Life for a Life?
By Dudley C. Rose
On October 10, 1997, in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, ten-year-old Jeffrey Curley was murdered by two men who lured him into their car with the promise of money and a bicycle. The men ultimately suffocated the boy with a gasoline-soaked rag, sexually abused his body, encased it in concrete, and disposed of it in a river.
After the two men were arrested, righteous fury boiled hot in the community. Jeering crowds, clamoring for justice, greeted the suspects at the courthouse. Robert Curley, Jeffrey’s father, focused his rage and hurt by becoming a very public voice in favor of reinstating the death penalty in Massachusetts. He argued that the only thing that would make things right would be the execution of those who had murdered his son. Many agreed with him, and the movement for reinstatement of the death penalty increased in anger and fervor.
Gil Bailie’s reading of the apocryphal story of Susanna (also known as the thirteenth chapter of the Greek version of Daniel) provides an interesting interpretive analogue.1 In the story, the beautiful Susanna is assaulted by two judges. When she rebuffs their sexual advances, they promise to testify that they caught her in adultery with a young man. Susanna remains steadfast, and the judges follow through on their threat. Susanna is convicted of adultery and sentenced to death. The young lad Daniel, however, stirred by God’s spirit, intervenes. Daniel is given the status of an elder and takes over the investigation. He requires that the two judges answer questions separately and catches them in their fabrication. The narrative continues:
Then the whole assembly raised a great shout and blessed God, who saves those who hope in him. And they took action against the two elders, because out of their own mouths Daniel had convicted them of bearing false witness; they did to them as they had wickedly planned to do to their neighbor. Acting in accordance with the law of Moses, they put them to death. Thus innocent blood was spared that day. (Susanna 60–62; New Revised Standard Version)
In the course of the short drama, Daniel’s role changes from that of the divinely inspired protector of an innocent to that of the imposer of a death sentence on a guilty party. Drawing from René Girard’s work on collective violence,2 Bailie says of Daniel, “The innocence of Susanna was gradually eclipsed in his mind by the moral perversity of the men who had accused her.” The execution of an innocent victim was avoided and replaced by the execution of the dishonest and contemptible judges by a mob shouting in righteous indignation. Bailie avers that, given this choice, no one would have it otherwise. He then adds, provocatively: “But if these are the only two choices, the human race is condemned to the sacrificial system forever and forever enthralled to the god of sacralized violence.”
One does not have to be a follower of Girard to see how readily the angst in the community manifests itself in righteous anger and violence, or how many in the community say, as if it is self-evident, that vengeance is efficacious recompense—even if only partial—for a heinous crime. In Massachusetts, the movement to reinstate the death penalty gained traction in the wake of the Curley murder. On October 21, 1997, eleven days after the murder of Jeffrey Curley, the Massachusetts Senate voted 22–14 to reinstate the death penalty. In early November of that year, the House defeated the legislation with a tie vote. Not surprisingly, many representatives who voted against reinstatement received death threats.
The story of Susanna concludes this way: “Hilkiah and his wife praised God for their daughter Susanna, and so did her husband Joakim and all her relatives, because she was found innocent of a shameful deed. And from that day onward Daniel had a great reputation among the people” (Susanna 63–64). Susanna’s parents and husband praised God, because Susanna “was found innocent of a shameful deed” and, thus, was restored to them.
Jeffrey Curley, of course, would never be restored to his family. For a while, Robert Curley very publicly and with understandable rage advocated for the death penalty. The execution of Jeffrey’s murderers would, he thought, serve justice and provide him some recompense. In 2009, twelve years after Jeffrey’s murder, Brian MacQuarrie, a reporter for The Boston Globe, published a book that told not only the story of the crime, but also the story of the aftermath for the Curley family and others.3
In 1999, the governor of Massachusetts reintroduced the death penalty legislation. In the run-up to legislative debate, Robert Curley appeared on the New England Cable News television show Talk of New England. Also appearing on the program was Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie had been killed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Welch at first had “wanted the killers put to death—without trials and without regrets. ‘Just fry the bastards,’ he said of Timothy McVeigh and his accomplice, Terry Nichols.” For months, Welch spent his days visiting the bomb site and his nights drinking. His friends warned him that he was killing himself, but Welch didn’t care. After a time of soul-searching the following winter, Welch arrived at a different place; he concluded that executing Nichols and McVeigh would not help him. He said: “I wasn’t going to gain anything from an act of hate and revenge. And hate and revenge, I realized, were the very reasons that Julie and 167 others were dead. I finally was able to clearly see what the Oklahoma City bombing was all about: It was about retribution.” At one point Welch visited Timothy McVeigh’s father and sister. MacQuarrie reports Welch’s words to the two as they parted: “‘The three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. We can make the most of it we choose,’ Welch said, cradling Jennifer’s face in his hands. ‘I don’t want your brother to die, and I will do everything in my power to prevent it.'”
