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.


J said...

Calvin, eh. And to think--some mistake you for a Christian, sir

Somewhere lower in Hades than a Chessman is Calvin.

kim fabricius said...

And somewhere lower in Hades than Calvin is Jesus, I hope and pray, preventing us (as von Balthasar said) from experiencing our self-chosen hells to the end.

Anonymous said...

I am not in favour of capital punishment for any crime. I think it is barbaric. However, as a victim of sexual assault I can attest to the devastation caused - a lifetime sentence for victims. Chessman may well have written books in his defence - he did not deserve to die but he has no defence against what he did.
But it made a good starting point for your sermon, didn't it.

Terry Wright said...

Kim, I've said it before, but please look into publishing (some of) your sermons.

Julia said...

Thank you. I like where it ends. I really wish more sermons would expect this much from their listeners.

What would you do in heaven? said...

I think the purpose of capital punishment is to invoke fear that might prevent us from destroying each other. There is a better alternative though, that instead of invoking fear, we might learn how to invoke love.

in said...

'Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death.'
'Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.'
'You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer should be released to you.'

1.It seems that a certain specie of Christian would preach the necessity of Christ's atoning work but refuse the possibility that there is a real punishment awaiting the evil doer.

2. When one person's life is worth more than than another's at the level of social policy, that is when human life is actually devalued. I kill you and destroy not just you but your family & co but my 'punishment' is a 15 year stretch, with the only diversion being a free education and the possibility of being a token example of the success the justice system has at rehabilitating the poor offender. It's bad enough when social reformers change the practical approach in the name of some mythical humanism. Simple economics dictates if we kill all the lifers clogging our prisons we can start putting the muggers and robbers back in them, it's cheap and effective. Yet to hear Christian's deplore the death sentence in the name of their God is completely absurd, Christian's have no right to tell anyone except other Christians what they should be doing.

Cobeooo said...

i'm a personal believer in the fact that capital punishment is wrong in all aspects. however, as someone above me stated, the only significant reason the governement has for capital punishment is indeed to invoke fear. little do they realize that we currently live in a society where everything invokes fear in people. times are quickly changing & its time for the next generation to make a valiant effort at reform in such positions like capital punishment

Anonymous said...

capital punishment is wrong and must never be condoned. A number of States in the US still execute people and the law needs to be changed.

Ashley S said...

There is much to be said for capital punishment, and much to be said against it as well. As a Christian, the biblical perspective is important. According to Davis, "Romans 13:1-7 is important in any discussion of the New Testament and capital punishment."[1] Verse 4 [NIV] in particular is compelling, "For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." To settle the apparent discrepancy between this mindframe and that of nonviolence as taught by Jesus, one needs to look at ethics in two dimensions. Davis wrote, "The Bible affirms the legitimacy of both 'horizontal' (civic) and 'vertical' (saving) righteousness."[2]

Another interesting verse regarding capital punishment is Acts 25:11, "If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die." Here, Paul is admitting there are some crimes where capital punishment is not to be refused.

For me, the most interesting biblical view of this issue was pointed out by Davis, "The necessity of the death of Christ on the cross is grounded on the fundamental moral fact that in the sight of God certain actions (sin, crime) are inherently worthy of punishment. The moral scales of the universe must be righted." Before researching this topic, I had not connected it to Jesus' death on the cross. That God took our punishment and was so tortured in our place and so fulfilled His purpose is overwhelmingly significant to me.

These verses demonstrate the principles in the Bible that can aid in our ethical decision making. According to Hollinger, such principles are, "general foundational perspectives and guidelines for human behavior." [4] Whether one is an advocate for the use of capital punishment, these verses shed the light of the Word on the issue for the purpose of our illumination. It is imperative for a Christian to know what the Bible says before making an ethical decision or opinion regarding such an important issue.
1. John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Baker Academics, 2004), 211.
2. Ibid., 212.
3. Ibid., 214.
4. Dennis P. Hollinger, Choosing the Good, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2002), 166.

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