Allow Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran to flourish


Last Friday's World Social Justice Day was overshadowed by the impending execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran in Indonesia. Its delay keeps alive the teasing, agonised hope that the sentence may yet be commuted.       

The demands of justice lie behind the strong opposition to the executions by politicians, columnists, church leaders and many citizens. They see execution as an unjust punishment for any human being. Respect for human dignity means that we can never take a human life, and certainly not an Australian life, as punishment for crime.

But the demands of justice also fuel the conviction of many Australians that the sentence should be carried out. They argue that the State may legitimately take the lives of those who devastate others' lives by dealing in drugs, and that people who break national laws carrying the death penalty deserve to die.

Here two approaches to social justice come into conflict. One focuses initially on society and the law and argues abstractly about right and wrong. It emphasises legitimacy and law.

The other approach focuses on the persons involved in the decision, and particularly on the persons who will be executed. It asks what execution means for them and for all those in relationship to them, including relatives, fellow countrymen, executioners, lawmakers and the victims of the crimes for which the condemned are sentenced to death.

From this latter perspective on social justice the key question to ask is whether the executions will contribute to the flourishing of the persons concerned and to society as a whole. Flourishing means living in security, encouragement to make connections to others, to grow in responsibility and to contribute to a society that cares for all its members, especially the most vulnerable.

The last ten years enable us to see what is at stake for the flourishing of Chan and Sukumuran.

On the evidence of officers and prisoners with whom they have lived they have changed from self-centred, superficial young men to adults who give their lives to the other prisoners, are reflective, creative and have found inner depth and strength. Their execution will cut down their lives as they have begun to flower. It will also take away their capacity to touch others' lives for the better, and with it the possibility of life changing relationships with many other people. They lose and society loses.

What the execution means for those involved in ordering, taking part in and approving the execution is more subtle. It will encourage a retreat from focusing on the human dignity of persons to seeing them instrumentally. To be involved in the restraining and shooting of unarmed people, to have children exposed to imagining its details, and to applaud it leads to a hardening of empathy and to a diminished respect for human dignity.

Human life becomes a card that can be played for higher stakes. The public imagination becomes a little more corrupted.

These are arguments against execution, not against heavy penalties for criminal offences. The flourishing of persons and of society requires a framework to ensure that those who wrong others in society are restrained and cannot benefit from their actions, and that those who are harmed have their injured human dignity vindicated. The flourishing of society also demands that those who act wrongly be assisted to participate in society and to contribute to it.

By these standards many other penal measures, such as life imprisonment and fixed sentences also impede the flourishing of persons and of society. But capital punishment is uniquely destructive.

While people are alive there is the possibility, admittedly sometimes remote, that they will respond by reflecting on their lives, becoming deeper and more generous as human beings, making connections with others and contributing even in small ways to the happiness of others and to society. Capital punishment brutally excludes possibility and leaves all of us the smaller for it.

Social justice does not begin with principles. The principles come from looking at real human beings in their relationships with one another, and asking what human flourishing demands. This can then be articulated haltingly in principles, and the principles embodied crudely in a legal framework that allows for due discretion in its workings.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Chan, Myuran Sukumuran, Bali Nine, Indonesia, Death Penalty



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Existing comments

Like so many other Australians, I have felt dismayed at developments in Indonesia concerning Sukumaran and Chan. To oppose the death penalty is to oppose it for all people, even those who have not been rehabilitated. I've been moved to see Ben Quilty's anguish over the fate of his friend Myuran. I've been moved to see two (female) parliamentarians reflect on the impending executions. Our Prime Minister is trying everything possible to aid these men. We must continue to show respect for our relationship with Indonesia even as this event is looming. And we must continue to oppose the death penalty everywhere it is enforced.

Pam | 21 February 2015  

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

AO | 21 February 2015  

Interesting to hear it from a grieving mum!

Father John George | 22 February 2015  

In this case it seems the quality of mercy is severely strained. Taking everything into account my heart cries for a chance for these young men to ' flourish'. I still hold hope.

Patricia Taylor | 23 February 2015  

I am absolutely against drug trafficking - the suffering it causes to the addicts and their families, but these guys have paid for their stupidity and now should be allowed to continue the good work they have been doing in prison! Let them live!

Marianne Harris | 23 February 2015  

Thank you for the reflective writing on this emotive topic. I have been dismayed by the often bitter responses by members of the public related to the death sentence in this case. If the condemned were white attractive females would the story be playing out differently?

Jenny Esots | 23 February 2015  

Thank you. These are complex decisions but your article puts the choices clearly. We should be for life not death. Thank you. Dalma Dixon

Dalma Dixon | 23 February 2015  

The Resurrection, we are taught, is the resurrection of the body. Whether in this world or the next, resurrection is as sure a hope as death is a fact. Andrew and Myuran are showing already showing signs of the Resurrection in their lives and bodies - I pray that we have the grace not to cut it off before it has fully flourished.