Curley’s testimony was different. On the television show with Welch he “spoke of how the death penalty had been a therapeutic outlet, how he had refused to cower silently inside his house, and how he had chosen instead to fight against the monsters who had killed his son and would kill others.” But already Robert Curley had begun to have doubts about the criminal justice system, because the most responsible of his son’s murderers received the lesser sentence. It was a tiny crack in Curley’s support for the death penalty, and eventually Curley would become outspoken in his opposition to the death penalty. Hatred of his son’s killers was more enduring, however. Like Welch, he had sunk into alcoholism and despair before he was finally able to let go of his desire for vengeance. And, also like Welch, he finally found his hatred to be corrosive, not only of his life, but of his memories of Jeffrey. More than a decade after the murder, MacQuarrie reports, “Now, when Bob sees Jeffrey in his dreams, his son is always in a safe place. He’s laughing and joking, and in constant motion as the ten-year-old child he will always remain.”
Righteous anger in the cause of justice nearly killed both Bud Welch and Robert Curley. As understandable as the response was, anger’s therapeutic effect was a chimera. In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Buechner captures this problem of anger as well as anyone. He says:
Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor the last toothsome morsel both of the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. (2)
If righteous anger on behalf of individuals who have experienced painful injustices or injuries is perfectly natural, it is, ultimately, therapeutically ineffective.
As a provider of pastoral care and educator of future ministers, I try both to remember and to remind my students of the dangers of righteous anger. In this effort, I have found helpful Ronald Heifetz’s and Marty Linsky’s suggestion that we owe the most pastoral care to the greatest of our “opponents,” because they are the ones we are asking to change the most. Looked at through this lens, our “opponents” are no longer enemies to defeat, but fellow human beings for whom we wish the very best.4
Is righteous anger ineffective for groups of individuals, as it is for individuals? When Daniel had the judges executed in Susanna, a shout went up and “from that day onward Daniel had a great reputation among the people.” For the people, at least in the story of Susanna, righteous anger was cathartic. There is evidence that once the fight in Massachusetts to reinstate the death penalty was over, many of its proponents apparently left their vitriol behind. One might argue, then, that group anger helps to bring calm, or at least does not seem to inhibit it.
And yet Bud Welch has made a troubling observation: hate and revenge were what prompted McVeigh and Nichols. McVeigh and Nichols carried out the Oklahoma bombing as retribution for the federal government’s attack on the Branch Davidian compound on April 19, 1993, in Waco, Texas, which left seventy-six people dead, including twenty children. Many believe that the government attack was unjust, and a case can be made for a response of righteous anger. The problem, said Welch, was that righteous anger and violence procreate themselves. Violence begets violence; hatred begets hatred. The executions of McVeigh and Nichols, he said, were simply links in the chain, a chain that fails to secure healing or resolution. Girard might argue that righteous anger and violence are often efficacious in bringing a temporary calm to groups and societies. Unfortunately, the effect is temporary. The anger and violence lie barely dormant and ready to rise again, much like cycles of addiction.
Anger and violence do not ordinarily find moral warrant. But when their apparent efficacy is conjoined with a fight against injustice, they seem to gain moral justification. Many Christians are counted among proponents for the death penalty, even though much of Christian scripture and theology argues against anger and retribution. The Girardians would say that once moral and religious systems made humanity’s natural inclination to anger and violence unjustifiable, they were smuggled back in through the appeal to one of the central tenets of those systems: justice. Clearly, this continues to be contested terrain, and important questions remain: If righteous anger and vengeance are not supported in our religious systems, why are religious and moral arguments so frequently marshaled in their defense? The stories of Susanna, Robert Curley, and Bud Welch can counsel us as we search for the moral ground on which we will choose to stand.
Perhaps we’ve paid too much attention to what evangelicals say in public about “creation science” and “intelligent design,” and not enough to their rituals of private piety.
- Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (Crossroad: 1995), 189–199.
- René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), and The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
- Brian MacQuarrie, The Ride: A Shocking Murder and a Bereaved Father’s Journey from Rage to Redemption (Da Capo, 2009), 173, 175, 177, 179, 251.
- Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 235.
Dudley C. Rose, associate dean for ministry studies and Lecturer on Ministry at Harvard Divinity School, is ordained in the United Church of Christ, in which he continues to serve as a pastor.