Harry Potter and the Unmagical World of Capital Punishment

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For the first time in my life, I’m disappointed in J.K. Rowling.

Suffering isn’t new to the Harry Potter saga. There are unforgivable curses, Dementors that can suck out a person’s soul, executioners of magical creatures, and dark wizards who seek to purge the world of Muggles and Mudbloods, giving rise to an elite race of people, small and proud and supernaturally superior.

But there are good guys, too: Harry, Ron, Hermione, and a cast of new characters who are trying to peacefully co-exist with non-magical folk like me. They are fueled by love, and they protect each other from needless death and destruction. And, in Rowling’s Potter stories, the good guys win.

Somewhere in between those who cause pain and those who seek goodness are the wizarding governments.

The government in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has legalized the death penalty. In this latest installment of the Potter franchise, set in the United States in 1926, we are shown vividly the reality of magical execution. It appears to be a terrible death: the accused is suspended over silvery, toxic liquid in a metal chair and lowered into perpetual oblivion.

The wizarding world has its prisons and punishments, to be sure. But for a community (even a fictional one) so plagued by sadness in the face of unnecessary, otherworldly death, capital punishment doesn’t seem to be the answer. I think that may be true for us here in the real world, as well.

Many Christians in the US today fail to acknowledge the difference between a truly robust, Christian ethics of life and a socially conservative moral ideology that respects life in some areas but disregards it in others. The latter is exemplified by Christians who are vehemently anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment. Recently, Nebraska (a state that is 75% Christian) voted to reinstate the death penalty by an overwhelming majority. The majority of Christian faiths reject the death penalty outright, but many Christians in Nebraska voted to reinstate it anyway.

We’ve been over the fact that the Catholic Church’s teaching on the issue of life does not align completely with either major political party in the United States, and yet there is still a presumed expectation to choose between two distinct sets of beliefs. One advocates for the preservation of life before birth, and the other advocates for the preservation of life in the face of crime and punishment. Neither advocates fully for life in both situations.

To be pro-life is to reject the death penalty in all but the most extreme cases. St. John Paul II himself stated that these cases are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” But we don’t do that as a country, and our leadership hasn’t stepped up to support life on both ends of the spectrum. Sadly, a world that many look to for inspiration – the magical world of Harry Potter – doesn’t offer a better way either.

Until now, I saw the heroes of Harry Potter preventing death, sparing the innocent and guilty alike, keeping souls intact and embodied, and caring for all members of the magical world, including the non-human and non-wizard types. The entire story is about self-sacrificial love and how we are called to respond to the gift of that love. Harry Potter himself is “The Boy Who Lived.”

Fictional worlds serve as model of inspiration for us in the real world. They shape our moralities, they call us to courage, and they often lead us to paths of hope, even through the greatest darkness we can imagine. I wonder if J.K. Rowling, with her immense audience, could use her influence to show that on the side of goodness, life must be protected from start to finish. As people who deeply celebrate “The Boy Who Lived,” let’s together create a world that witnesses to the gifts of his, and all, life.

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