In the fall of 1768, colonial unrest in Boston resulted in British troops being sent in to restore order. Tensions were high between the colonists and British, and escalated as the months wore on. After sunset on the evening of March 5th, a crowd of colonists confronted a group of British soldiers. First they started throwing snowballs at them. Then rocks and other debris. Some colonists began to arrive on the scene with clubs. The soldiers opened fire, by command or by accident it is still unclear. When it was all over, six colonists were wounded, and five were killed. The first killed was a man named Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American heritage who was at one time a slave. Of course, the Boston Massacre became one of the pivotal moments in the lead up to the colonists’ decision to fight for independence from Britain. A hundred years after his death, Crispus Attucks became one of the icons of the abolitionist movement in Boston, and his name will be forever remembered as part of this nation’s history. History has shown that Crispus Attucks’ life mattered.
In France in 2008, Vincent Lambert was riding his bicycle when he was struck by a car. The accident left him brain damaged and a quadriplegic. He was able to breathe on his own, could swallow, would respond to his name by turning his head, and he could follow people around the room with his eyes. In 2019, after his devout Catholic parents fought the government to keep him alive, his fate was determined by the European Court of Human Rights, who ruled that his feeding tube would be removed. Nine days later, Vincent Lambert died of starvation and dehydration. Did his life matter?
In 2019, an English woman in her twenties with mental disabilities and a mood disorder was found by her doctors to be 22 weeks pregnant. The father was unknown. The doctors felt that it was in the best interests of the woman to force her to have an abortion, since she was incapable of raising the child. The woman’s mother, a devout Catholic, fought for the life of the unborn baby and said she would raise it. On June 21st, 2019, the British Court of Protection ruled that the woman would be forced to have an abortion, for her own best interests. Did that unborn baby’s life matter?
In 1923, Claude Newman was born in Stuttgart, Arkansas. He was a black, illiterate sharecropper who was raised in Mississippi by his grandmother, whom he dearly loved. She got married to an abusive man when Claude was sixteen, and three years later Claude shot and killed his step-grandfather in cold blood. While on death row, Claude got a Miraculous Medal from another cellmate, and that night he had a vision of the Blessed Mother and an immediate conversion to the Catholic faith. After his conversion, he looked forward to his execution so that he could go to Heaven. He told the sheriff, “Well, all my friends are all shook up. The jailer is all shook up. But you don’t understand. I’m not going to die; only this body is.” On February 4th, 1944, twenty-year-old Claude Newman was put to death by the state of Mississippi. The chaplain who catechized Claude and gave him the sacraments said, “I’ve never seen anyone go to his death as joyfully and as happily. Even the official witnesses and the newspaper reporters were amazed. They said they couldn’t understand how anyone could sit in the electric chair beaming with happiness.” Four months later, another inmate on death row at the same prison was seated in the same electric chair, cursing God and blaspheming as they buckled him in. Suddenly, eyes wide with fear, he shouted, “Get me a priest!” The chaplain rushed over, heard the man’s full confession, and asked what had changed his mind. He said that he had suddenly seen a vision of Claude with the Virgin Mary behind him, and at Claude’s request she showed him a vision of hell. Did the life of Claude Newman — the illiterate, sharecropper, murderer — matter?
We are living in a time where we, as a society, are fully immersed in what Saint John Paul II called the culture of death. This mentality starts when we no longer see all people as fellow children of God who’s lives are sacred. Instead, we allow ourselves to be divided into little demographic groups based on age, race, ethnicity, gender, income bracket, level of education, political party, or IQ score. We embrace the messages of the culture of death that if a life doesn’t achieve this standard or meet that expectation then maybe that is a life that doesn’t really matter. These are the messages of the culture of death, which drive people to look at others as somehow inferior, or deserving of less respect. These are the messages that divide. These are the messages that ultimately kill both body and soul.
The Book of Wisdom tells us: “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist.” None of us are inferior in God’s sight. None of us are less deserving of respect. The born and unborn, the weak and the strong, the young and the old, we are all children of God our Creator. We are all precious in His sight. All of our lives matter to God. And if all lives matter to God, shouldn’t all lives matter to us too?
Author’s note: When I wrote this, I based the story of Claude Newman on this article from National Catholic Register, which is a service of EWTN. Because of the source, I didn’t bother to fact-check the article prior to using it in this lecture. One reader wanted to know more of Claude Newman’s story, and ran across this article, which reveals that there is some controversy surrounding the authenticity of parts of the story as popularly reported by National Catholic Register, and many other sources. At the end of the day, the fact remains that Claude Newman, an illiterate, sharecropper, and murderer, embraced the Catholic faith while on death row and died in a state of grace. That his soul was saved is enough of a miracle, and his life indeed mattered to God.