In the parable of the sower, a farmer sprinkles seeds upon four different types of terrain, one of which is rocky where seeds fail to thrive.
As interpreted by scholars, the rock refers to the human heart that’s made of stone and therefore resistant to the seed (the Word of God), and therefore lost to salvation.
This was the topic of Bible study at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church the night white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American parishioners as they closed their eyes in prayer. Roof can be seen as a parable within a parable, his heart a stone and he, impervious to the love and fellowship offered him by strangers.
After a federal jury found him guilty Thursday on all 33 counts, including hate crimes, Roof’s salvation is very much in question.
To anyone following the trial, the verdict came as no surprise. Roof had confessed to the massacre, video captured him entering and leaving the church, and two survivors identified him as the shooter. Roof’s attorney began his opening statement by acknowledging his client’s guilt. The purpose of the trial was essentially to determine whether Roof should live out his days in prison or be executed.
The sentencing phase, during which Roof intends to represent himself (the better to create a path for appeal), will begin Jan. 3.
If anyone deserves to die for a crime, especially one so infused with racial hatred, Roof is surely that person. The 22-year-old, whose bowl haircut and baby face make him seem more boy than man, is a poster child for evil incarnate.
Yet, execution would be the wrong sentence.
It is both too good for him and too awful for the rest of us.
As a general matter, I oppose the death penalty for reasons both moral and practical. The moral issues should be obvious: Not only do I, as a citizen, not want to be part of anyone’s murder, regardless of whether it’s state-sanctioned (maybe especially so), I can’t countenance anything less than a foolproof system.
One mistaken execution is one too many, and we’ve seen too many reversals based on subsequently available DNA evidence. Also, the fact that death sentences are sometimes arbitrarily or unevenly assigned on the basis of race is untenable in a just world.
As a practical matter, death sentences don’t work. Yes, certainly, they ensure that the sinner doesn’t sin again, but they’re ineffective as a deterrent. And, it can be costlier than life behind bars thanks to lengthy appeals.
Now, to the part I am loath to admit: Death is too easy.
There is in each of us a temptation to vengeance, and this is my confession. Somewhere deep inside my brain is a tiny cell where marauding angels (not the better sort) bicker and shout and curse the day. They sleep with spite and dream of malice, plotting revenge and delighting in the prospect of another’s suffering. Forgive me, Father, for I know exactly what I’m doing here.
I’m recommending that it’s better to condemn Roof to a lifetime of suffering than to end his miserable life. Easing him to eternal rest does nothing to heal the wounds he has inflicted. But ensuring that he has to live every day for the rest of his life with the same horror, pain and, eventually, perhaps even recognition of the sorrows he caused is the punishment I wish for him. Life in prison without possibility of parole is what he deserves.
Although his guilty verdict and a life sentence in federal court would remand him to the relatively plush prison environment, not so a state prison where he could wind up. After this trial, Roof faces state charges on nine counts of first-degree murder. Again, his guilt isn’t in question, but his sentencing provides a fresh opportunity to debate his fate.
Perhaps the most important reason to spare his life is because this is what the victims’ family members say they prefer. These are the same folks who forgave Roof less than two days after the shootings when they faced him at his bond hearing.
Because they have found it in their fertile hearts to leave Roof’s fate to the final arbiter of justice, killing him would be a betrayal of their higher purpose and their faith in the power of redemption.
Pray the jurors see it this way.