This is my 2nd writing on the execution of my beloved friend. It struck me that Jesus hands himself over to the powers that be so they could “take charge” over him. This is what also happens time and time again when we execute someone. I leave off my friend’s name because this is the scene we are witness to each time we execute someone. This is longer than my normal writings because I had a lot to say and share about his execution.
John 19:16b “So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.”
On the 18th of January this year, I watched as my beloved friend of 2 years handed himself over to the squad of correctional officers in order that he might be executed. Before the correctional officers came to get my friend, we celebrated Holy Communion together. He was grateful to celebrate communion one more time and hear the words that he was God’s beloved.
We knew our time was drawing to an end, so I asked my friend, “If people ask me about you, what should I say?” With a quick laugh and broad smile he said, “Tell them I know Jesus.” Ahhh yes, my friend knew Jesus and Jesus knew him. I called him my “theological partner” as he uniquely was able to show me facets of God and Scripture that I just could not see. His life had been redeemed and transformed by our all-loving and all-merciful God. His smile beamed God’s unconditional and immeasurable love every single time I was him.
And then I asked him one last question, “When you look back over your life, what are you most grateful for?” Without hesitation he said, “For the unconditional love of God, of friends, and especially of family. I feel everyone’s love right now and it is overwhelming to me. I can’t be grateful enough.” I then told him, “I am grateful for your friendship, your unbounded love for me, and your laughter. I love you so much.” To which he replied, “I love you more.” And I ended, as I always did, with a forthright, “Impossible!”
I was then got escorted out of the cell area and around to the observation room by one of the correctional officers. The observation room was already packed with people. On the back row there was a seat left just for me. Everyone stared as I sat down. The room was closed and hot; it was like sitting in an oven. There were windows along the right hand side and in front of us. Everyone just sat and stared at an empty gurney; sweat rolled down my back.
After a few minutes, my friend walked into the execution chamber with his head bowed and with his shoulders slumped. There was nothing about him that made him look like a threat to the six or so officers in charge of him. Nonetheless, the officers moved as if he was challenging them. They quickly and forcefully pinned him to the table and strapped him down, each officer assigned a strap as strap after strap after strap was fastened on top of his body. Maybe they were afraid of some last minute recoil to the macabre proceedings, but he did not do anything to warrant their fear-filled and anxiety ridden actions. They also were all wearing these safety glasses as if waiting for my beloved friend to spit on them – something he would never do.
Once my friend was lying on the table, arms outstretched and completely restrained, a curtain was closed between the witness room window and the execution chamber. We then sat in that sweltering room for the longest 35 minutes of my life. For those 35 minutes all we did was stare at the curtain before us without any idea what was happening on the other side. Whispered requests were made to find out what was going on behind that awful curtain, but it was clear that no one was going to be allowed out of the room.
I slipped my shoes off as I knew that it was holy ground that I was standing on and wanted to treat it as such. I opened my Bible but I was having a hard time reading it. I flipped to Psalm 46 and read “Be still and know that I am God.” I repeated it over and over again as a prayer for my friend and as a prayer for me as I stared at the evil curtain in front of me.
Finally the curtain was pulled back and my friend was asked if he had any final words. He said a simple, “Nope.” He had told me earlier that he felt like his words of regret, respect, and apology in a much publicized video before this dreadful hour best conveyed his feelings. I let him know that those words of sorrow were indeed enough. My friend tried to lift his head from the table. Unfortunately, because the table was parallel to the ground and his body was so tied down, he could only lift his head up maybe an inch or maybe two. Despite the sign that stated “Stay silent. Stay seated” which was prominently displayed above all of us in the observation room, I stood because I had promised to beam love on him until the very end. I had assumed that he was trying to find my face amongst the crowd gathered in the tiny observation room. However, he was only able to hold his head up for a second or two and therefore, I assumed that sadly he was unable to see me. Tears were forming in my eyes that I doggedly refused to let fall. And yet there was also a determination in my heart that I would do all I could to let him know that I loved him.
Everyone who was in the execution room with my friend was staring down at their shoes only glancing over to see him every once in a while. There were two people manning two different phones that were speaking to whoever was on the other end. They were speaking in short phrases with their silence making up the majority of their conversation. I was so angry that everyone was just standing there – expressionless – and yet witnessing the killing of my beloved friend. I could sense their humanity being drained.
