By Fr. Travis Russell, SJ
It is hard to describe the disgust I felt at the 13 executions that were recently carried out by the U.S. federal government. It starts with this nation’s callous disregard for human life and the air of self-righteousness that is used to justify what is little less than an ancient form of barbaric bloodletting. As a one columnist observed, “The Old Testament says an eye for an eye, but even God, sifting the details of the first murder, let Cain off on a technicality.”
I’m one of those naïve Americans who, even after some difficult years, still believes in the American Ideal. But the fact that the death penalty is still on the books makes me seriously question it. How can, as the Supreme Court ruled in 1972, a punishment be just if it is as capriciously imposed as being struck by lightning? That is unless you’re a person of color—then it strikes with relatively higher frequency. To say that the death penalty is beneath the America Ideal is an understatement. And yet, however circuitous the guilt may be, as a citizen I cannot escape it.
I recently read an article on the disenfranchised grief that families feel once their loved ones have been executed. They leave Terre Haute, Indiana (the site of the federal death chamber) traumatized and alone, with no one to listen to them. As the daughter of one of the recently 13 executed wrote, “Probably the most heartbreaking news was to find out we lost everything.” Everything — they lost their whole world. And as one of the victim’s sisters acknowledged — out of sympathy or hurt, I’m not sure — “They are now going to go through the pain we experienced.”
For Christians, the pain of death penalty should point to something. It should remind us of a past execution, where an innocent man hung on a cross between two other men sentenced to death as a disenfranchised grieving mother wept at his feet. The emotions were the same, both at Golgotha and Terre Haute. It is the power of the Incarnation on full display. People who lost everything. God knowing their pain.
I was particularly moved by the story of a death row inmate who went to clean the “death range” (the block of cells where those awaiting execution spend their final days) after the execution of Dustin Higgs. After cleaning Higgs’ cell, the man wrote, “I was surprised to see that he had spent some of his last days painting: there was pieces of used masking tape, with acrylic paint on them, on the outside corner of his shower; plus, paint splatter was on the floor and sink.” What strikes me about Higgs’ last days are their ordinariness. Masking tape and splattered paint, tools not only of an artist but any do-it-yourselfer who has ever painted a room. It was part of Higgs’ effort to heal himself. “I have worked relentlessly for over two decades to transform my mind by changing the way I think,” he wrote.
In my prayer I wonder what Jesus would have painted in his cell the days before his execution. Would it have been a scene from the Sea of Galilee, or the workshop he and Joseph used to labor in as a child? Perhaps it would have been the crowds gathered for his most famous sermon, the Beatitudes, where he promised those who mourn they would be comforted and then referred to them as blessed. Or maybe the feeding of the 5,000, the miracle where in sharing from the little they had, the crowd was able eat to their hearts’ content. Whatever the scene, I’m sure it was peaceful and full of joy. For like Higgs, Jesus loved life.
For some, the comparison of those on death row to Jesus is hard. They may object by saying that the analogy is flawed not only by time (anachronism) but also guilt. These protests, however, miss the point. They keep faith at an arm’s distance rather than making it the cornerstone of everyday life that it is supposed to be. In Ignatian language we call this imaginative prayer, and much like a painter we use the senses to set the scene of the Gospel encounter. It’s incarnational logic in traditional form, that what was fleshed then is fleshed now, and that the real presence transcends time and place, taking on the humblest of forms, and appears in a cell with masking tape and splattered paint. If this seems scandalous, you’re not alone. Welcome to the Incarnation.
It’s worth praying with. What picture would Jesus have painted while in his cell in Terre Haute waiting for his execution? Would it have been the same picture as Higgs painted? What were the thoughts running through his head, the emotions pacing through his heart? Was he afraid or at peace? Or, like Higgs, was he working out his redemption, transforming his mind by changing the way he thought? Whose face do you see? Christ’s, the thirteen people who were executed, yours? What meal did Jesus order as his last, or did he even have an appetite? How did it smell? How did it taste?
Using imaginative prayer as an aid to activism might seem strange. But I suggest that it is no stranger than the Incarnation itself. In Ignatian prayer we contemplate the full humanity of Christ by fully entering our own. This is genius of Ignatius. We start with the world as it is. We enter its brokenness. And then in this broken world of need we use our imaginations to find Jesus and the Gospel anew. That’s how pain is transformed. That’s how Terre Haute becomes Golgotha. And that’s how our hearts are moved to act and build something new.
Pope Francis has definitively shut the door on the death penalty. He has declared it “inadmissible,” “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and has called the Church to work for its abolition worldwide. Now, with the new Congress and president, we are closer than ever to ending this cruel and unusual punishment. As both church and citizens, then, let us act and build something new. Let us abolish the federal death penalty, knowing full well that “whatever we do for the least of our sisters and brothers, we do for him.”
Fr. Travis Russell, SJ is the criminal justice policy advisor for the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology. He has worked with Jesuit refugee Service in Malawi, taught at Verbum Dei High School and served as an assistant at L’Arche Seattle.