On the Monday after Easter, as the state of Arkansas fought a stay of execution for seven prisoners in order to put them to death, I meditated on a simple truth: When people are executed, Christ is crucified all over again.
In their morbid rush to kill as many people as possible, Governor Asa Hutchinson and the state of Arkansas are trampling the joy of Easter back into the ground, and rejecting the new life made available in Christ Jesus.
I still know this to be true in my heart. But after some executions were stayed and others proceeded, I have come to recognize that I cannot be so quick to judge those who favor the death penalty. Although I felt physically ill over the killing of Ledell Lee, particularly because of his possible innocence and the state’s refusal to acknowledge it, I couldn’t muster the same sorrow, at first, for the guilty. Reflecting on the horrific crimes committed by the two men put to death on Monday night, Jack Jones and Marcel Williams, I realized that I am not always ready for embracing others’ new life in Christ. I couldn’t ask anyone to forgive people like Jones and Williams, people who have caused so much pain. In my empathy for the victims, I could feel my life-long conviction against the death penalty wavering.
Would I ever be truly ready for the total relinquishment of retribution, for surrendering all lingering resentments to unconditional love?
But one of Marcel Williams’ victims has forgiven him, and her words help us to remember that every person is much more than his or her crimes.
Dina Windle, testifying at Williams’ clemency hearing, said:
I hate what [Williams] did to me. I hate what he did to the other girls. But I can't hate the man because I didn't know the man. It's pointless. For me, it relieved so much and took off so much weight off my shoulders, and made me a better person…to forgive this man.
Windle reminds us not to let our hatred for a person’s actions eclipse our respect for that person’s humanity.
Encouraged by her beautiful example, I sought to learn more about the men Jack Jones and Marcel Williams were. I learned that Jack Jones had a history of mental illness and hallucinations, and twice attempted suicide. He was a man trapped in fear and clinical depression. He was also a victim of physical abuse by his father and sexual abuse by strangers. Marcel Williams’ childhood also sounds traumatic: He grew up in extreme poverty and his mother and stepfather abused him “almost daily,” in the words of his sister, sometimes by beating him with boiled extension cords or an electric drill. When he was a pre-teen, his mother sold him for sexual favors to women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, for money buy food stamps.
Both men were trapped in unimaginable violence. Both were extremely remorseful, and made efforts to turn their lives around in prison. Both were executed on the same night.
The violent world that Jack Jones and Marcel Williams were born into shaped them into violent men who killed others, before they themselves died by the violence of the state. Reading their stories, my heart was broken by the cruelty and brutality that they suffered, that they inflicted, and that the state rendered back to them. These men were devalued and dehumanized their whole lives — not only by the people who directly abused them, but by a culture of violence, power, and profit that failed them. In turn, they dehumanized others. With their deaths, the cycle of pain, abuse, and dehumanization churns on.
We are all more steeped in that cycle than we recognize. This is what “original sin” means to me — not that we inherit guilt, but that our world is so immersed in violence that we can’t help but participate in it. In the United States, we invest more money in instruments of death and destruction than we do in resources to promote the general welfare — including education, housing, and healthcare. As we build up our arsenals and armaments, we erode our social safety net, and leave more people in poverty. More and more people are left to suffer in a nation that prioritizes profits over people and retribution over restoration. Our tax dollars fund warped priorities, and our culture of vengeance infects our hearts and minds, lying to us and telling us that some violence is righteous, and that some people are beyond redemption.
This is not about equating the systemic violence in which we all find ourselves with the brutality of rape and murder. It is about realizing the pervasive and insidious nature of violence, and seeing that we each participate in it and hurt others in ways we can’t always understand.
Our own need for mercy is greater than we know, and as we recognize that need, we may also recognize that we have a responsibility to stop cycles of dehumanization and cruelty in their tracks. We can transform these cycles by choosing mercy for others.
Jesus empowered us to choose mercy on the cross. The crucifixion exposes human violence — the kind that continues to put the living image of God to death — for the atrocity that it is. In Jesus, we recognize the ways in which we all participate in systems of death. And in Jesus, we learn that even killers are to be forgiven.
No one is beyond redemption. No one is beyond the reach of Jesus’s outstretched arms. The lesson of the cross is that not even putting the living incarnation of love to death can nullify the love in which we are made.
The death penalty may bring a kind peace for the victims of violent crime. But I seek the peace of knowing that we are never beyond God’s all-encompassing love, the kind that can undo violence from the inside out, empowering us to live lives of compassion and equipping us to give the very best of ourselves for the world.
That peace comes not through offering mere words that can never undo pain and loss, but through dismantling the culture of violence in which we participate.
That peace can clear away the crumbling foundation of death on which our sinking world is built, and rebuild upon the solid rock of love that upholds all things good and true.
That peace is the peace of eternal and abundant life.
Let us not continue the cycles of violence and death from which Jesus would have us freed. As the executions conclude this week with the killing of Kenneth Williams, may the spirit of resurrection reinvigorate our consciousness and compassion, as we pray and work for an end to the death penalty.