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We Should Be Afraid

“Be not afraid,” says the angel. Be not afraid, and entrust your life to Christ, who wants only good for you.

All right, but what about when someone else’s life is entrusted to us? What about when we have the power over someone else’s life — the power to alter it forever, even the power to end it?  Remember what happened to Uzzah, who saw the Ark of the Covenant wobbling, and without even thinking, he stepped forward and grabbed hold of the thing. “And The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; and he died there beside the ark of God.”

Fear of the Lord means that at very least we should hesitate. Sometimes we should not be comfortable and confident. I wrote the post below for Crisis magazine in December of 2008. It’s relevant again, and over and over again, when we bluster and grandstand about executing criminals, waterboarding terrorists, or any time we hold power over the life of another human being. Human life is where God resides in this world. When we stretch out our hands to take hold of it, we should be afraid.

_____

A New Hampshire jury must decide
 whether to sentence Michael Addison, a convicted cop killer, to execution.
He is a terrible man who bragged about his plans to shoot a cop, if he needed to, while committing his many crimes. His defense team is concentrating on his unhappy childhood. The picture that emerges is of a self-serving jerk who grew up to be cold and evil, and he isn’t sorry now.
My husband argues that the Church’s teaching on the death penalty — that it must be reserved for cases in which it is necessary to protect the community — can apply in cases like this: If people who shoot policemen are not executed, then we are tolerating the murder of policemen, an intolerable crime. The safety of the community depends on criminals’ knowing that they will not get away with killing a cop.
I don’t know if he’s right or not. It may be so. Either way, the problem terrifies me.
Many years ago — when I was a new mother, the world was black and white, and the subtleties of Dr. Laura Schlessinger guided my thinking more than any other intellect — we had an upstairs neighbor who was a drug addict.
She was a mess. She was clearly high most of the time. Her hair was chopped and frazzled, her skin and mouth were a wasteland, and she could hardly string two sentences together. She stumbled up and down the stairs past my door, not knowing if it were day, night, or the end of the world.
The only thing she could communicate clearly was that she had just had a baby girl, and she was always looking for a ride to go visit her tiny little one at the hospital. The baby was, of course, sick. She was very premature, probably suffering from withdrawal from the moment of birth.
Miraculously, the child survived, and her terrible mother became almost radiant as she reported the baby’s progress to me. Soon the baby would be able to leave the hospital, she told me — but I didn’t believe her.
Then the day came. The baby was strong enough to be discharged. My neighbor fell into my apartment, half-undressed, sobbing with a terrible sound. “They’re going to take my baby away from me!” she cried. “They’re taking her away!”
Well, of course they were. I couldn’t believe that she didn’t know it would happen. This woman didn’t even know whether she was wearing clothes or not, and she expected the nurses to release a fragile, sick preemie into her care.
It was terrifying. It was absolutely necessary that this thing be done — that the baby be taken away from her mother. The mother clearly deserved it, and the poor baby deserved it, too. But it was the worst thing in the world. You should have heard that mother cry.
Here is another short story: My grandmother died last month. She was 89 years old, and she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 19 years ago. It was like watching a sand house torn away by the tide. She just dissolved.
She had been a rock-hard, funny, sarcastic, boundlessly generous visiting nurse, and now she was a quivering collection of wasted limbs and a ghastly vacancy where her mind used to be. Everyone suffered. She did; her husband did, before he died; and my mother, who cared for her for years, suffered very much in many different ways, and it went on and on and on.
When my grandmother died, it was a relief for everyone. We were so glad for her release from the dark and fearful cell her mind had become. My sister said that she felt that Nana had been out of touch with us for so many years, but now that she was dead, she had been given back to us. We could talk to her again.
At the funeral Mass, it wasn’t hard to stand there and remember these things — her baptism, the Last Rites, the tender mercy of God. The Resurrection.
It was only at the end, when the undertakers braced their hands against the smudgy shroud that covered her coffin and began to heave this burden down the aisle of the church, that it became a terrible thing. She was leaving.
As a Catholic, I know what happens after death. And yet I do not know. They began to sing that drippy hymn “Be Not Afraid,” and suddenly I was afraid. It was right that I should be.
All we really know is separation. We try and hope, but what do we know? We do the best we can to deal with the enormous, shattering burdens of life. But we should be afraid. There is much to hope for, and we trust God. But in the moment, unless we are already dead ourselves, there is much to fear.
So now the jury must decide if this terrible man, this unrepentant murderer Michael Addison, should be killed. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. Maybe no one will even miss him. He deserves it. It’s the way life goes, and sometimes these terrible things need to be done.
But I hope that, when we do it, we are afraid.

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