Dr. William Petit restored an ancient moral principle: that humanity must be repulsed by evil, uproot it from the earth, and never trivialize human suffering.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. William Petit, whose wife and two daughters were raped, strangled, and set on fire in Cheshire, Connecticut in 2007 and who, in comments made outside the courthouse after the conviction of murderer Steven Hayes last week, taught us a valuable lesson about the nature of evil, forgiveness, and the problem of suffering.
No, not what you would expect. He did not deliver an amoral, ethically ambiguous, slobbering speech about forgiving his wife and daughters' murderers and how all suffering teaches us some valuable lesson, cleansing us of mistaken priorities and enriching our lives with greater meaning. No, he applauded the death penalty against a man of despicable cruelty as appropriate justice and declared that the loss of his family had conveyed no profound teaching but had rather left him with a gaping wound that would never heal. Dr. Petit restored an ancient moral principle: that humanity must be repulsed by evil, uproot it from the earth, and never trivialize human suffering with asinine arguments as to its redemptive value. As he said, "It's helpful that justice has been served with an appropriate verdict. I don't think there's ever closure. I think whoever came up with that concept is an imbecile... And I think many of you know it who have lost a parent or a child or a friend, there's never closure. There's a hole... it's a hole with jagged edges and over time the edges may smooth out a little bit, but the hole in your heart and the hole in your soul is still there. So there's never closure."
The essential nature of Christian theology is that the death of Jesus brings atonement. Ever since then Christian martyrs and saints have argued for an ennobling quality to suffering, referencing Jesus teachings about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek to support a theology that would extend love even to those guilty of barbarism.
The Biblical truth, however, is precisely the opposite. Exhortations to hate all manner of evil abound in the Bible and God declares His detestation of those who visit cruelty on His children. Psalm 97 is emphatic: "You who love G-d must hate evil." Proverbs 8 declares, "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil." King David declares of the wicked, "I have hated them with a deep loathing." Amos 5 demands, "Hate the evil and love the good." And Isaiah 5 warns, "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil." And concerning the wicked King David declares unequivocally, "I have hated them with a perfect hatred. They are become enemies to me. (psalm 139) Hatred is a valid emotion, the appropriate moral response, to the human encounter with inhuman cruelty.
When living in England as Rabbi at Oxford University, I participated in a BBC radio debate about the tragic bombing of a gay pub that left three dead. I called the bomber an abomination, to which Pastor Tony Campalo, at the time President Bill Clinton's spiritual advisor, replied that we had to love the bomber in the spirit of Christian forgiveness. Similarly, in my years in Britain I became accustomed to hearing victims of IRA terrorist attacks, after having lost fathers or sons, immediately pardon the murderers in the spirit of Christian charity. But to love a murderer is to practice contempt for their victims. A member of the Taliban who cuts off a woman's nose and ears or an Al Qaida terrorist who flies a plane into a building has cast off the image of G-d from their countenance and is no longer our human brother. They deserve not amnesty but abhorrence, not clemency but contempt. And since humans cannot bestow life, neither can they act in the place of G-d and forgive the taking of life.
Jesus never meant to forgive G-d's enemies but your own. Your enemy is the guy who steals your parking space. G-d's enemies are those who assault women and torture children. Likewise, in advocating turning the other cheek Jesus never meant that if someone rapes your wife give him your daughter as well. He meant to forgive petty slights rather than monstrous evil.
I do not believe in revenge, and the ancient Jewish understanding of 'an eye for an eye' was always financial restitution for the lost productivity of an eye rather than the barbaric taking of a organ itself. But I do believe in justice and forgiving murder or loving a terrorist makes a mockery of human love and a shambles of human justice. The human capacity for love is limited enough without us making the reprehensible mistake of directing even a sliver of our heart away from the victims and toward their culprits.
Ecclesiastes expressed it best. There is not just a time to love but also a time to hate. When a woman and two daughters are horrifically assaulted and gratuitously murdered, that time has come.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach heads This World: The Values Network, an organization dedicated to promoting universal Jewish values to heal America. He has just published a book on Jewish spirituality for non-Jews called Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.