This is the fourth in a series of essays inspired by the principles of A Course in Miracles. The Course is a one-year, self-study curriculum that guides its students toward an instinctive, utilitarian spirituality by restoring their contact with what it calls the “Internal Teacher.” Published in 1976, the Course was written down over a period of seven years by Columbia University research psychologist Helen Schucman, who claimed to hear a soundless voice giving her a compelling “inner dictation.” Schucman, who died in 1981, never claimed authorship of the Course. The voice of the Course identifies itself as the living consciousness of Jesus Christ and offers a number of corrections to modern Christian beliefs.
As a psychological discipline, the Course encourages the transformation of personality through the constant practice of forgiveness. As a spiritual training, it insists on a complete reversal of ordinary perception, urging acceptance of spirit as reality and the physical world as illusion. “This course,” says the introduction, “can therefore be summed up very simply in this way: Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God.”
The previous essays in this series are “Back to the Real World” [Issue 153], “Climbing the Stone Face of Fear” [Issue 164], and “Homeless” [Issue 166]. I invite responses at 103 N. Hwy 101, #1022, Encinitas, CA 92024.
—D. Patrick Miller
Robert Alton Harris was gassed to death at sunrise on April 21, 1992, the first person to be executed by the state of California in twenty-five years. The execution ended fourteen years of legal wrangling over Harris’s fate, capped by four overnight stays of execution.
Five minutes before the cyanide gas was released, Harris twisted against the straps confining him and looked back over his shoulder to catch the eye of Steve Baker, the father of one of the two teenage boys Harris had killed in 1979. Through the windows of the soundproof chamber, many of the forty-eight witnesses to the execution saw Harris mouth the words, “I’m sorry.” Baker nodded his head sharply in acceptance of the apology. Within twenty minutes Harris was dead, his asphyxiation videotaped to help authorities determine whether execution by gas constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Marilyn Clark, the sister of Harris’s other victim, attended the execution to honor her deceased mother, who had wanted to be there but died of cancer the year before. According to the Los Angeles Times, Clark had had a vivid dream a few weeks before the execution, in which Harris’s death unleashed a cloud of “black gremlins” that shrieked and flew in circles around his head before descending, tornado like, into hell. On the morning of April 21, Clark was deeply moved by Harris’s last-minute apology to Steve Baker.
“I looked at him and I saw just another human being,” Clark told Times reporter Alan Abrahamson. “So I tried to reach out in a . . . spiritual way, and tell him I could forgive him because he was giving his life like that, accepting it like a man.”
When Harris’s head rolled down to his chest, Clark reported feeling “this rush of being at peace with myself. I never thought in my life that this would come over me. All the hatred inside me totally disappeared. It was like the miracle of forgiveness. Before I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t forgive him. And then I did.”
Do not underestimate the intensity of the ego’s drive for vengeance on the past. It is completely savage and completely insane.
— A Course in Miracles
The life history of Robert Alton Harris, as reported by Times writer Dan Morain, reads like a surreally brutal recipe for the making of a callous murderer. The fifth of nine children, he was born two months premature in a Fort Bragg, North Carolina, army hospital after his drunken father kicked his alcoholic mother in the stomach. The man didn’t believe Robert was his progeny and made the boy the special object of his hatred. He would beat him with a bamboo cane and taunt him with a loaded gun, telling him to run. When Robert’s eldest sister was arrested for theft shortly after the family’s arrival in California in 1962, she told of her father’s sexual abuse; he was convicted of being a sex offender and went to jail for eighteen months. By now Robert was ten, and he was questioned by police investigating the killing of cats. He claimed that he’d only watched others do it.
God and nature get off the hook for apparently committing murders because we have no way of punishing either of them. Human murderers don’t get off the hook because we can punish them.
By 1967, Robert’s mother Evelyn had left her husband and driven off with her four youngest kids and a boyfriend, leaving fourteen-year-old Robert to fend for himself. He made his way to Oklahoma to live with his sister Barbara and brother Randy and was expelled from the eighth grade after his first day at school. Robert stole a car and was arrested in Florida, winding up as a ward of federal reformatories for the next four years. During this period he attempted suicide and was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Released at age nineteen, he moved near his father to Chula Vista, California, where he found work as a welder, married, and fathered a son.
