The Parable of the Sower: Why We Can’t Kill Dylann Roof

Once, according to the book of Matthew, Jesus stood in a boat and spoke to a crowd of people who had gathered on the shore. He told them of a farmer, a sower, who had gone to plant seeds. “As he went out and sowed, some of the seeds fell to the wayside, and were eaten by birds. Some of the seeds fell on rocks and stony places, where they didn’t have any room for roots to grow, so the plants sprung up quickly and promisingly, but then withered away because they had no roots. Some of the seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns choked out the small young plants. But some seeds fell on good ground, and the plants grew up to yield thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold of what was planted.”

The people who gathered to hear him speak were confused. That’s it? A story about crops? The crowd wandered off, wondering if there was a cryptic meaning to this or whether it was just some solid, if obvious, advice about where to plant your flowerbed. Undeterred, the disciples followed Jesus and pestered him about it, which they were generally pretty good about doing. “What are you talking about? Why do you have to make things so difficult?” they whined (the disciples were always whining it seems). “Just say what you mean.” But Jesus did say what he meant, is the thing, and the parable of the sower was actually a meta-parable, to borrow a term from the hip. Christ’s message was for certain ears. Ears that were ready to hear it. Ground that was good. Because the message stayed the same no matter who received it, but the reception changed the outcome.

On the evening of June 17, 2015, the small bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church sat together, reading and praying, and thinking about the meaning of the Parable of the Sower, the text that they were discussing that day. I don’t need to tell you that Dylann Roof, a gangly white 19 year-old, sat quietly in that room with them, after they’d welcomed him as a guest. I don’t need to go through the details of the horrible and infamous shooting that took place minutes later. And I don’t need to tell you, dear Reader, that Dylann Roof was sentenced last week to die for his terrible crime. And I won’t go through these things again. Not here.

Dylann’s crime is truly unspeakable. We’ve reserved the death penalty for “the worst of the worst” and it’s hard to imagine something worse than this, someone worse than this, with worse motives than this. So why should we talk about sparing his life?

Because just because someone deserves the worst doesn’t mean we treat them that way, dear friends. And there are repercussions to our actions, even when meting out justice.

As the NAACP and several other activists and organizations have pointed out, killing Dylann Roof lends a false sense of legitimacy to the death penalty. We’ve long been aware that the death penalty is used disproportionately in cases where defendants are not white, and most extensively when defendants are black and victims are white. Sentencing a white boy who killed nine black people to death is a talking point for pro-death advocates who seek to prove that the system is not racist, that the results are not unjust.

I think refusing to justify the appearance of the death penalty is enough to warrant Roof’s life being spared and his sentence commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but there are a lot of other reasons, as well.

We struggle, you and I, with how we separate the violence of the criminal from the violence of the State. By this I mean we know somewhere, deep down, that what repulses us is the inclination to violence, and whether that violence is meted out by some twisted, drug-addled teenager with a host of inter-personal issues or by the Government, we don’t really like it.

The Government knows that about us, and it’s gone a long way to try and keep us from realizing that the death penalty is legal violence. It doesn’t seem the same as the out-of-control cops who shoot civilians, or responses in riot gear to protests. It doesn’t seem the same as guards who assault inmates or soldiers fighting in war-torn places.

The reason it doesn’t seem the same is because, unlike those other instances of State-Sponsored Violence, in the courtroom of a death penalty trial the State has to make it seem like its violence is not the same as the violence of the defendant. We’ve done that by moving away from public and messy executions. No more drawing and quartering for us.  We’ve medicalized and sanitized executions (at least in public perception). We don’t show juries pictures of the execution chamber- but we show them pictures of frenzied, chaotic crime scenes. We show them pictures of dead victims with graphic wounds and blood spatter, representing a type of death that jurors, and most of us, don’t often see and are then, by nature, forced to compare with the peaceful repose of the dead bodies we’ve seen previously- grandma in a Sunday dress, carefully made up to look like she’s sleeping.

“No,” says the State. “Our violence is not violence at all. Just a…quick procedure.”

But you and I don’t trust the State.  Not with things like this. Not with things done in grey light.

The origins of the death penalty hail from a time when incarceration was not feasible. Jail did not exist. The punishment didn’t fit the crime very well. The punishment for almost everything was death or dismemberment. We didn’t have time to lock anyone up. We didn’t have enough extra people to spare from gathering or hunting or, later, farming to guard anyone forever. We didn’t have facilities to put criminals in, and we had no police to prevent crime in the first place. We had to send a graphic, public message to others that if you got caught, you would be punished severely. That’s not the case anymore, we have the time and the guards and the facility. We have these resources. We don’t have the excuse.

We also understand more about people. We understand that normal, socially-adjusted, psychologically healthy people don’t do things like Dylann Roof did. We understand that a bad childhood and maladjustment to society don’t necessarily work as excuses for heinous acts, but help explain why the person is so flawed and broken, and studying them might help us understand how to prevent other sick and struggling young people from hurting others in the future. We understand that we don’t kill people who are sick. Sometimes, the best we can do for now is to take them out of society because we don’t want them to hurt anyone else, but we don’t just put them down.

In “The Merchant of Venice,” Portia, disguised as a young attorney, argues for the life of Antonio:

 

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…

 

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.

 

Because the truth, dear friend, that you and I both know is that it’s all the Parable of the Sower.  That Christ, and the thousands of other holy and wise men before and since his time that we look up to without regard to flavor of faith, were speaking of mercy and kindness and our duty to be ecstatically and radically merciful. Sometimes there is ground that is rocky or covered in thorns and unable to bring forward fruit. It’s up to the good ground, the ground that happened to be free of rocks and thorns and away from hungry birds, to grow enough for us all. Even when we don’t think it’s fair. Even when we don’t want to.  Even when we fear the thorns.