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Christine LenahanFebruary 27, 2024
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Find today’s readings here.

“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.” (Jn 8:1-11)

The readings for this Monday of the fifth week of Lent are incredibly extensive and dense. In the Gospel, Jesus challenges the Pharisees’ hypocrisy by forgiving a woman caught in adultery and urging her accusers to examine their sins before passing judgment.

Verse seven stirred up a memory for me. In January, I wrote a prayer while sitting in the chapel of America’s office. Illuminated by the sanctuary lamp and the brightness of my laptop screen, I typed a prayer for Kenneth Smith, a prisoner in Alabama who murdered Elizabeth Sennett 30-some years ago. He was going to be executed using nitrogen hypoxia, an unprecedented method. I followed the case through headlines, and, as the date approached, I read detailed accounts of how the execution would take place.

Although the prayer was well-intentioned and writing it was a cathartic and grace-filled experience, I left the office feeling hollowed out by my efforts. I remember asking: Is this all I can do? Write a few lines of prayer, offer it to God and wait for the next headline to hit my inbox?

The New York Times released an article days later detailing the troubling account of Mr. Smith’s death from eyewitnesses. His spiritual director, the Rev. Jeff Hood, testified about what it was like to be in that room, anointing Mr. Smith with holy oil before his death. Rev. Hood said, “When I’m reading, ‘You who are without sin shall cast the first stone,’ [Mr. Smith] looks at the guards and says, ‘You know he’s talking to y’all?’ I think he saw that as his final resistance.”

When I read today’s Gospel, I think about that final act of resistance. No, it’s not the guards themselves who are specifically “casting stones,” but instead, these verses from John Gospel’s reinforce what our church tells us: We ought to do everything to preserve life rather than destroy it. The encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” frames the same message in the context of our criminal justice system today: The death penalty is inadmissible, and Catholics should work for its abolition.

The first time I was asked about my thoughts on the death penalty, I was a sophomore in high school. I had never considered the ethics of capital punishment before. I knew that the death penalty was something that happened, but because it wasn’t happening to me, my high school brain deemed it unimportant. I didn’t know the faces, the science or the reason behind it. I just knew it was something my parents talked about whenever a cold, sterile execution chamber flashed on the television screen, the voice of a news anchor detailing the horrors of a crime.

I don’t remember what started the conversation in that high school classroom, but I do remember there was a palpable sense of hesitancy to share. I think many of my classmates felt the same way I did, that capital punishment existed, but it didn’t affect us, so what did it matter? We only knew how to recite the defenses of overheard conversations between parents, throwing in words like “horrible crimes” and “taxpayer dollars” and “justice.” So after listening to my classmates, I tried to formulate an opinion of my own. But the threads of the arguments “for” and “against” became tangled in my brain, and I defaulted to neutrality.

It wasn’t until I approached the topic again in college, in a philosophy and theology course titled The Challenge of Justice that I spent a week reading about and discussing the death penalty. As a class, we read Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson. I read this petition from a group of prominent Catholic moral theologians and was shaken to my core after reading an article by Elizabeth Breuing recalling a federal execution that happened in Terre Haute, Ind. in 2020.

I can still see the note on the top of my Five-Star notebook, spelled out in big letters in blue ink: Why do we kill people to prove that killing people is wrong?

Verse seven in John’s Gospel is a two-part teaching: First, none of us are without sin, so we cannot point fingers at sinners and adopt a “holier than thou” mentality. The only one left to judge us is God. Second, God knows that each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done. That’s why Jesus looks at the woman whom the scribes and the Pharisees have brought before him and says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:10-11). The woman has sinned, yes, but Jesus says it is not up to us to condemn her. We must leave that condemnation to God. Justice is the instrument by which we maintain conduct and order, but love must be the motive behind it.

There is one more detail about Kenny Smith’s execution that stays with me. After the execution, the son of Elizabeth Sennett, the woman Mr. Smith killed, saw one of Mr. Smith’s sons outside the execution chamber. The two men stood face-to-face and embraced each other. Whether they knew it or not, the two men honored verse seven’s teaching.

Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.

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