoric is so present in discourse, when tensions are high in a world so focused on identity, does it not just become a framework for a new exclusions and Christian preferentialism? If Christians see their mission at stake in how they treat themselves, and how they engage in politics and society, then will not they only help and love themselves?

If that is the doorway, it will be dangerous. Nothing else but “per me si va tra la perduta gente” will be inscribed above it, like the mouth of Dante’s hell (as Pinsky translated, “through me you enter the population of loss.”) Such exclusively Christian concern would reduce Christianity to a pack of wolves only looking out for itself, a pack of wolves claiming to bear the clothing of sheep; Christians that love only themselves and make the herd a preying-pack will lose their souls, becoming even more the “baptized-lost.”

Famously, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed that his “”four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The content of one’s neighbor’s character, baptized or not, however, is Christ, even if hidden behind a “mask”:

“There is one image…which stands wholly by itself and which is like no other image instituted by the Son of Man, who bore and atoned for the guilt of all men on the Cross: this is the image of the fellow-man we encounter. In his plight and guilt, our fellow-man as we encounter him is in every case our neighbor, and this neighbor of man’s is Christ…Here all the loose threads of faith come together. For in faith I know that I have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, and I know that you equally have been redeemed and that in you faith compels me to see, to respect, and to anticipate in action the supremely real image which the triune God has of you.” (emphasis added).

Thus, we should judge our actions with regard to this character, this being of Christ in my fellow human being, as she appears to me, as I encounter her. Hence, St. Benedict wrote into his rule, “Let all guests who come to the Monastery be entertained like Chris himself, because He will say: “I was a stranger, and ye took Me in.”” Even if one is outside of the ecclesiological-social fabric in the way articulated here, they too are to be served, they too are to be loved, they too are called to fullness of life and they too are to be responded to as Christ. Not just in our personal relationships but in our society’s laws. Christ too is affected when our laws fail them, when the structures of society fail them, when they are not loved or given justice (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).

Even if it is not a matter of an ecclesial call to Christian unity, standing for the dignity of each person, it is a matter of Christian’s call to love. In this way the Christian ought see not just themselves in a social-ecclesiological fabric, but a Christo-social fabric, a social order that, for the Christian, to again parallel a Balthasarian thought, must fundamentally be taken by the Christian as oriented around Christ who chose to become each person’s neighbor in the Incarnation, and who lies again in the “fellow-man as we encounter him.”  Thus, even if Honken didn’t embrace the Catholic faith, or was never baptized, we could still forcefully say that Christ killed Christ and Terre Haute becoming Calvary.

Concluding with a Question

Given that Christian belief shows Christ rooted His mission in Christian unity and love, and that there is a ecclesiological and Christological societal fabric to the United States,  U.S. Christians of all kinds ought to radically evaluate society, and their participation within it, in the light of the social-ecclesiological situation of the United States and correspondingly in light of their evangelical call they believe to have from Christ. Such reflection is important especially now; Afterall, do we not today prove ourselves Berkeleyans? Showing ourselves like a character in Graham Greene’s The Comedians:

“Don’t you understand…[w]e’re what you chose to make us. You’re a Berkeleyan. My God, what a Berkeleyan. You’ve turned poor Jones into a seducer and me into a wanton mistress. You can’t believe in your mother’s medal, can you? You’ve written her a different part…None of us is like you fancy we are. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter much if your thoughts were not so dark…”

Are not our own thoughts so often so dark, seeing others only in the part we have written for them under the title of  “Democrat,” “Republican,” “American,” “Immigrant,” “Leftist,” “Right,” “Trumpian,” “Murder,” “Prisoner,” etc. While one might agree with Brague that Christianity’s “personal character prohibits it from defining itself in relation to an ideology, as a ‘party line,’’’ that does not mean Christians do not go beyond lines of prohibition.

Do not riptides of ideology keep us far from the shores of baptismal and Christo-logics, so much so that we do not act as we are, a people in which, Christ plays in ten thousand places, // Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his // To the Father through the features of men’s faces”? Even if such radical reflection, and the way of seeing that comes with such belief, cannot draw one out of the vicious rip currents of ideologies that draw one far from Christianity, at least pregnant within such a way of seeing, or reflection, is an evaluative question a Christian ought reckon with: how is this affecting the Christ that I am affecting? Can we ask this question as we turn to the 2022 midterm elections? The next time we go to work? The next time we get home to our families? The next time we see a stranger? The next time we are at the grocery store? The next time we vote on a particular piece of legislation? The next time we talk to someone?

Christians today should not forget that their ecclesiology demands much in how they lead their lives together. Christians can make the Church seem a useless enigma, as Balthasar attuned us. And the Church, Christianity, is ultimately the individuals marked by baptism, both the saints and the sinners.  It is real people who are at risk of being turned away by Christian witness, mine and others, rather than being invited in through it. We Christians are to answer if we fail to love and labor in the mission we claim to bear, a mission that ought to transfigure societal discourse, public policy, individual encounters, each Christian’s whole being, and the whole world, to reflect and unfold the Love we claim to be indelibly transfigured by.


James Mahoney is an Austin native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame, where he studied Aerospace Engineering and Philosophy.

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