In and out of season
The abolition of capital punishment is a humane enough reform, desirable to those
who object to the taking of life and also to those who think that no punishment should be final or any judgment immutable. Doubtless it is also attractive to criminals; and offensive to policement and prison warders. People who instinctively dislike policemen and prison warders will applaud an end to capital punishment, as will those aesthetes who regard the process of hanging (or gassing, or electrocuting, or guillotining, or shooting) as distasteful, and not only harmful to its victims but corrupting of those who carry it out. Were I a member of Parlia- ment I would doubtless have voted for its abolition and felt mildly pleased with myself for having done so and thereby proving my superiority over that eighty-odd per cent of the population who think that hanging should stay for certain offences.
Hanging and the death penalty are splen- did subjects for bar-room conversations and provide endless opportunities for moral righteousness to range itself against statistics and the voice of experience. The great ad- vantage of the debate is its unimportance. It matters to very few of us indeed whether or not murderers hang. There are not many murderers; and the great majority of the dangerous ones if they are not hanged will be imprisoned for a very long time: either way, we will be shot of them, and good riddance say we all. Murder in its civilian form, for almost all of us, lies outside experience. We read about it. We read especially avidly about sensational cases, which usually means cases involving sex as well. In short, it pro- vides much vicarious pleasure.
The knowledge that murderers may hang has in the past undoubtedly been an ingre- dient in that pleasure. To this extent the abolition of capital punishment will inevitably decrease the popular relish of murder. But this is a price we reformers, and the great reformed, must pay. The stocks, pillories, public floggings and executions all made vast contributions, in their time, to the gaiety of nations but few now will regret their passing, west, say, of Athens. Let's give a cheer, a small and timid cheer but a cheer nonetheless, this Christmastime, for the brave members of Parliament who defied the democratic mob and, with the equally brave permission of their Whips, briefly flashed their consciences around the neo-gothic halls of Westminster. It's nice to see them once in a while, even if it was by permission, and on an issue that doesn't matter all that much. They don't get much of an airing these days. I can't remember when last they were flashed around. It probably was the last time they voted on hanging.
I am writing in very bad taste, first of all in declaring the issue to be unimportant but se- cond and most of all by discussing such a sordid matter just before Christmas. I should be joining in the general festive frolic. It is not that I disapprove of Christmas- time. I feel about it much as I feel about the abolition of hanging: on the whole, desir- able, but unimportant. One belly-laugh I've had, thanks to the Pope. I feared the worst when Roncalli was made Pope: and I was right to do so, for as John mon this self-evidently good and kindly soul was the most successful Pope of modern times, and did the Roman church immense good. Fortunately with his successor we are back on more familiar ground, and the Catholic Church, under his misguidance, looks like making a marvellous—some indeed (but not I) would say miraculous —fool of its collective self. It looks as if, in one go, we are to have forty new English saints. Forty of them, no less; and each one of them a martyr, each one of them, that is to say, the victim of capital punishment in his day.
Forty new English saints must make cheerful reading for English Romans and doubtless also for those Anglicans who lean over backwards and sidewards to ac- commodate themselves to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff. Cardinal Heenan has apparently told the Pope that he thinks the canonisation of these forty English martyrs (or traitors, as others might think, and as cer- tainly the authorities thought) is now 'most opportune'. These Tudor and Stuart martyrs have been dead longer than Queen Anne. It is difficult for a lapsed Presbyterian to com- prehend the workings of the mind of an English Cardinal, and I would not endeavour to try on matters of faith and morals; but I suppose any man is as good as another at saying when something is 'most opportune'. I think that the Archbishop of Canterbury makes much more sense when he writes, 'I am increasingly convinced that the canonisa- tion would be harmful to the ecumenical cause in England and that it would en- courage those emotions which militate against the ecumenical cause'.
Cardinal Heenan, instead, says, 'The Holy Father needed no reminding that our martyrs gave their lives also to defend the authority of the Holy See.' They defied, that is, the authority of the English Parliament. The ecumenical movement means little to me so long as it fails. I quite like the Church of England; it fits the country well, and if it makes few if any demands upon our con- sciences, it also makes little indeed upon our pockets. I dread to think what this land would be like if the Romans got their hands on it. There's never been much chance of that; and even less, now that the Cardinal tells the Pope that the time is opportune to make saints out of the forty martyrs. It is good to know that the ecclesiastical authorities can be as self-righteously flippant as the secular: for we want neither an Italy nor an Ireland here.
Just as Parliament takes immensely seriously the execution of current criminals, so does the Church of Rome and con- sequently the Church of England take seriously the execution, three and four hundred years ago, of forty martyrs. Parlia- ment, like both Churches, is right enough to be mildly concerned : but is not their con- cern excessive and thus flippant; and are not such heated debates about hanging and saints and ecumenism the furious and angry and guiltful and fearful avoidance of what every man knows ought to be debated, just as Christmastime is the flashy avoidance of what everyman thinks Christ was about?
It is easy to become depressed. But then there is Michael Bernhardt. He joined the American Army because he had 'absolute faith' that it was his duty to do so. He became a sergeant, a tough, small sergeant.
sent to Vietnam : sent to My Lai. He, like
others, says he received orders to kill all the inhabitants. Instead, he kept his rifle muzzle
pointing to the ground. 'I just did not have any use for it at that time.' he has since said.
No hero. Michael Bernhardt. He just did nothing. He, however, is still alive, still un- punished. He showed that it is not necessary to obey superior orders even to stay alive. He is a better man than any member of Parlia- ment who voted, flashing his conscience, to abolish hanging and who, whipped, still arms Nigeria; and better than any Bishop of Rome or of Canterbury who argues the toss about the forty martyrs and then, flashing his bejewelled crucifix, proceeds emblazoned with vain embroidery to celebrate in cathe- drals surrounded by tourists' shops the birth of a man who flung the moneychangers out of the Temple in that Jerusalem now recon- quered—stolen from its Arab possessors—by the Jews with guns they bought from Christians.