The jury in the trial of Dylann Roof recently found him guilty on 33 federal charges in the murders of nine churchgoers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.
This verdict, however, did not resolve the sentencing. Roof is representing himself in the penalty phase of his federal capital trial, which began Tuesday. It is yet to be determined whether he will receive the sentence of death for his crimes.
Some think such a heinous act deserves nothing less. Others plead for mercy, including some of the family members of his victims. Yet the case could be made that the sentence of death itself is a mercy — and of a kind that his victims never saw.
Recently, I watched a documentary about the death penalty by Werner Herzog called “Into the Abyss,” released in 2011. He traced the story of a young man who, when he was 19, murdered three people in cold blood and had been given the death penalty. Herzog established at the onset of the film that he opposed capital punishment. While interviewing a clergyman, he interjected, “Jesus would oppose the death penalty, wouldn’t he?”
I believe Jesus might say that the death penalty, as with death itself, is beside the point. He would say, I believe, what He has already said about death: “Do not fear those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear instead the one who can kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28).
It seems Jesus is saying that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. It is the state of one’s soul one needs fret about.
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The Herzog documentary brilliantly captured the transformative force an impending death imposes upon those in the crime’s extended community — the victims’ families, the killer’s family, the officers who serve the last meal, the attendants who render the lethal injection, the priest who stands and prays with the criminal.
The weeks leading up to the execution — which soon became days, then hours, then minutes — become a crucible of reckoning.
Herzog’s film also showed how the focus and attendance brought to bear in carrying out the death sentence oddly ennobles the final days and moments of the life of the crime’s perpetrator. The confrontational nature of such anticipation changes people and moves souls, in one direction or another.
If there ever were to be a case made for the value of the death penalty, it would be the benefit of soul reckoning upon seeing the day of your death noted on a calendar. During this short season of dreaded anticipation, those in this position are given the chance to measure the weight of mortality and to allow it to do its work on the soul.
For some, this reckoning may impose clarity; for others, it may push them farther into the abyss.
In this way, capital punishment could be seen as a kind of mercy — a chance to come to terms with the value of a life, the meaning of a soul, and the nearness of a God who sees and knows all.
The young man in Herzog’s documentary died as scheduled. In his final moment of mortal life, he turned to the single surviving member of the family he killed and told her he forgave her for putting him to death. So some souls aren’t saved.
It is yet to be seen what the verdict will be for Dylann Roof, if he will live or die — and if the season of waiting will bring clarity or push him farther into the abyss.
Wendy Murray served as regional correspondent for TIME magazine in Honduras in the early 1990s, and later as associate editor and senior writer at Christianity Today. She is the author of 10 nonfiction books and a novel.