The author, Rev. Cari Rush Willis, ministers to men on Death Row in Virginia and North Carolina.
Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.” (NIV)
Over the last six months or so, I have become friends with a Franciscan friar, Fr. Steve Patti, O.F.M., who also visits with people on death row. I read an op-ed essay that he had written, and I noticed that he used a lot of the same terminology that I use when I talk about my visits with my friends on the row. Right away, I wanted to get to know him. Over these months, he has become a confidant like no other person because he has been there – he gets it – he understands what I have seen, heard, and felt.
During our last visit, I shared the horrific details, insane nuances, and bits of grace when walking with my beloved friend before, during, and after his execution. I gave him dribs and drabs, not being able to connect any of the dots as I usually do. This time it was a dot here – a dot there – a dot way out yonder. At the end of it all he said, “It sounds like everyone involved in the execution was wounded.” I have to say that one of my favorite things about hanging out with him is his uncanny ability to name things. He identifies things so succinctly, but also profoundly deep, that it lingers on my lips and in my heart. “Wow. Wounded. Yes. I will have to think about that. I think there is something there. Wow. Wounded.”
The Scripture that kept coming back to me again and again was the text in Isaiah that foretells of the Messiah: “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.” I had to look up the Hebrew to see what the term “wounded” meant. I found out that it means “pierced or bore through” as well as “to profane oneself, defile oneself, and pollute oneself.” What struck me the most about those definitions is that woundedness includes profaning, defiling, and polluting oneself. I had never heard, and actually never expected, those definitions.
As the state officials and correctional officers were each taking part in my beloved friend’s execution, they were indeed profaning, defiling, and polluting themselves as they slyly looked on at all that was happening. No one was staring at the proceedings. Every one of them was looking down, looking away, and then peeking over to see what was going on with my beloved friend.
Those of us who were watching from the observation room were indeed profaning, defiling, and polluting ourselves. A sign over the two large windows in front of us said “Stay Seated. Stay Silent.” We were to show no emotion, and we were to sit in our seat and act as well behaved participants in a sweltering room in order to watch this dreadful drama unfold before us.
Even those who were standing outside the prison, whether they were standing in support of the death penalty or were standing against the death penalty, were being profaned, defiled, and polluted. They could not escape the horror of the evening as they waited and waited and waited for some word from anyone as to what was happening inside the prison. Some of them stood in a circle praying for a Holy God to be ever present to everyone who was being caught up in this appalling evening. Some just stood by themselves and stared at the prison in the distance.
And finally, my friend certainly was being defiled and polluted as he was pumped full of drugs that were never meant to kill someone. He was wounded in the worst possible way. As a society, we want to forget how Jesus totally reframed an “eye for an eye” when he said, “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? No more tit-for-tat stuff.” (Matthew 5:38, 42, The Message Bible)
No one cared to get to know the man that they were killing in this macabre process. The judges and governor had made up their mind on who he was based upon the media headlines. No one saw any need to sit with the man that was on that execution table to find out if his life had changed and whether or not he was having a positive influence on those around him. They defined him by his crime that he committed years ago. And yet, my beloved friend was not his crime. None of us are defined by our worst acts. My friend was one of the most loving people I had ever met. He was also my theological partner who opened my eyes to see God’s irrational and unbounded love and mercy towards us all. He showed me facets of God that I would have never seen without his unique set of eyes. He loved me with a big love – a really Big Love! He lived his life based upon Jesus’ words to love God and to love one’s enemy as well (Matthew 5:44). It was love that he spoke of at the very end of his life – grateful for the overwhelming love that he had received and telling all of us who were around him that he loved us with an enormous love.
I have thought often of Mary under the cross. I simply cannot understand the weight of her grief. Part of her soul must have died as she watched her beloved son being killed by those bent on hate screaming, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” In seminary, we were taught to “listen” to Scripture both for what is written there, but also what isn’t written. In other words, we were taught to listen to the muteness – the silence – of the text. We never hear a single word from Mary or any of the women who were under the cross with her. There is a voicelessness – a muteness – to grief. How do you put the enormity of that kind of grief, pain, and trauma into words?
And Jesus was mostly silent while he hung from the cross that held him. One of the few words that he spoke was a question that he screamed at the top of his lungs, “Why!?!?!” The scream happened as the darkness descended on the land. And yet, when Jesus bellowed out, “Why?!?!” from the cross, he surely looked down and saw Mary, John, and the other women. Their presence reminded him that God had not left him, God was with him.
As I sat there looking on to see a man I greatly loved being killed by the state, I was not only told to be silent by the same system that was killing him, but I also lost any voice because there simply are no words for such a barbaric act. As I exited the prison and made my way to my clergy friends, family members, and others, all I had were hugs and tears. All I could do was speak of our beloved friend’s overwhelming love for each of us. But even those words were quick statements, “He loved you so… he loved you so!” I didn’t have any great words of comfort. I just had my presence.
As my beloved friend was brought into the execution chamber, he strained to see those of us who were there to just pour out all of our love on him. By our presence, he knew that God had not abandoned him during this most difficult hour of his life. God’s love was present because we were present. I even took my shoes off because, even if I was the only person who knew it, I knew that I was walking on holy ground even if the state was using the space for evil intent. Those of us who loved our friend were willing to be wounded by the prison system in order to “be Christ” in the midst of the horrific and the profane.
On the day that I first met my beloved friend almost two years ago, I wrote in my journal the following: “I still don’t understand why people don’t get that we become people who kill when we say the death penalty is okay. We are all murderers. We all should get life behind bars.” Each of us took part in a premeditated murder. None of us are exempt. All of us are profaned, defiled, and polluted because we executed another human being.
And just like Christ, I will forever be known by the wounds I carry in my heart.
May God’s mercy be poured out on us all.