Columnists > Judgment Calls

His just reward

But was McVeigh beyond forgiveness in God's eyes?

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

Last week, as many as 2,000 members of the media were descending on Terre Haute, Ind., for the rescheduled execution of Timothy McVeigh. Add protesters, curiosity-seekers, and souvenir vendors to the mix, and you've got a full-blown carnival atmosphere-complete with T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other ghoulish mementos.

Even if McVeigh hadn't committed the deadliest act of terrorism in American history, the fact that his is the first federal execution since 1963 guaranteed a lot of media attention. But it's the notoriety of his crime that prompts two crucial moral and theological questions: Is the execution of McVeigh right, and is such a man beyond redemption?

For many years I was opposed to the death penalty-until I met serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Gacy's lack of remorse made me wonder if there weren't some cases where the only remedy that could produce justice was execution.

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This, in turn, led me to C. S. Lewis's essay, "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment." In it, Lewis says, "to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we 'ought to have known better,' is to be treated as a human person made in God's image."

This was an idea that struck home. All at once I saw that the object of justice is not to rehabilitate or create some new person but, rather, to balance the scales of justice; and sometimes the only way to do that is to give the offender his just deserts-which was, I believe, the situation of Timothy McVeigh.

I have no difficulty whatsoever with the state carrying out its sentence against McVeigh. He committed a horrific crime. No matter what he may have believed about the state of the nation in 1995, or his supposed desire to right past wrongs, there is absolutely no excuse for taking the lives of innocent people in such a senseless act of terrorism.

The issue of whether or not McVeigh could be redeemed raises two questions. First, does God's grace extend to those who have committed terrible sins? To ask it is to answer it. Yes, of course it does. To suggest that Christ's sacrifice wouldn't apply to someone like Timothy McVeigh would be to say that it doesn't apply to anyone. And to say that McVeigh's actions disqualified him from the possibility of grace reveals a profound, almost heretical, misunderstanding of what grace is all about.

The real issue is whether McVeigh was availing himself of this grace before it was too late, and that's another matter. Indications were that the same attitudes that led him to commit his heinous crime also were keeping him from repentance.

In the new book, American Terrorist, which quotes McVeigh at length, he seemed all too self-satisfied, almost smug. He showed little doubt about the rightness of his actions and even fancied himself a heroic figure. What's missing was the sense of horror about his actions and the suffering he inflicted. It's this horror that leads one to embrace grace and seek forgiveness; without it the unrepentant remain unredeemed. The critical question is: Does a person want to be redeemed?

No one is beyond redemption. So as some enjoy carnival atmospheres, my prayer is that all those on Death Row come to grips with their need, and decide, at long last, that the answer is yes.

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