For the first time since 1995, the legislature is debating the death penalty. A joint resolution calling for a statewide advisory referendum on the subject may be considered in the next few weeks before our lawmakers conclude their work for the year in early May.
It can be argued that such an advisory referendum merely asks the public where it stands on the question of capital punishment. True enough.
Fanning the flames
But there is a difference between a referendum to seek the public's advice on a new problem not previously discussed and an effort to fan the flames of public opinion. The proposed referendum on the death penalty is an example of the latter.
The referendum, if it happens, won't tell us anything we don't already know. Though support for the death penalty is dropping, capital punishment remains popular.
Thus, we can expect that the referendum will pass. But this is nothing new. The legislators who abolished the death penalty 153 years ago knew the public approved of executions. The public hangings in Wisconsin's first years of statehood drew large crowds. Those public spectacles painted a vivid picture of the popularity of the death penalty - and of the dark side of human nature.
A better way
Those spectacles convinced the legislature of 1853 that there had to be a better way. They took that way by abolishing capital punishment.
A key factor that weighed in favor of ending the death penalty 153 years ago was the construction of the state prison at Waupun. The legislature concluded Wisconsin had a place for dangerous criminals and that imprisonment for long periods, even for life, was preferable to state sanctioned violence.
This is significant because the legislature anticipated the very argument Pope John Paul II would use to make his case against capital punishment in 1995. In The Gospel of Life, the Pope noted that modern penal systems are now secure enough that the need for capital punishment is so rare as to be practically non-existent.
Significantly, backers of the referendum are not arguing that the prison system can't protect the public. Rather, they argue that some crimes are so vicious as to demand the offender's life.
Thus we see a shift from the death penalty as a way to protect the community toward the death penalty as a means of exacting vengeance.
It is true that some murders are particularly heinous. It's also true that some victims evoke more sympathy than others. But to say that we believe every human life is sacred is to commit to a value that applies regardless of a person's crimes, regardless of their brokenness.
Perhaps it is appropriate that we are pondering this issue during this Easter season. As we do so, we recall that no crime can approach the magnitude of that committed on the first Good Friday - when human beings blinded by sin, fear, and ignorance - killed the Son of God Himself.
And what was God's response to that crime? To continue to love the very people who took the Son's life.
We would do well to recall the events of Holy Week and the journey of our salvation history since then as we consider reversing the wise decision our ancestors made 153 years ago.
John Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference in Madison.
Jesus: Fills empty hearts at Easter
Doris Miller winced in pain as she opened Jeremy's plastic Easter egg. It was empty. Again, Jeremy apparently failed to understand the assignment. This irritated Doris, his teacher. She felt as plastic, cold, and empty as the egg.
Doris, a recent college graduate, argued that Jeremy should be transferred to a special school that could help him. But his parents refused to do so. They countered that Jeremy was happy at school. He loved Miss Miller and his 19 classmates.
Besides the special school was too far away. And Jeremy was severely handicapped by a terminal illness. He could die within the year.
The empty egg
"Miss Miller, don't you like my egg?" cried Jeremy.
"Well, I don't know!" replied the young green teacher in an uncertain voice. "Jeremy," she scolded, "I assigned each of you to put something inside the egg that reminded us of new life. But your egg is empty! Why?"
A long awkward silence followed.
"Miss Miller," Jeremy explained. "Didn't you say that the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter, too?"
Doris froze. Time stood still. "Do you know why the tomb was empty?" she probed like the good teacher she was becoming.
"Yes!" exclaimed Jeremy, "Jesus was killed and put in there! Then his Father raised him up!"
Jeremy beamed with pride when Miss Miller reverently placed the empty egg on her desk. Then the recess bell rang and quickly she retreated to the "timeout" corner in the back of the room.
Lessons about Easter
Her tears baptized her prayer: "Lord, please forgive my blindness! This handicapped boy taught me more about Easter than I'll ever know! Please help me to teach like you!" And the Risen Jesus filled her empty heart with Easter.
A few months later, at Jeremy's funeral, strangers asked why 19 plastic eggs were on top of his casket. Then Miss Miller and the class told them the story of the empty egg. As they did, some say that if you looked reverently with love and imagination, you might see a rainbow in their tears.
Transformed by faith
Like the apostles and Jeremy, our faith in the Risen Lord can transform us into courageous witnesses of Christ. On Easter we renew our baptismal promises and we receive the Eucharist which is the pledge of our future glory. We receive the Body of Christ so that Christ can strengthen us to become more like him. As God's Easter people we are called to witness to Christ where we live, worship, work, and recreate.
We reveal the love of Jesus by a smile, a kind word, a pat on the back, or words that shout, "I am here for you. I am praying for you!" We mirror the love of the Risen Jesus when we pray for others, forgive those who hurt us, respect human life, help our neighbor in need, and live the Gospel in other ways.
In 1 Corinthians 2:9 it is stated, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him." So let us rejoice and be glad! May we reflect the love of the Risen Lord during and beyond the 40 days of the Easter season.
Fr. Don Lange is a pastor emeritus in the Diocese of Madison.
Abortion and contraception:
My first project in seminary was to study the issue of abortion and develop a presentation for teens. The more I presented the truth about life, the more I saw teens appreciate the beauty of life. At the same time, they felt anger at the lies they had been told at school about abortion.
As I spoke about abortion, many people asked questions about contraception. At first it bothered me. I would say, "We're getting off the topic - we need to stick with the issue of abortion," until a few people pointed out how some forms of contraception, the IUD and occasionally the Pill, can be abortive.
Some, I learned, even rely on abortion as their fail proof birth control. (I was horrified to discover that one of every five women having abortions is married). Perhaps there was more of a connection between abortion and contraception than I had originally thought.
On a personal note, I experienced difficult side effects with the Mini-Pill recommended by my gynecologist. When I approached a new doctor with questions, he asked me, "Did you know that some forms of the Pill, mainly the Mini-Pill, are abortive? They don't suppress ovulation; they just alter the lining of the uterus so that a baby cannot implant."
I was shocked and grieved. I had had no idea that I potentially was placing our children in such danger. I was thankful it was only our third month of marriage; I pray today that no harm was done. We immediately changed to a barrier form of contraception.
A class on Christian ethics at an evangelical Protestant seminary, taught by Dr. Jack Davis, gave me the opportunity to explore these issues further. Our assignments included picking a current topic of interest for research and making a presentation in a small group. Since I saw some connection between abortion and contraception, I thought it would be worth studying these issues in greater depth.
Seven of us signed up for the topic of contraception. When we met in the back of the class, one man, acting as self-appointed chairman, said, "Let's rule out anything that's abortive. But barrier methods of contraception should be okay. The only people who think that contraception is completely wrong are Catholics."
It was as if he were concluding the study before we began. Was there really nothing more to study?
"Why," I wondered out loud, "do Catholics oppose contraception?" I didn't even know Catholics opposed contraception; no Catholic friend had ever mentioned that fact.
"There are only two reasons," he quipped, with a note of authority. "First, the pope isn't married. He doesn't live with the consequences! And second, Catholics are just out to make all the new Catholics they can!"
Surely there are reasons more substantial than that, I thought to myself. Then I said, "I doubt Catholics would put it that way."
"Well, why don't you study what they think?" he challenged. "But I already know what I think."
"I sure will," I replied. And I did.
To be continued . . .
Kimberly Hahn, mother of six, is co-author of the bestseller Roman, Sweet Home, Our Journey to Catholicism, with her husband Scott Hahn. This column is syndicated by www.OneMoreSoul.com and is reprinted from Kimberly Hahn's book, Life-Giving Love (St. Anthony Messenger Press).
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