Joan Seymour | 23 February 2015  

When one considers the lofty commentaries and discussions on ES concerning the value of human life that the proposed execution of two criminals, prepared to benefit from the destructive effects of heroin on human life and society, is it not time to see commentary and discussion on ES concerning the deliberate execution of non-criminal, innocent human beings in this country though abortion, aided and abetted by government policy in all States after revision of criminal law by exclusively ALP governments. We are far worst than Indonesia in the matter of the destruction of human life.

john frawley | 23 February 2015  

For me, no ideological or political conviction would justify the sacrifice of a human life. For me, the value of life is absolute, with no concessions. It's not negotiable.

Edgar | 23 February 2015  

When thinking about the death penalty for perpetrators of crime (whether they are reformed or not), I too can't help thinking about the tragedy of abortion, the taking of innocent lives and the effects of that on all of us, parents, relatives, medical staff and society as a whole.

Razzle | 24 February 2015  

Edgar faced with taliban shooting rifles,you could justify killing in self defence! Such aggressors forfeit right to life.

Father John George | 24 February 2015  

This is where pro-choice and pro-life overlap. Indonesia has a death penalty - but the president has a choice whether to implement it. We could argue that's the same with abortion. Some people argue the human fetus is not a "person" until it's couple of months into the pregnancy or until its born - not that I agree with it, but it's a valid argument that people have a right to make. As a Catholic and as a conscious human being I see life starting at conception because I see the essence of our personhood far being deeper than our intelligence, our physical development or our usefulness to society. But we have a choice if we want to protect it or kill it - just as the Indonesian President has. But being pro-life doesn't end once the baby's born - the Pro-Life campaign might gain some credibility if it extended its cause to children kept in detention. For too long the Pro Life lobby has been attached the nutters on the extreme right of (mainly American) politics, also associated with homophobia and xenophobia. Where are the Pro-Lifers now when two men on death row need them? Do they stop at birth?

AURELIUS | 24 February 2015  

Magisterium on death penalty [Catechism of the Catholic Church"]: "2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent;[68] [68] John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56. 69 Cf. Gen 4:10"

Father John George | 24 February 2015  

Fr John George, I don't believe that even the most devout Christian/Catholic would resort to consulting the church magisterium for moral guidance on the issue of the death penalty. I think most people with any sense of human empathy, whether religious or atheist, would oppose the death penalty in any circumstance. One exception might be to support the tyrannicide of someone like Hitler.

AURELIUS | 27 February 2015  

Sufficient courtesy to respect another country's laws, and the right of officials there to enforce them, would be a start in this debate. Australians or not, these two men decided to run the risk of being caught for drug-smuggling because of the huge financial rewards to themselves, ignoring the misery they were perpetrating by supplying drugs to desperate addicts. Parents set limits for their children by saying "This behaviour is unacceptable here. If you persist with it, xyz will happen." Surely the law should do the same. I am uncomfortable with the paternalism which permits Australians to assume the moral high ground and attempt to tell the heads of sovereign nations that by enforcing their laws they are diminishing everybody.

Anna Summerfield | 27 February 2015  

#Aurelius your gratuitous assertions re a good Catholic not 'consulting' can be demolished by Hitchen's razor. "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." Hitchens's razor is actually a translation of the Latin proverb "Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur", #Re tyrranicide issue, ironically plotters of Hitler's assassination consulted Pius XII, and Pius acted as an intermediary between plotters and allies,[the latter non Catholics unenthusiastic for a variety of reasons[eg capacity of plotters to succeed] #Forget not, devout Catholics consulted Pope St JP2 on the successful execution of the Soviet Empire, involving ultimately Christmas Day execution of Romanian hardliner communist President Ceausescu and wife, etc. [Never underestimate Magisterium Mr. Aurelius! 2000 yrs experience]

Father John George | 27 February 2015  

Fr John George: For me, no ideological or political conviction would justify the sacrifice of a human life. For me, the value of life is absolute, with no concessions. It's not negotiable.

Edgar | 01 March 2015  

Fr John George thank you for your feedback.

Edgar | 01 March 2015  

Yes, there was a joint plot by Lutherans and Catholics to kill Hitler - the Lutherans teaching gave the moral all-clear, but the Catholic Church concluded it would still constitute a sin - (but to my understanding decided to help with planning the plot and were prepared to sacrifice their souls if need be for the sake of the holocaust victims.

AURELIUS | 02 March 2015  

Father John George, obviously my comment was referring to today's understanding of church teaching - and it's merely my opinion and I'm in no way underestimating the Magesterium. So your talk of "demolishing" my "gratuitous assertions" is a bit over the top.

AURELIUS | 02 March 2015  

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