A few years later, in 1975, Robert was unemployed and drinking heavily. He and his older brother Kenneth decided to show a neighbor, James Wheeler, how to fight. Fistfighting led to Robert dousing the man with lighter fluid and setting him on fire; Wheeler died. Pleading guilty to manslaughter, Robert served two and a half years in the state prison at San Luis Obispo. Soon after his release in 1978, he drove from San Diego to Visalia to attend a Fourth of July picnic with his family; his mother, serving time for bank robbery, was out on parole. Robert and his brother Daniel, then eighteen, decided to rob a bank themselves. They stole guns from a neighbor and returned to San Diego to shoot at targets for practice. They also dropped by to visit their father, who clubbed Robert in the head with a wrench.
On July 5, Robert and Daniel Harris kidnapped John Mayeski and Michael Baker, both sixteen, in order to use their car for the getaway. Robert joked and laughed with them awhile, then told them to start walking away. He shot them dead and then finished their fast-food lunch: Daniel told police about the killings while he and his brother were being held for the robbery, which netted them $3,009.
Any concept of punishment involves the projection of blame, and reinforces the idea that blame is justified. The result is a lesson in blame, for all behavior teaches the beliefs that motivate it.
— A Course in Miracles
Violence begets violence. The equation is simple and so blatantly clear in human history — and in the daily news — that one has to wonder why our modern society has not yet grasped it. Particularly in America, we seem bent on encouraging the endless cycle of violence feeding upon itself. We continue to hype and glorify violence: as entertainment; as proof of our strength as individuals, as tribes, and as a nation; and finally, as the best or final answer to violence itself.
However much lip service Americans pay to the ideal of ending violence, we refuse to take the required steps to end it. We do not have the political will to cease serving as the number-one arms merchant to the world. We do not want to reduce access to even the most dangerous guns in our own country. We have only begun questioning our fascination with car chases, gun battles, and violent crime on television and in the movies.
In recent years, we have decided, by at least a three-fourths majority according to most polls, that we do want capital punishment administered in due course to convicted murderers. In the simplest terms, we collectively want to kill those who kill. We believe that this will somehow deter violence, despite the lack of evidence to that effect. At a deeper level, we believe that state-sanctioned, ritualized killing will provide us with resolution, emotional satisfaction, and perhaps even a dramatic final opportunity to forgive those who trespass murderously against us.
We seem studiously to avoid many other choices: to forgive without condoning or committing further violence ourselves; to lay down our arms; to turn the other cheek or even to try to love our perceived enemies. These responses embody the spiritual values presumably endorsed by a nation with a Christian majority, yet we do not endorse them. Why? Because we fear that giving these values more than lip service would leave us undefended. Violence might come to us at random, as Harris came to young Baker and Mayeski, and we would be unprepared to protect ourselves or avenge the deaths of the innocent. If we must go down as the victims of senseless violence, we intend to go down with guns blazing. After all, everyone knows it’s a dangerous world.
God does love the real world, and those who perceive its reality cannot see the world of death.
— A Course in Miracles
It is a dangerous world because it is a world of death. As the old saying goes, life itself is a fatal disease. If we want to see how angry we are about this unhappy circumstance, we need only look at our treatment of murderers.
When an innocent child is slowly destroyed by leukemia, we struggle to understand “God’s incomprehensible mercy”; but we surely do not attempt the same expansive attitude with mortal killers in our midst. To imagine that Robert Alton Harris dispensed an “incomprehensible mercy” to his young victims would seem to us the height of lunacy; yet the death he dealt was surely no worse than that suffered by a child with a terminal wasting disease. Death is not merciful either way.
