Musings Upon Musings: Roger Ebert, Me, and Capital Punishment
A few years ago I was searching for a movie review. I knew Rotten Tomatoes would provide me with a database of dozens of reviews so I began my search there. While scanning through the Top Critics reviews I recognized very few names. One name I did recognize: Roger Ebert. I remembered Mr. Ebert and the late Gene Siskel liked to grade films by giving them thumbs up or down. When I clicked on his review I was surprised to find a more lengthy and thoughtful review than I was expecting. The review brought up things in the movie I hadn’t noticed. Ebert and I had watched the same film, but he had seen so much more than I had. To that point in my life I had been watching movies purely for entertainment. I didn’t realize, or at least didn’t really accept, that filmmaking could be artistic.
I began to visit Ebert’s website more frequently, reading reviews of movies I’d seen in the past and movies I was interested in seeing. It made me want to re-watch the ones I’d seen long ago to look for the things Ebert described, and it helped shaped the list of films I wanted to see in the future. Years have passed since I read that first review (I can’t even remember which movie it was). The way I watch movies has changed and the experience I take away from them has evolved. While I don’t always agree with him, I credit Roger Ebert with helping me to think critically when it comes to movies.
Points where Ebert’s and my opinions differ occur in our movie tastes (He was somehow able to appreciate Fast Five for what it was. I can’t understand how.) and when our worldviews collide. This collision has occurred when I’ve read a number of his reviews, but even more frequently it occurs when I read his thoughts on other issues. One such issue is the death penalty. On the Journal section of his website, Ebert recently posted an entry headlined with the quote, “Nobody has the right to take another life.”
I knew based on that quote and from what I know about his political leanings that I would find much to disagree with. But after a long day at work, and perhaps looking for an outlet upon which to vent my frustration, I clicked on the link. Ebert’s musings were motivated by an article he’d read in The Guardian about the way the death penalty has been carried out in a particular county in Texas. Ebert makes a number of comments with which I’d love to interact, but his opposition to the death penalty boils down to two main points. One is stated in the opening quote (see above) and the other is summed up in this quote from former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who declared a moratorium on the death penalty in his state: “The possibility that we would be executing an innocent man made it impossible for me to sleep at night.”
My own opinion on this politically-charged issue is that we ought to have capital punishment. Not only that, but I believe it ought to be carried out more frequently for those convicted of murder, and I believe the appeals process that leaves people on death row for decades needs to be reformed. My response to the Nobody has the right to take another life contention is (if the quote is taken at face value) agreement. My response is grounded in the Sixth Commandment— “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17)—and in Jesus’ affirmation and extension of this commandment (Matthew 5:20-22). But when we examine the quote in context, the implication is that the state doesn’t have the right to take life either. This is where I start to disagree. Immediately following the institution of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 are detailed instructions for implementing capital punishment (Exodus 21:14, 15, 16, 17, et. al.). And while I don’t think the American government (or the church) is bound by these instructions, I think it’s clear that the Bible is not opposed to capital punishment.
And now the second main point in Ebert’s article: What if the State in exercising the death penalty is putting to death innocent men and women? I have to admit, this point gives me pause. The thought that a person could be convicted and executed for a crime they didn’t commit is horrifying. It doesn’t sway my opinion on the matter, but it makes me cautious. I believe a society needs to protect its citizens from the most heinous crimes. One way it does this is by upholding justice by punishing criminals with punishments that fit the crimes committed. In the case of murder, I believe capital punishment is the only penalty that fits the crime. Nobody has the right to take another life—I agree. Now what happens when someone does take a life? No individual has the right to take the life of the one who committed the murder, but the State should be given that right. With the possiblity of convicting the wrong person of such a crime, the judicial process needs to be carried out with extreme care. The sanctity of human life demands it. That’s my opinion.
From Roger Ebert I learned to expand the way I watched, thought about, and evaluated things. Chief among these things were movies, of course. But critical thinking isn’t something that need be applied only in certain situations. The Two Cities seeks to be a place that nurtures this kind of thinking. If you have an opinion on the death penalty I’d love to hear it. Help me to keep thinking critically and I’ll give you—[lame thumbs up joke redacted].