Why didn’t Frodo kill Gollum when he had the chance? In J.R.R Tolkien’s epic, “The Lord of the Rings,” Gollum/Smeagol can be loyal, helpful, even thoughtful; he can also be deceptive, vicious, and dangerous. Frodo’s faithful friend, Samwise Gamgee, does not trust Gollum. Sam is convinced that Gollum will betray them. But the choice is for Frodo to make, and Frodo won’t have him killed. He protects Gollum from others and places their lives in his guidance. Sam remains wary, “There’s not left in him but lies and deceit. It’s the Ring he wants. It’s all he cares about.” Frodo’s response is simple and honest: “You have no idea what it did to him. What it is still doing to him. I want to help him Sam…Because I have to believe he can come back.”

This scene viewed through Christian eyes echoes Ezekiel 18:23 — “Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked… Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live?” There are people who do bad things, things that are wrong and hurtful and will always be so. Still, the Lord does not give up on the person, despite what the person has done. If we are honest, each one of us will say “but for the grace of God, there go I,” knowing that we are not immune from committing grave evil ourselves. The Christian, like the Prodigal Father, always looks for the possibility of reconciliation, not looking for their death, but holding out hope that they might turn from their evil way and live.

The death penalty ends the possibility of reconciliation. It puts a person to death because of what the person has done, choosing the death of the sinner rather than their return. Justice for wrongs done indeed must be served, but even if the sinner chooses never to repent, there is an incongruence with the death penalty and the Christian way of life. Pope St. John XXIII calls us to become merciful like the Father, “All persons must desire to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong” (“Pacem in Terris” 170).

Ron Steiner and those who labor with him at Oregonians Against the Death Penalty (see oadp.org), are working to shift from a culture of death to living Jesus’ Gospel of Life. By working to save life rather than destroy it, they hope for the repentance of sinners — potential saints in the making. The value of the person is immeasurably more than even the gravest of sin — that’s what it means to be a people of life and for life.

In the end, Samwise was right; Gollum betrays them. Yet, Frodo’s premonition to hope for the conversion of the person was ultimately decisive. It was only because of Gollum that the Ring lost its hold over Frodo. It was because Frodo permitted Gollum to live that he himself was able to come back.

Cato is director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace. Fr. Libra is the archdiocese’s pro-life director and pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Portland.