A day after celebrating Jesus’s glorious triumph over death, the state of Arkansas is set to crucify him all over again.
We never stop killing Jesus, not really. Guns and missiles and bombs obliterate living image-bearers of God on a daily basis. From famines in Yemen to poisonous water in Flint, people are dying from disasters we could mitigate if we invested in the will and resources to nurture life rather than wield death. Whatever we do to each other, whatever we fail to do for each other, we always do unto and fail to do for Christ, who is ever among and within the suffering. But seven back-to-back executions, beginning the day after Easter, is a particularly gruesome tribute to the state-slain Prince of Peace.
Bruce Earl Ward, Don William Davis, Stacey E. Johnson, Ledell Lee, Jack Harold Jones Jr., Marcel Williams, and Kenneth Williams are scheduled to be put to death between April 17 and 27. An eighth prisoner, Jason McGehee, has been granted a temporary reprieve. Details of the crimes for which they have been convicted and the reason for their hasty executions have been well-documented. You can read about the controversial drug midazolam and how it was never meant to be used for lethal injection, the heavy emotional toll that back-to-back executions will have on the people who must carry them out, and the mitigating circumstances that were overlooked or overruled in other articles. All of this is important information for making a practical case against the death penalty being carried out in such a rushed, potentially reckless way.
But it is Maundy Thursday, and I want to speak of the utter betrayal the death penalty is to Jesus.
Despite the gravity of my language, I am not trying to shame anyone in favor of the death penalty. The death penalty is usually applied to the most horrific crimes, and when those who are condemned to death are truly guilty, it can be difficult to make a case for mercy that they themselves refused their victims. Our culture has largely been conditioned to believe in an eye for an eye and a life for a life, often arguing that anything less betrays the dignity of the victim. As someone who, like anyone else, would feel tremendous anger and an aching for vengeance should any of my loved ones fall victim to a violent crime, I understand this and empathize as much as I possibly can.
However, the better way to affirm human dignity is to cultivate a culture of radical forgiveness and compassion that Jesus modeled for us in his life, death, and resurrection.
Our world is caught up in vicious cycles of mimetic violence. Anger leads to anger, callousness leads to callousness, and enmity leads to enmity escalating and careening out of control. We reflect not only the anger we receive, but the anger we perceive. Fear and distrust is fertile breeding ground for hostility infesting and overtaking lives. We feel some anger personally and some on a communal or ideological or national level. There are people we don’t trust, in whom we are inclined to see the worst.
Entrenched as we are in our world of violence, we can be blind to the violence we ourselves wield. The vines of violence entangle themselves in our eyes while we look through the lens of fear at others. We tend to justify our violent actions or deny our violence altogether when we direct harmful actions at those whom we believe deserve it. And when we are met with violence, we feel all the more justified in responding in kind. We define ourselves against our enemies. We scapegoat. The vicious cycles continue.
We are not all equally guilty of violence. Some have suffered much more than others, and some take special care to respond to hate with compassion. But we are all drowning in a violent world, usually unable to see our violence for what it is. In American culture, for example, we glorify our wars and weapons and live under the myth that our violence is for a greater good – freedom, democracy, or human rights. Yet we have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and we have even touted the willingness to accidentally kill civilians as the hallmark of a serious leader. In the past, our nation justified slaughter of Native Americans and slavery (along with slaughter) of African slaves and African Americans with appeals to Manifest Destiny and perversions of Christianity. We are prone to mythologizing and glorifying our own violence, and reluctant to repent and atone even when we recognize the wrongs of our past. True repentance would open our eyes to the continuing effects of past violence and to the violence we commit in the present, even though we would inevitably continue to make mistakes.
When we view each other with fear, misunderstanding, and hatred, we incline to violence and punishment. Fear and vengeance lead both to the crimes for which the death penalty is enforced and the death penalty itself. And judging a person by his or her worst actions, or in some cases, our own insistence on believing the worst in someone even if that person is innocent but cannot prove it, perpetuates this culture of hate and death.
Jesus came to save us from a world built on violence, and this violent world killed Jesus.
Jesus suffered painful, public execution at the hands of a bloodthirsty humanity to expose our violence in all of its naked horror. And he came back with forgiveness to show us that even though we are wrong about our violence, even though there is nothing sacred or salvific in the least about putting anyone to death, even though every time we hurt, dehumanize, marginalize, or kill someone we pierce the heart of the living God, we are infinitely loved and forgiven, and capable of extending the same love to others.
Not only are we capable, but if we are followers of Jesus we are commanded to extend this love. Tonight we remember the commandment Jesus gave to his disciples to love one another “even as I have loved you.” Jesus was speaking to those who would abandon, betray, and deny him, and speaking moreover to a humanity that structured itself on the death of its victims and had determined that he would soon be next. He was commanding not only love between friends, but love for enemies. “Love as I have loved you.” He loved not only his disciples, but the whole world, knowing that he was going to be murdered by the very humanity he loved. Because he also knew that his beloved humanity was built in love and for love. We are compelled by the authority of Love to transcend our instincts and impulses of violence and to see beyond the violence of our enemies to the reflection of God that they and we share.
If we could love as Jesus loved, we could build bridges of trust across divisions of hostility. We could make reparations for the violence that we now perpetrate in ignorance, knowing not what we do. We could erase the margins to which we have cast others. All of this would be a greater deterrent to the worst crimes than the death penalty, which only reinforces the notion that lives are, in some cases, expendable and that the world is better off without some people. We best honor the victims of crimes not by executing criminals but by building a world of compassion. The need for the death of any person, any image-bearer of God, is a lie. Jesus not only died to make us conscious of the worst within ourselves, but he rose with forgiveness to make us capable of our best.
Tomorrow, on the day commemorating the death of Christ, Equal Justice USA will deliver a petition to Governor Asa Hutchinson asking him to stay the executions. Tonight, as Jesus commands us to love as he loved, every follower of Jesus should sign. The folly of death and cycles of vengeance will soon be laid bare. The God who suffered death to free us from its vicious cycle heals us and our enemies alike with a love that transforms the punishment from and for us into forgiveness. I am skeptical of the power of petitions, but I have hope. After all, this is the season for more than miracles. Now is the time for the triumph of Life.
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