What Just Happened!?! Becoming Consistent Life Despite Myself. Part 1
by Thad Crouch
There I am. Army infantry veteran and a Louisiana State Trooper scholarship recipient because I’m the criminal justice major with the highest GPA at McNeese State. It’s halfway through the spring semester. I’m staring at my raised hand, thinking, “What Just Happened!?!” The professor asked who was against the death penalty, and my hand shot up on its own! Somehow, I just know, in my bones, that I’m absolutely against the death penalty. But when did this change!?! A few classmates stare at me.
During the previous semester, I had told the class it was a shame to waste tax-payer money to execute scumbags. I suggested our state raise money by allowing the highest bidder to execute a murderer by any method of choice: hanging, shooting, burning. I had actually proclaimed, “Clip their toenails up to their chins, I don’t care.” Some students were flabbergasted and looked at each other as if to say, “What a sick bastard!”
But now, I lower my hand. I can’t hear the professor over my internal dialog. What could have changed my mind?
The professor’s voice penetrates my thoughts, “Is there anyone who would still be against the death penalty even if I proved it was a deterrent to murder?”
My hand goes up again. One of only two in the whole class.
“Thad!?! Really? Why?” the professor puzzles.
“Damn it!” I think. I just discovered my new position three seconds ago, and now I’m being asked to improvise my thoughts in front of everyone. “Because – ” I bellow. “Because – because,” I weakly say as I scramble to articulate. “Because human life is precious!” I exclaim with power. “Why would we do that!?!”
Now I’m flabbergasted, yet confident and resolved, while inarticulate. My classmates see my surprised expression. They pore over me with confused wonder. The professor’s jaw gapes.
“I mean – I get it if we catch someone in the act of murder or multiple murders and we have to kill him to prevent another murder, but – c’mon! We’ve already apprehended the murderer! He’s – he’s in custody. He’s in prison! He can’t kill anyone else. He’s not a threat. People are safe! Why would we do that!?! It’s just – it’s not necessary.” Why would we want to put another family through such pain!?! I don’t understand. I do not understand! I do not understand why anyone would do that!
Many intrigued fellow criminal justice majors gawk, then look to one another, seemingly asking, “Isn’t he that sick bastard from last semester?”
I don’t know what happened the rest of that day. I only recall scrutinizing my memory for anything I might have read, discussed, or pondered that influenced me. Then it hit me. I wasn’t the one who changed my mind.
A couple months earlier, at about 1:00 AM, January 26th, I was driving home on a dark empty section of Interstate 10, after seeing a film version of Hamlet. Alone on the road, I reviewed the scenes that prompted emotion, especially Hamlet flipping the script on his so-called friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet found their secret letter from the corrupt Danish king, asking the English king to execute Hamlet. Hamlet wrote a new letter asking for their execution and sealed it with his royal seal. Yeah, I thought. Those @$S%@<#s deserved that! They betrayed Hamlet’s friendship. That’s what they get!
Then my mind shifted to some of the things I had done and what I deserved. I had abandoned James to go to a party and see that girl. I had physically hurt and humiliated Jimmy when he tried to fit in just because I wanted to show off. I had punched my brother Brett when I was angry at my cousin Edward.
I had taken advantage of my fellow soldiers, Nunez, “Catfish,” and Moore, when I knew something was about to change and kept them ignorant. I thought of them as dumb and uneducated. I chuckled when I manipulated them into thinking I was doing them favors. All three were men of color.
Even though I hadn’t arranged for anyone’s death, I had just delighted in the concept of retribution toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I now saw that could easily apply to me. I didn’t deserve the forgiveness of those I hurt, nor God’s forgiveness. I certainly didn’t deserve all the endurance of suffering the sinful dehumanizing system inflicted upon Christ. They killed him for simply and competently demonstrating a new way of life that attracted others. His way prioritized the love of God and fellow humans above selfishness, retribution, race, sex, age, nationality, disease, ability, or even enmity itself.
I wept. I prayed for forgiveness. I confessed I had been going down the wrong path and asked God to put me back on the right road.
I realized I had inadvertently taken the wrong highway exit. At 1:00 AM there was no traffic. I literally backed up the van and returned to the right road home. I became overwhelmed with gratitude for forgiveness. Then, I asked a profoundly dangerous question, “God, what could I possibly do to repay you for all the love you have shown me?”
