On the Monday after Easter, as the state of Arkansas fought a stay of execution for seven prisoners in order to put them to death, I meditated on a simple truth: when people are executed, Christ is crucified all over again. In their morbid rush to kill as many people as possible, I thought, Governor Asa Hutchinson and the state of Arkansas are trampling the joy of Easter back into the ground and rejecting the new life made available in Christ Jesus.
I still know this to be true in my heart, but after a week and a half of prayer and reflection and a rollercoaster of emotions as some executions were stayed and others proceeded, I have come to recognize that I cannot be so quick to judge Governor Hutchinson, the state of Arkansas, and those who favor the death penalty. Reflecting on the crimes of the two men put to death this past Monday night, Jack Jones and Marcel Williams, I realized that I myself am not always completely ready for the new life in Christ either. Who among us is truly ready for the total relinquishment of retribution, for dedicating ourselves to overwhelming mercy, for surrendering all lingering resentments to unconditional love?
I considered the families of the victims, including Lacy Phillips, beaten unconscious before Jack Jones raped and murdered her mother. I imagined 11-year-old Lacy waking up to find her mother’s dead and battered body. I forced myself to picture the gruesome image, because if I am going to argue for empathy and compassion, the least I can do is imagine myself in the shoes of the people for whom such responses are the most demanding and painful.
I then turned my thoughts to the families of the victims of Marcel Williams. He was on death row for the rape and murder of Stacy Errickson, and before his arrest he raped two other women. His actions permanently haunt the survivors of his crimes.
I couldn’t ask anyone to forgive people like Jones and Williams, people who have caused so much pain. And while I believe that vengeance brings an ultimately false peace, I also understand that the family members of victims probably do sleep better after executions, knowing they no longer share a planet with the people who tore their lives apart. In my empathy for the victims, I could feel my life-long conviction against the death penalty wavering.
But one of Marcel Williams’ victims has forgiven him, and her words help us all to remember that everyone is more than his or her crimes. Dina Windle, testifying at Williams’ clemency hearing, said:
I hate what [Williams] did to me. I hate what he did to the other girls. But I can’t hate the man because I didn’t know the man. It’s pointless. For me, it relieved so much and took off so much weight off my shoulders, and it made me a better person — a happier person — to forgive this man.
Dina Windle reminds us not to let our hatred for a person’s actions eclipse our respect for that person’s humanity. Encouraged by her beautiful example, I sought to learn more about the men Jack Jones and Marcel Williams were.
I learned that Jack Jones had a history of mental illness and hallucinations, and twice attempted suicide. He was a man trapped in fear and clinical depression. He was also a victim of physical abuse by his father and sexual abuse by strangers. If anything, Marcel Williams’ childhood sounds even more tragically horrific. He grew up in extreme poverty and his mother and stepfather abused him “almost daily,” in the words of his sister, sometimes by beating him with boiled extension cords or an electric drill. When he was a pre-teen and a young teen, his mother sold him for sexual favors to women in their twenties, thirties, and forties to buy food stamps.
Both men were trapped in unimaginable violence. Both were extremely remorseful, and made efforts to turn their lives around in prison. Both were executed on the same night.
The violent world that Jack Jones and Marcel Williams were born into shaped them into violent men who killed others before they themselves died by the violence of the state. Reading their stories, my heart was broken by the cruelty and brutality that they suffered, that they inflicted, that the state rendered back to them. These men were devalued and dehumanized their whole lives, not only by the people who directly abused them but by a culture of violence, power and profit that failed them. In turn they dehumanized others. The cycle of pain, abuse, and dehumanization churns on with their deaths.
And we are all more steeped in that cycle than we recognize. This is what “original sin” means to me – not that we inherit guilt, but that our world is so immersed in violence that we can’t help but participate in it. In the United States in particular, we invest more in instruments of death and destruction than we do in resources to promote the general welfare, including education, housing, and healthcare. As we build up our arsenals and armaments, we erode our social safety net and leave more people in poverty. More and more people are left to suffer in a nation that prioritizes profits over people and retribution over restoration. Our tax dollars fund these warped priorities, and our culture of vengeance infects our hearts and minds, lying to us and telling us that some violence is righteous and some people are beyond redemption.
We do not all share equal blame for the violence in this world. This is not about equating the systemic violence in which we all find ourselves with the brutality of rape and murder. But it is about realizing the pervasive and insidious nature of violence, and seeing that we indeed participate in it and hurt others in ways we can’t always understand. Our own need for mercy is greater than we know, and as we recognize that need, we also recognize that we have a responsibility to stop cycles of dehumanization and cruelty in their tracks and transform them by choosing mercy for others.
Jesus empowered us to choose mercy on the cross. The crucifixion exposes the human violence that continues to put the living image of God to death over and over for the atrocity that it is. In Jesus, we recognize the ways in which we all participate in systems of death, and yet learn that even killers are to be forgiven. No one is beyond redemption; no one is beyond the reach of Jesus’s outstretched arms. The lesson of the cross is that not even putting the living incarnation of Love to death can nullify the love in which we are made.
The death penalty may bring a kind peace for the victims of violent crime, but it pales in comparison to the peace of Jesus, the peace of knowing that we are never beyond God’s all-encompassing love. That peace can undo violence from the inside-out, empowering us to live lives of compassion and give the very best of ourselves for the world. It’s a peace that comes not through offering mere words that can never undo pain and loss, but through dismantling the culture of violence in which we participate. That peace can clear away the crumbling foundation of death on which our sinking world is built, and rebuild upon the solid rock of love that upholds all things good and true. It is the peace of eternal and abundant life.
We can live into that life right now if we let the light of Christ shine through the fog of violence that clouds our vision and see the living image of God in every human being, even those who are condemned. Let us not continue the cycles of violence and death that Jesus would have us freed from. In the spirit of Easter and new life, and as yet another condemned man, Kenneth Williams, awaits execution, let us work and pray for an end to the death penalty.
Image: “Black Jesus Welcomes” by Donatas Dabravolskas. Available on Wikimedia commons via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license and Syrnige Stock Vector by Peter Hermes Furian via 123rf.com.
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