When I first read Dante, I wasn’t old enough to appreciate his theological insights. For that matter, I was not remotely knowledgeable enough to understand the many literary and cultural allusions weaving in and out of his verse. But I do remember one line, in one translation of his strangely celebrated “Inferno.” In the heat of torturous flames, one of hell’s innumerable victims confesses, “…I have made a gallows for myself of my own house.”
I have my own confession to make: I have long been enamored of death. And it began long before I had even heard of the great Dante Alighieri. But my obsession was always a complicated bag of emotion, spirituality, and intellectual curiosity. I was far less interested in where death would take me when my eyes closed for the last time, and far more concerned about the opportunities it would cut short in life. After all, my personal faith clung to the idea of life’s good deeds as a gateway to an eternity of bliss. And though I was never terribly invested in that bliss, I felt it was something I should be striving for. In other words, the obstacle to the end I sought was death—and my lack of control over the end of life.
I’ve grown a bit since those early days of paranoia and hypochondria. Though my family will always prod and poke with jokes about my fear of illness, the truth is I have a much more reasoned approach to death now. It intrigues me—and I see it as its own opportunity. Admittedly, I still have no control over it, but I have learned to befriend it. At the very least, it has become a comfortable acquaintance.
Which is why recent cultural talk about death seems so disjointed to me. On the one hand, we argue with moral fervor for the preservation of life—all life. It is the value we uphold above all else. And though our cultural backgrounds and religious belief are vastly different, this is one human value we can all embrace.
But the absence of life, when it must occur, is talked about in another voice entirely. For the citizen, death must be avoided. When it is endured, it is endured with great sadness—particularly if caused by the hatred of others. But when a criminal has thrown off the law and done damage to persons and property, then we begin to think differently about both their life and their death. Suddenly, their life loses value and, perhaps for that reason, their death is something we can more easily entertain. When two brothers were recently connected to the bombings at the Boston Marathon, we looked at death as a pragmatic solution to a dangerous problem. At its core, the argument was: If these criminals remain alive, they remain a threat to other lives; if they are dead, they can no longer pose a threat to anyone.
While we choose to make pragmatic decisions for the protection of an imperfect humanity, what damage do we do to that primary value and virtue, the upholding of all life? Do we spend much time considering rehabilitation? Do we consider all the options, or simply the pragmatic ones? Do we make extreme choices to appease those who have been extremely hurt? Do we see death only, and justly, as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?
Please do not misunderstand; I do not condone the actions of anyone who does harm, least of all myself. But at what point in our governing do we attempt to control life, and with it, death? At what point do we become judges and executioners of a sentence that only Nature and God should render? And when do we decide what shape life should take and how much value it should have?
Life and death, when personal, leave pragmatism in the dust. There is no rational decision to be made when these two are at odds with one another—when mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers are torn from our lives. We should be careful about considering others’ fate so lightly—whatever their crime—knowing that they, too, suffer from the same deeply flawed humanity we all share.
I say this as a Christian, but first and foremost as a human being. I say it because I am imbued with very precious life indeed, and would hate to deny any soul of the same possibility of joy and fulfillment that life—by its very definition—offers each of us.