I do not support the death penalty. I don’t think any Catholic ought to, although I respect the option Catholics have within our tradition to do so. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that, in the modern world, sufficient means exist to contain dangerous criminals indefinitely without ending their lives, so the cases in which death is the only way to ensure public safety must be few (see paragraph 2267). I don’t have any personal experience with death row, though, and I can’t even begin to try to place myself in the shoes of the perpetrators of capital crimes, their families, and the victims’ families. It’s a blessing that I can’t relate to them.
Jeanne Bishop can, though. In 1990, Bishop’s brother-in-law Richard Langert, sister Nancy Langert, and their unborn child were shot in their home in an affluent Chicago suburb. Their murderer, David Biro, was arrested shortly thereafter; he was a high school student whose family Bishop’s knew. Although she had every reason to write him off to his death sentence and go about her grief and her life, she found herself discovering new faith in Christ and embarking on a difficult path to true healing, forgiveness, and working for justice. She details her story in Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer.
Bishop, herself an attorney, knew the defense attorney. She remembered seeing Biro in his family’s Christmas card. Yet the first thing out of her mouth upon hearing of his arrest was, “I don’t want to hate him.” She was surprised, but those instinctual words were the beginning of the long, difficult, almost unbelievable journey to today. She came to understand that faith demands love. Faith requires that we love even the people we want to hate, the people who are unrepentant, the people everyone would understand hating: even our sister’s murderer.
Bishop attended the trial, and she thought Biro’s sentence would be the end of her grief, but it wasn’t. For some victim families, it is, but not for her. She became a public defender because, although not everyone can afford good legal assistance, but everyone deserves a fighting chance. With the help of trusted friends and spiritual counsel, she found healing in Christ from her pain and anger.
Gradually, Bishop realized that Biro didn’t deserve to die. The answer to death can’t be more death. She did not want “to widen the pool of bloodshed, dig another grave, create another grieving family.” She began speaking in anti-death penalty organizations and on panels, often opposing other victim family members. She extended her advocacy to ending life sentences for juveniles, finding solidarity with still other victim families.
“We can’t love what he did, but we have to love him, because God made him for a purpose.” —Brendan Bishop, son of Jeanne
About two-thirds of the way through the book, after Bishop had been doing anti-death penalty advocacy for years, mandatory juvenile life without parole is struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, so David Biro becomes able to seek a sentence less than life. Bishop at frist said she couldn’t support him because he was “still remorseless.” A friend challenged her. “How do you know that? You don’t know that. You’ve never even spoken to him.” She realized that she had told many, many people that she forgives Biro. She had not, however, told maybe the person who most needed to know: Biro himself.
“I had waited all these years for him to apologize to me. I saw it now with startling clarity: I had to apologize to him, for never telling him that I had forgiven him. I had to go first.”
I used to do marriage preparation (for other couples; not for myself), and one of the points I tried to impress upon every couple was not to assume they knew the thoughts, desires, or opinions of another person, especially an intended spouse. That’s an easy way to hurt your own feelings or build up your own anxiety based upon something you believe to be true when it’s really your imagination. You don’t know what your future spouse thinks about how to raise kids. You don’t know whether your boss is upset with you. You don’t know whether someone is sorry. You don’t know any of that unless you have evidence, and the most direct way to get that evidence is to ask.
So she did. She wrote a letter to Biro expressing her forgiveness and noting his lack of confession. The letter she received back contained what she sought, a handwritten confession, and sparked an ongoing relationship between the two of them. On the outside, it doesn’t make sense. A victim family member told her once, to her face, that she must not have loved her sister very much if she could forgive her murderer. But Christianity doesn’t make sense on the outside either. It’s a faith that brings new life from death, freedom from sacrifice, and hope from despair.
“Sometimes restoration has to come without justice—it has to be grace.”
The overwhelming message of Change of Heart is love. It’s a brief book with a powerful point. Real love demands justice. Only God can judge perfectly, but we have learned in Scripture and in the example of Jesus Christ that judgment does not preclude satisfaction (or punishment) for our sins. Real love also requires mercy. There’s a line we must draw in the sand and say, “No further.” I hope that someday, that line will be responding to death with more death.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
—Matthew 5:6–7, 9–10
I received a free Kindle e-book copy of Change of Heart from Westminster John Knox Press via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for their generosity!