If we presume that God brings all “natural” deaths to us, why not exact a death penalty from our Creator? For the simple fact that we cannot: God seems unreachable, unpunishable, the ultimate, invulnerable Boss in an unassailable Heaven. Atheists may substitute “the forces of nature” for the idea of God, but the basic logic is unchanged. Attempting to punish nature for causing death would seem equally ludicrous to anyone, while punishing people for causing death is considered a rational form of justice. In sum, God and nature get off the hook for apparently committing murders because we have no way of punishing either of them. Human murderers don’t get off the hook because we can punish them.
We punish murderers because they are the only beings on whom we can act out our anger about death itself, while still regarding ourselves as civilized. Murderers are our whipping boys and girls for the metaphysical insult of mortality. When murderers torture and slay the vulnerable bodies of their victims, we are reminded of our own tenuous physicality, and we react with a fearful rage. The state formalizes this rage in impersonal and ritualized executions, but it is rage nonetheless. Deep within us seethes a venomous logic that says someone must pay for death. Our sense of civilization requires that this someone be guilty of murder.
Most of us love life enough not to wreak death indiscriminately upon others every time we are ourselves faced with our mortality (or deprivation or suffering, which are often experienced as equally threatening). This love of life gives rise to the deterrent theory behind the death penalty. But in a time when youngsters are murdering each other over athletic shoes, we can presume that many people’s love of life is so weak that the theory of deterrence hardly applies to them. These are the people we must worry about most, of course — those who have decided that they can kill to avenge murder, end their suffering, or solve a particular problem, whether their victim is guilty of anything or not. (To its credit, the state goes to some trouble to determine whether a punishment “fits” the crime, but the freelance agents of personal justice generally don’t worry about such niceties.) Like most of us, killers believe that punishment works.
Who punishes the body is insane.
— A Course in Miracles
In recent years, the assignation of guilt in capital murder cases has often hinged on the linked definitions of sanity and responsibility. A last-ditch legal attempt to save Robert Alton Harris turned on the argument that he may have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. This appeal failed, and Harris went to his death because the justice system determined that he was sane — that is, capable of understanding his actions and their consequences, and therefore responsible for his choices. Had he been judged not responsible because of insanity, he would most likely have been sentenced to life imprisonment and psychiatric treatment.
But the diagnostic approach to defining sanity has a serious flaw: it often flies in the face of common sense. Who would call a man sane who casually kills two teenagers for their car, and then finishes their lunch before going about his criminal business? Even if we conclude that he “knew better” and was capable of not making such a horrendous decision, the fact remains that he did this insane thing — for no discernible reason other than the compulsion of his own horrific past. Taught from the womb onward that the world runs on senseless violence, Harris behaved with a chronic viciousness that clearly suggested he was incapable of making sensible choices. The power of the mad lessons he learned was such that Harris was doomed to commit violence again and again. He might as well have been a brute force of nature, like a tornado.
Who would call a man sane who casually kills two teenagers for their car, and then finishes their lunch before going about his criminal business?
We resign ourselves to the random destruction wrought by tornadoes because we can’t change nature. But Harris was a force of our nature, human nature, which can perhaps be changed by looking deeply at how our beliefs create our behavior.
Human beings presently believe in punishment and vengeance as necessary and inescapable strategies for survival, social order, and personal advancement. We are horrified by the lengths to which people like Harris pursue vengeance, but not to the point of surrendering our own belief in vengeance entirely. One reason that we are fascinated by stories of murders is that most of us can identify with the varieties of vengeance motivating them: jealousy, greed, revenge, momentary blind furies over trifling insults. Haven’t we all been seized at least once by a murderous rage and wondered later what kept us from acting on it? Perhaps we were simply too cowardly to take up a gun or a knife. Does that timidity make us sane?
Wanting to get even is only natural, we tell ourselves. Actually killing someone to get even, however, is crazy. But wait a minute — the law says you’re crazy only if you don’t know any better than to kill. If you know better and do it anyway, you’re not crazy — just guilty. If you’re guilty, you deserve justice, which is to be killed; if you’re crazy, you deserve treatment. This formula is so confusing that it may seem simpler to forget about defining sanity and rely instead on the fundamental logic of vengeance: if you kill, for any reason, you deserve to be killed. That policy would surely stop all the killing, wouldn’t it?
