Saturday, 3 April 2010

Execution: a Good Friday sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

It was fifty years ago, a day in May in 1960 (May 2, to be exact) – and I’ll never forget it. I was eleven, in the sixth grade, and we were sitting in Mrs. Turner’s class. And we were all watching the clock. For the end of the lesson, or lunch-break, or the final bell of the day? No, for the striking of the hour. Because when the hour struck, some pellets containing lethal gas would drop into the chamber in which a condemned man sat strapped to a chair in San Quentin Prison on the other side of the country, and in a few minutes Caryl Chessman would be dead.

The case was a cause célèbre. Chessman was a twenty-seven year-old parolee who had spent the better part of his adult life in and out of prison, when, in 1948, he was arrested in Los Angeles, allegedly as the notorious Red-Light Bandit. The Bandit would approach women parked in isolated places, flash a red light resembling one used by the police, rob them, and then, after forcing them to another location, rape them. Chessman signed a confession – which, however, he later retracted, claiming police brutality – but the confession, along with eye witness testimony, led to Chessman’s conviction on seventeen counts, including kidnapping. Under California’s “Little Lindbergh” Law, kidnapping was a capital crime. The jury did not recommend the mercy of a life sentence.

Thus began a twelve-year struggle for Chessman to escape the gas chamber. Chessman himself wrote four books in his defence, which were translated into several languages. Pleas on his behalf came in from around the world, and from some very famous people: Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost, Pablo Cassals, Aldous Huxley, even Billy Graham. There were eight stays of execution. The Governor of California Edmund Brown was himself an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, but he said that the law had tied his hands. The execution finally went ahead.

And as the seconds ticked by on the clock that we all watched in Mrs. Turner’s class, I wondered what it must be like. The last night, the final meal, the ultimate good-byes, the preparations, the walk to the gas chamber – step, step, step – the sitting-down, the strapping-in, the waiting-for the pellets to fall and release their fatal fumes – stay calm, breathe easy, die with dignity – but then the poison pounds your lungs, you feel the fire, you gasp and choke, and mercifully you finally lose consciousness... At least that’s the way I pictured it.

Unable to produce a reasoned argument, but viscerally convinced of the sheer barbarity of what I had just mentally witnessed, at that moment, at the age of eleven, I became an arch opponent of capital punishment.

And yet, I confess, I have also always been fascinated by the perverse genius that imagines, creates, and deploys the engines of execution – and by these deadly engines themselves. I remember coming across a picture of a guillotine in The World Book encyclopaedia that my parents had just bought me – such an exquisitely ghoulish machine. And beside it a picture of the execution of Louis XVI, with the executioner waving the severed head before the tumultuous Parisian crowd. I remember the first time I saw the classic film The Oxbow Incident, starring Henry Fonda, with its dramatic conclusion, a lynching, in a clearing, at an oak tree, the rope thrown over the branch, the innocent yet condemned man sitting on a horse, and then hanging, kicking. And I remember coming across my first proper gallows in an old photograph of the execution of those who plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And then a photograph of “Old Sparky”, the electric chair in the New York Prison Sing-Sing. And that famous footage of the summary shooting, caught at the moment of the pistol-fire, of a Viet Cong suspect by a South Vietnamese officer. And, latterly, both clinical and eyewitness accounts of death by lethal injection. And on, and on, right up, to Michael Moore’s brilliant film Fahrenheit 9/11, where I saw my first public beheading-by-sword in a Saudi Arabian sports stadium of all places, “Dispatch of the Day”. And then the freak-show of the hanging of Saddam Hussein. And I would – do – always think what does the condemned man experience approaching his execution – calm resignation, petrifying fear, total despair? And the death itself – what does it feel like, the slice of the blade, the snap of the neck, the killer chemicals kicking in? And the onlookers – what on earth are they doing there? Are they not a more savage spectacle than the execution itself?