As we all looked on, we had no idea when they started administering the lethal chemicals as that was controlled from behind yet another curtain. The person pushing the drugs through my friends IV could do so behind that curtain of secrecy and shame. My friend started to sob and I once again forced my tears to stay within my body. I heard a snore, and I saw my friend’s chest move up and down. After a few minutes, an officer pinched my friend’s toes and then took his slippers off of his feet. I am still clueless as to why this officer thought that these two things were so important to do.
I was repeating, in my mind, “Go in God’s love. Go in God’s love. Go in God’s love.” And yet in my heart, I felt like all of us were being tortured and wounded as we looked on at this killing of another human being.
The prison staff members around my beloved friend continued to look on with blank and unaffected stares. The officer who took off his slippers just stared straight ahead. The whole scene was absurd and devoid of any semblance of humanity.
We continued to hear snores and then watched as his chest no longer moved. It seemed like a very long time before the “doctor” came around the back curtain with his stethoscope in order to pronounce my friend dead. At 9:42 p.m. they finally told us that he was deceased. They pulled the curtain closed once again so I could no longer see my beloved friend. The proceedings were over. We all could stand up and make our way out of the prison.
It was then that several of the staff members left the witness room and walked behind the curtain into the execution chamber. Earlier that night, just after I arrived at the prison that night, I had asked for permission to say a few words over my friend’s body to commend his spirit to God’s all loving hands. My request was denied. So when these staff members walked into the execution chamber I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs “THEY CAN GO IN THERE AND SEE HIS BODY BUT I CAN’T COMMEND HIS SPIRIT TO GOD?! Are you freakin’ kidding me?!?!?” I was seething. I wanted to find a space to break down and sob the tears that were welling up inside of me, but I knew that I would have to hold them in and wait until I was finally alone.
Jesus too had to hand himself over to the soldiers and let them take charge of him. The truth of executions are that your body is no longer your own. Your body becomes the property of the state. Those in charge can do with your body what they will. The one being executed is told to comply with all of the orders of those in charge. And as onlookers you are told to stay in your place and just look on as the horrific happens in front of you. Only the state is control and they will maintain that control at all costs. Sadly, I can only imagine that this prison looked like other prisons and I assume that those who took part behaved like other correctional officers and prison staff in this country who are given the task of killing another human being.
Those who watched this appalling drama play out in front of us did a lot of “cross watching.” And, by the way, I don’t think it is an accident that we execute men and women on a gurney that is in the shape of a cross. Just as Jesus experienced, some of us are sitting under the cross begging for a gracious God to end the suffering of one we love so much. And then somehow we try to deal with the fact that we are willing our beloved friend to die. How does one do that? Shouldn’t you be praying for them to somehow live?
And there were others who were “cross watching” in the room who were surely praying that my dear friend go straight to hell. About a month prior to my friend’s execution he asked for me to do the following: “Please pray for those who hate me and want me to die.” “Yes, I will, but what makes you think of that?” I asked. He simply said, “Well Jesus tells us to love our enemies. I am afraid they are going to sin if they want me dead. I don’t want my execution to cause anyone to sin.” With tears welling in my eyes, I put my hand on my beloved friend’s arm and said, “Yes, I will do that. Of course I will.”
When we are a society that kills, we make even the most loving person who is opposed to the death penalty complicit with murder. We only inflict more harm on those gathered around the cross – those gathered around the prison – no matter which side of the death penalty debate they are on. We continue the victimization instead of putting an end to the victimization that has already occurred. Killing another human being solves absolutely nothing. Nothing. It only inflicts more harm on those of us who have looked on or who have stood vigil outside of the prison.
It also says that we do not believe in transformation. It says that your life stopped when you committed your crime. No hope for redemption. No chance for renewal. None. You are your crime and that is that. As a Christ follower, however, I staunchly believe that in Christ ALL can be made new – the old has passed away and behold the new creation is sitting right in front of me. I can easily believe this because I continue to have a front row seat at what transformation looks like – I see their faces – I know their names.
Forever the tape will be playing in my mind of that horrendous scene of my friends’ execution. Forever I will see and hear my friend on that dreadful gurney. Forever, I am inwardly marked by enormous grief. And yet, if you asked me to do it all over again, I would be there in a heartbeat. I was determined that, although the courts condemned my friend, he would know that he was loved unconditionally not only by me, but more importantly, by an all-gracious and all-merciful God who claimed him and called him “my beloved son.”
Cari Rush Willis works with death row inmates. This essay originally appeared on her facebook page. To support her ministry please see her gofundme page.