The only genuine alternative is to give up the ideas of punishment and vengeance entirely. If we presume that this surrender is impossible, we ensure that killers like Harris will always be with us — as the most extreme perpetrators of our collective belief in vengeance. Giving up the death penalty for good would mean challenging some of our most personal, most firmly embedded beliefs, as well as our social policies. Even the most pacifist among us may be disquieted to realize how deeply the belief in vengeance is rooted. For instance, nearly everyone harbors self-hatred of a complex nature, including the petty and the profound. Most people have judged themselves harshly for their mistakes, their desires, and their dark secrets. Moreover, most people believe that their “sins” deserve serious punishment someday; in fact, a great many people inwardly punish themselves every day with chronic guilt and anxiety. No doubt some people find it easier to oppose capital punishment publicly than to confront their own self-condemnation privately; they may believe that if murderers can be saved, they may be worth saving, too.
But the most effective political stance against capital punishment will be firmly grounded in an ongoing process of self-forgiveness. This process eventually will feel shattering to the ego and one’s sense of reality because real forgiveness will actually undo the world as we see it. In short, a political stance against the death penalty must be metaphysically daring. To stop the death penalty once and for all, we must be willing to question the reality of this world of death.
Only the self-accused condemn. . . . If you did not believe that you deserved attack, it never would occur to you to give attack to anyone at all.
— A Course in Miracles
David Magris is the son of an Italian father and Puerto Rican mother who were unmarried at the time of his birth in 1948 in Vallejo, California. He was raised by his maternal grandparents and was not told who his real parents were. But around age ten Magris learned that the man in the photographs around his house was his biological father — a bad man, he was told, who was in prison for murder, a Mafioso whose brothers and sisters were pimps and whores. None of this was true, Magris knows today, but he asserts that the idea that he came from criminal stock was a powerful influence on him. In adolescence, he emulated criminal role models and became involved in narcotics and petty crimes, which eventually led to involvement with drug syndicates.
But Magris lived a double life. “I was leading an exemplary life in the daytime as a dancer,” he recalls. “I was determined to be a star. But at night I was doing burglaries, drinking, taking and selling drugs.”
At fifteen, Magris stole the dance school’s car to run away from home with a fourteen-year-old girl. Crossing the state line into Nevada, he was arrested and removed from his home to juvenile hall, then placed in foster care with a cousin. He joined the Marines in his senior year of high school and narrowly avoided service in Vietnam because of his aged parents’ health and the pregnancy of his young wife. Later divorced, Magris ended up in a crash pad where drugs were sold to subsidize the rent. Arrested on a drug charge, he managed to avoid additional prosecution for running a burglary ring only because there was insufficient evidence to convict him. After sixty days in jail, Magris was free briefly before being brought up on burglary charges, for which he received a suspended sentence.
On his twenty-first birthday, his credentials as a petty criminal well established, Magris and his pals decided to do a robbery. Magris recalls, “I had a gun, and I gave it to one of the other three guys to do a service station. We wound up kidnapping someone, and the victim was murdered. When I got my gun back, we still didn’t have enough money, so we went to do another robbery, where I wound up shooting a fellow named Dennis Tapp, who survived, thank God.”
Magris was arrested several hours later and charged with murder, kidnapping, robbery, and attempted murder. Magris claims, “The irony is that I was the trigger man on the attempted murder I was acquitted of, and not the trigger man on the murder I was found guilty of.” Sent to San Quentin’s death row for the murder, Magris was also given a life-without-parole sentence for the kidnapping. In 1972, when the death penalty was overturned in California, Magris’s death sentence was changed to life imprisonment; in 1977, it was reduced from life without parole to life. In 1985, having become a model prisoner who earned an associate of arts degree from the College of Marin and talked often to youth groups outside the prison, he was released from San Quentin.