I actually heard an answer! An audible voice said, “Give your life for the Church.”
What!! I was afraid for a split second. I thought someone else was hiding in the van. I turned my head quickly to scan for an attacker. The Army had psychologically conditioned my fight, flight or freeze, reaction to default to fight. This tendency nearly caused me to veer off the literal right road while on an overpass about thirty feet high.
“What Just Happened!?! Did God speak to me? Give my life for the Church!?! What does that even mean? Am I supposed to be a celibate priest now? I can’t be a priest. I’m dating Jenny, and Jenny is so hot!”
Before that moment, I would have scoffed at anyone who suggested I spend more than five minutes a day praying my self-serving Santa Claus wish list to God. After that moment, I spent years pondering what giving my life to the Church might mean. For the next 2-3 years, I spent 1-3 hours a day in verbal, meditative, and mostly contemplative prayer. I didn’t even know what contemplative prayer was! I just wanted it. I craved it. I dreamed about prayer and prayed in my dreams. Sometimes my prayer would be hours of neither talking nor listening to God. Often not even thinking much, just sunbathing in the light and warmth of love from the very Source of Love itself. It was a spiritual honeymoon.
Indeed, nothing I read, heard, discussed, or even thought about the death penalty had changed my mind. That change was just one fruit, one significant outcome of contemplative prayer. That warm, bright love penetrated my heart and my conditioning. It revealed who I could become. It pointed to who we can all become beyond the sinful dehumanizing system’s conditioning.
I didn’t change my mind about the death penalty. Prayer transformed my heart. God told my heart something beyond rational thought; it’s called love. The professor’s question required rational thought. My heart raised my hand before my mind could articulate a fraction of love’s surprisingly new information into rational thought.
Within months of that 1:00 AM moment, I became a Catholic youth minister and volunteered on many retreats. Jen dumped me to explore becoming a nun mere seconds before I could dump her to explore diocesan priesthood. We hugged and laughed. Within a year, I declined a scholarship the financial aid office described as “getting paid a lot of money to stay at McNeese.” I became a religious studies major at Loyola University New Orleans and explored priesthood for a couple of years.
At Loyola I began understanding what I now call the dehumanizing system of discrimination, denigration, destruction, and death. I learned it in classrooms. I learned it from women, African Americans, children, refugees, torture victims, and one reformed murderer in New Orleans. I also learned from former “enemies” I briefly lived with in Haiti and Nicaragua.
I see that system as the cumulative, organized sum result of humanity’s sinful tendency to prioritize ourselves to the detriment of other people and creation as we desecrate our connection and relationships with each other and with the God of love and relatedness itself. I also know religion is not required to notice that Jesus was killed for spreading love and truth by institutions of this pervasive dehumanizing system.
Here in the U.S., I see the system’s expert propaganda has most of us fighting over which side of our bi-polarizing duopolist political paradigm should dominate the U.S. branch of a dominating system. The two sides argue over which categories of humans can be partially or fully dehumanized, to the point that some humans aren’t legally persons, while non-human corporations are fictionally granted legal personhood. We argue over subsets of dehumanizing propaganda while perpetuating overarching ideas which maintain dehumanization. This is why I see a consistent life ethic as vital not just for life and human rights, but also for freedom.
My value for human life has become tempered with humility due to realizing I’ve participated in dehumanizing ideology, destruction, and violence. I once proudly wore one of its uniforms and promoted its lies.
I’ve seen the system’s existence is contingent on a considerable portion of people either supporting, acquiescing in, or being too fearful to dismantle it. A new way cannot fully replace the system as long as those who want to end the system think it can be dismantled by insulting, “cancelling,” or using violence against those who hold the system in place. Such well-intentioned incompetence also holds the system in place. In other words, defeating dehumanization requires a humble commitment to rehumanize ourselves and others who dehumanize. That’s secular talk for “Love your enemies.”
For more of our posts on personal journeys, see:
On Being a Consistent Chimera / Rob Arner
Peas of the Same Pod / Elena Muller Garcia
Why Conservatives Should Oppose the Death Penalty / Destiny Herndon-de la Rosa
My Personal Journey on Veganism, War, and Abortion / Frank Lane
Off the Fence and Taking My Stand on Abortion / Mary Liepold
Sharon Long: My Personal Pro-life Journey / Sharon Long
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons / Karen Swallow Prior