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Last Updated: Monday, 12 December 2005, 10:39 GMT
Can a murderer ever be redeemed?
By Alex Kirby
Religious affairs analyst

Stanley 'Tookie' Williams
Williams co-founded the notorious Crips gang
The arguments over the fate of the convicted murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams challenge us to decide whether we are all capable of change.

The Los Angeles district attorney's office has said of Williams: "There can be no redemption... and there should be no mercy."

His supporters argued he should be spared to continue trying to persuade young people not to join the urban gang world, as he did.

Oddly, for a country as obsessed with religious observance as the US, the Christian argument seems almost an afterthought.

If it were central, the district attorney's statement would have to be withdrawn, because in traditional Christian theology everybody is eligible for redemption.

By this yardstick even such icons of loathing as Hitler, Pol Pot and Osama Bin Laden can be redeemed.

And Williams' supporters would have to change tack as well, and stop arguing for him to be spared on grounds of his utility alone.

In Christian teaching redemption is free, but it is not automatic

It does not matter, in the teaching of Catholic, Anglican and many other churches, how "useful" or "deserving" anyone is.

All of us are on a journey towards redemption, towards being the people we are capable of being.

And God, the churches say, has done everything that is needed to redeem us. All we have to do is to accept redemption.

But it does come at a price. In Christian teaching redemption is free, but it is not automatic.

Real penitence

We have to want to be redeemed, and the acid test of whether we want it or not is repentance - a genuine conversion to a new way of life.

Christian priests will not - and cannot - absolve the sins of people who come to confession unless they are convinced there is real penitence, a determination to not sin again.

So, if he wants to act in line with the faith of many Americans, Governor Schwarzenegger will have to decide whether Williams really has left his old life behind in search of something better.

Protestor against the execution of Stanley 'Tookie' Williams
Williams' case has generated a public campaign calling for clemency

If he has not then redemption, in the churches' eyes, remains academic, a possibility but not yet a reality.

People sometimes think accepting that we can all be redeemed involves us in forgiving the offence that has been committed.

The churches' teaching here is clear: forgiveness is not cheap, and it is not something anyone can offer.

The only people who can forgive Williams are those who have been hurt or harmed by him, which means above all the families of those he was convicted of murdering.

Capable of change

The rest of us have to be as concerned for the victims as for the perpetrator. Anything else is a claim to pass a judgement that does not belong to us.

For the many Americans and people of other countries who are not Christians, or who have no religious affiliation at all, the whole argument can seem arcane and meaningless.

But there may be something for all of us to value here, the idea that a human life is always capable of change and betterment until the moment of death.

If you think that, of course, you may feel the death penalty no longer has any value in the sort of society you want to share.

Around 75% of Californians are reported to be supporters of capital punishment. But there are some signs that increasing numbers of Americans are now having second thoughts about it.

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