Today Magris is married and lives not far from San Quentin. He’s employed as a general manager for a packaging manufacturer and serves as chair of the Northern California Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He has spoken publicly against capital punishment alongside his surviving victim, Dennis Tapp. He also serves as a board member of Centerforce, an organization that manages hospitality houses at state prisons, where the visiting families of inmates are greeted and assisted with child care.
The innocent release in gratitude for their release. And what they see upholds their freedom from imprisonment and death. Open your mind to change, and there will be no ancient penalty exacted from your brother or yourself.
— A Course in Miracles
What made David Magris different from Robert Alton Harris. and other career criminals? Part of the answer is certainly that his upbringing, however chaotic and confused, was nowhere near as cruel as Harris’s. He also discovered an artistic means of self-expression early in life, so he knew there existed a better channel for his energies than the repetition of the punishments doled out to him.
I asked Magris if anything helpful happened to him in prison.
“Prison was like a rebirth. I saw enough bloodshed, sadness, pain, and degrading and demeaning things to last several hundred people a lifetime. It was very sobering and somber, stark and real, eye-opening.”
For three years of his incarceration Magris served as an institutional photographer, called to duty every time there was an incident between prisoners or contraband was found. “I’d see guys’ lives change over an exchange of bad words,” Magris remembers. “They’d fight and then go in the hole [solitary confinement], meaning their entire prison experience was altered. I’ve seen guys with so many holes in them you couldn’t count them. I saw guys who had committed suicide — who were so determined and brutally sad that I was waking up in the middle of the night still smelling their blood.”
From 1981 until his release in 1985, Magris served as an inside coordinator for a study group on A Course in Miracles at San Quentin. “I saw a lot of changes in other prisoners’ ability to forgive,” he says. “The guys could go into that room and feel that they were in a safe environment where issues and feelings could be aired, without having to worry about going out in the yard and getting a knife stuck in their back. It created a very positive effect on day-to-day living in a place where racial and territorial tensions were still prevalent.”
The real world is the state of mind in which the only purpose of the world is seen to be forgiveness.
— A Course in Miracles
Despite his own reformation there, Magris reports that prison is a place where vengeance is both institutionalized and intensified. “Justice in there is swift and sure and very clear. You do somebody wrong in prison and they’re gonna do you the ultimate wrong.” In such an environment, Magris’s turnabout must necessarily be seen as an exception to the rule, if not an outright miracle.
Could things be different? Magris emphatically believes so, arguing that society could be spending money and energy in more positive approaches to rehabilitation, which in the long run would be far more economical. Like a number of other prison reform advocates, Magris would like to see the prisons become more self-supporting by giving inmates marketable skills, and requiring them to pay room and board and help support their families on the outside. Reentry programs would enable prisoners to return to society more smoothly, says Magris, “instead of creating the current mind-set that ‘the only way I can make it is in prison,’ because that’s the only place where they get three meals, a cot, and a monthly pittance to buy cigarettes, potato chips, and drugs. We could be giving people back their dignity, respect, self-esteem, and confidence.”
Magris suggests our scattered and minimal efforts toward such resocialization of prisoners stem from political reinforcement of ignorance about the realities of our criminal justice system. “We have become convinced, largely through our politicians, that everyone’s fear of crime can best be cured by locking people up. But 95 percent of everybody we lock up is going to come home someday, rehabilitated or not.”
Because we recognize the horror of death, we believe that someone should be punished for it whenever possible, failing to recognize that this very belief in vengeance is what drives us to kill, whether as armies or individuals.
I asked Magris what he would say to crime victims who assert that they have a right to see the criminals who hurt them punished. “I’d say you have a right as a victim or loved one of a victim to get resolution,” he says. “But you do yourself an injustice when you feel that your victimization justifies somebody’s execution or degradation in prison. The only true way to get clean and clear, to be of good conscience and right with God, is to deal with the issues as they really are: loss and an incredible amount of pain. You’ve been hurt or no longer have someone you loved, so you feel robbed, cheated, and abandoned, and that makes you angry and afraid. Then you’re ripe for anyone who comes along and says, ‘Well, let’s kill the guy who did it!’ But that doesn’t solve anything.