And then I become a Christian and – behold – I am introduced to the most exquisite method of execution ever devised by the perverse and sadistic mind of man: crucifixion. Invented by the ancient Persians, discovered and brought back to the Mediterranean world by Alexander the Great, passed on to the Carthaginians, and finally picked up by the Romans, who innovated, modified, and perfected the form. If you want to see the whole grizzly process done in lurid colour and with all the latest digital technology, I would refer you to Mel Gibson’s abattoir of a film The Passion of the Christ.

But the whole point of crucifixion is not just to kill, and certainly, in contrast to the “progress” of more modern forms of execution, not to kill quickly: the whole point is the torture, relentless, prolonged torture, exploring new vistas of pain, extracting every drop of blood, and supplementing the agony with degradation and humiliation: tied to a post, scourging by flagellum, a whip of several heavy leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the ends, that break the skin, attack the tissue, and finally lead to massive arterial bleeding; the crown of thorns, not tiny pricks but massive spikes, forced into the scalp, one of the most vascular areas of the body; the exhausting final journey from prison courtyard to the place aptly called The Skull, bearing the cross-piece known as the patibulum, strapped to the shoulders, weighing in at over a hundred pounds, the local folk shouting abuse along the via dolorosa; and then at the site of execution, the wrought-iron nails, stakes, two driven not into the palms but the wrists, and, feet pressed together, another driven through the arch of each; and then the raising of the cross; and then, amidst searing heat, buzzing flies, mocking soldiers, and jeering crowds, the long, slow torment of dying – nail against nerve and bone, body fixed but contorted, cramp and paralysis, the struggle for breath, the final, doleful cry – death by exhaustion and asphyxiation.

Interestingly, however, quite unlike Gibson, Mark shows little interest in the physical agony of Jesus. Nor does the second evangelist share my morbid fascination with the psychology of execution. And, of course, his passion narrative is hardly a protest against capital punishment itself. No, Mark’s interest lies neither in the agony of the violence nor in the purveying of propaganda, but in the awful enigma of the cry of dereliction – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) – from the one who had always called God Abba, Father.

Throughout the 15th chapter of the gospel there are many allusions to Psalm 22, which begins with a pious poet crying out to God in pain, but ends with an exclamation of praise. And no doubt you have heard preachers claiming that it is in this context that we must understand Christ’s cry of dereliction: Jesus cannot really have felt abandoned by God, and a fortiori, he cannot really have been abandoned by God, rather he was citing the psalmist to cheer himself up, to bolster his confidence in a happy ending.

But, no! This is special pleading, as even Calvin recognised. Indeed it was Calvin’s deep insight into the cry of dereliction that it represents nothing less than Christ’s decent into hell itself, the place of ultimate, hopeless godlessness. Jesus does feel godforsaken, because indeed he is godforsaken. And why? Because of his complete identification and solidarity with those who themselves have forsaken God, i.e. with the godless, i.e. with his enemies and executioners. That is, Christ’s godforsakenness and human godlessness are but two sides of the same coin, as Jesus hangs in the place where the godless should be and willingly accepts godforsakenness as God’s just judgement on sin on our behalf. In other words, the utter depths of Christ’s godforsakenness are but the flipside of the sublime depths of his love for the godless, for the world, for the executed and for the executioner, for you and me. The Father loves us so much that he goes to this extreme: let my only Son die and go to hell, let a gulf, a chasm, an abyss open up in our relationship, let death itself be taken into my very being, into the very being of God.

But – to conclude – so what? The Son is dead. The Father grieves. The Spirit, the bond of their love, is broken. For us? For everyone? Do we really believe that? Perhaps we should just stick to a grim fascination with the execution, this execution of all executions, one that makes the gassing of Chessman, and the guillotining, hanging, electrocuting, shooting, injecting of countless other condemned people, guilty and innocent, seem like just another day at the office. And, of course, even a deicide has not stopped, for most of the world, the baleful work of business as usual.

So let’s stop there. Here endeth the sermon. But one thing. Humour me with a thought-experiment. For today ponder this execution in the light of all executions – and ponder all executions in the light of this execution. (And remember, Jesus was guilty as charged – sedition – and got what he deserved.) See what it does for you, see what it means to you, see if it may even change you, what you think about capital punishment, what you think about God and salvation. In any case, let Easter be not yet.


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