September 15, 2006

Go and Make Disciples / John Valenti

Jonah House and the death penalty

After a conference for diocesan leadership at St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore, I had an opportunity to participate in some grassroots activities that highlight our Catholic Church teaching on peace and social justice.

Led by Lasallian Christian Brother Henry Werner, I was among the attendees who took part in a protest against the death penalty and visited Jonah House, a community for peace and nonviolent resistance.

The evening was cold. Despite the snow and bad weather, approximately 50 people assembled outside the federal prison in downtown Baltimore to request that the life of convicted murderer Wesley Baker be spared.

The Catholic Church teaches that killing is wrong and, therefore, we are against the death penalty. Those who braved the weather and public opinion carried signs which read “Do Not Kill In My Name” and “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

I was conscious of the fact that Jesus himself was executed as a criminal and the instrument of his death, the cross, is our universal symbol of the love he taught and gave us.

While we marched, Baker was executed by lethal injection at 9:18 p.m.

The following day, we met with Liz McAlister, widow of the late Phillip Berrigan, and their son, Jeremy, at Jonah House. The home has become symbolic of nonviolent opposition to war and has, over the years, become synonymous with peace and justice initiatives.

As an associate director of evangelization and faith formation, I was interested in discussing what topics Liz thought should be included in our religious education curriculum and life-long adult faith formation programs.

She was passionate about the “immorality of war” and God’s commandment against murder.

“Our Catholic Church must have a more unified vision for peace and justice,” Liz said. “Killing is always and absolutely wrong. Everyone is a child of God.”

Reflecting a belief that Catholics need to vocalize and live out our Church’s teachings on all pro-life issues, Liz admitted that, “We live in the margins of mainstream public opinion, and we stay there being the kind of community that we want our Church to be.”

She added, “We resist the crimes of the worst kind ... war, terrorism ... but also the planning for war.”

When I asked, “What about the need for national defense?” Liz said, “Preparing to kill is wrong. Killing is always and absolutely wrong.”

As a leader of nonviolent civil disobedience, her late husband, Phil Berrigan, spent many years in jail for literally “beating swords into plowshares,” a Hebrew reference that God commanded his children to “study war no longer.”

When I asked how others could get involved to inform their conscience, Liz and Jeremy suggested the St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker Community in South Bend, Ind., the Catholic Peace Fellowship and the video, “Just Faith.” Another resource is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’- sponsored Campaign for Human Development.

We concluded our visit by making a pilgrimage to the room at Jonah House where Phil Berrigan died, and to his gravesite just outside the house.

The stone there simply quotes the words of Jesus, “Love one another.”

(John Valenti is associate director of evangelization and faith formation for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.) †


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