“The only clean way through is first to forgive yourself for all the pain you’ve gone through and all the things you may not have had the opportunity to say to someone you loved. And then you have to decide to become stronger than your fear. Fear will run rampant in your mind if you allow it, and when it does, it becomes bigger than life. To get past that, you have to confront your fear.”
Without a death penalty, I asked Magris, won’t many people conclude that murderers can get away with it? He replied, “I have a hard time seeing how twenty-five years in prison equals getting away with it. If we treat prisoners more humanely, would they be getting away with it, or would we be doing ourselves a service?”
Since you cannot not teach, your salvation lies in teaching the exact opposite of everything the ego believes. This is how you will learn the truth that will set you free, and will keep you free as others learn it of you. The only way to have peace is to teach peace.
— A Course in Miracles
A Course in Miracles defines the ego as that part of our awareness — usually the ruling part — that believes in the reality of the body and its death. Since the body is always vulnerable to damage and destruction, our lives are constricted by our perpetual service to fear, self-defense, and vengeance. The ego and body were created, says the Course, when we decided to separate from God — or, rather, when we mistakenly decided to believe we had separated from God, which the Course asserts is impossible. From this mistaken belief arose an entire illusory world of time and matter, a world in which God is hidden from us because God lives in timeless, indestructible reality. What were our means of creating this vast illusory world? The Course asserts that the world we see veils the answer: “You do not understand how what you see arose to meet your sight. For if you did, it would be gone.”
From this perspective, the answer to the paradox of “God’s incomprehensible mercy” in wreaking natural death is that God has nothing to do with it. We invented death as our answer to God’s invention of eternal life, for our creative powers are God-like, though we have used them to make a chaotic world of beauty and death mixed together. Because we recognize the horror of death, we believe that someone should be punished for it whenever possible, failing to recognize that this very belief in vengeance is what drives us to kill, whether as armies or individuals. The cycle of vengeance will never resolve itself; to end it we must question its foundation — the belief that the body and its death are real.
Such questioning will not immediately yield a deathless world of spirit, for we have gone too deep into our illusions for that. The Course defines salvation as the perception of the real world. It explains that we can begin to perceive the real world by making a simple but very radical choice: “Salvation does not ask that you behold the spirit and perceive the body not. It merely asks that this should be your choice.” Between this choice and its fulfillment lies our most profound learning task, one that can encompass and direct all other forms of learning.
What does this metaphysical perspective have to do with the politics of capital punishment and our vengeful incarceration of criminals? It helps us to understand what forgiveness really is: not the self-sacrificing acceptance of wrongs that have been done to us, but rather the willingness to recover a long-abandoned world of peace by questioning both the sanity and reality of the world we have built on vengeance.
In that sense, political activism in the name of forgiveness can be seen as an important part of a transformational spiritual discipline. To forgive and try to save a killer like Robert Alton Harris does not mean excusing his crimes, but recognizing them more clearly as evidence of the ceaseless cycle of vengeance by which we all live. To have forgiven him would have been to say, “We will no longer teach vengeance to you or your victims. We will try our best to teach you peace, and by learning it, you will teach us as well.”
At the political level, teaching peace means opposing the death penalty and promoting the sort of resocialization programs that David Magris suggests for our prisons: these would decrease human suffering, save money, and provide a truly sensible route to the lessening of crime and violence in our society. At the psychological level, teaching peace means learning to release ourselves from the habit of self-punishment, and to stop creating and projecting blame. At the spiritual level, teaching peace means cultivating the willingness to relinquish the world as we know it, in favor of a peaceful world that is presently beyond both our perception and our imagination.
The more clearly we understand that these levels are interrelated and inseparable, the more effective we will be in whatever mode of activism we choose. To demonstrate or legislate with full force against the death penalty is to acknowledge that we are actually campaigning to change human nature. The alternative is to maintain our belief in vengeance, making our time in this world seem so long and painful that death becomes attractive.