Society has an affinity for death. There is a pervasive fascination with (im)mortality. We appreciate life, but we are seduced at the intricacies and unknowns of death. While there is much enjoyment and celebration over health, personal accomplishments, births, and birthdays, women and men around the world ponder the “what ifs” concerning the end of life. The thought of death grips us with a “thanatopsis” like inquisitiveness — no fear just sheer curiosity.
Look at the ubiquitous commentary on demise and dying. The Walking Dead has become one of the most highly watched shows. Along with True Blood, Cold Case, and Resurrection television is replete with musings over death and what happens when the “dead” come back to life. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven and the book-turned-film Heaven is for Real challenge us to discard any sense of reason or rationale when it comes to what many of us living have not experienced personally — that is dying. Yes, we have gone to funerals, but dare I say we were not in the casket.
Nonetheless, human nature being what it is, often what we cannot understand, we try to control. Death is no exception. The recent dialogue on drugs used in lethal injections has prompted a resurgence of the capital punishment debate. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case examining whether a death row inmate from Louisiana could force state corrections officials to reveal details about an injection cocktail. The issue is not the guilt or innocence of the inmate. What is at stake is whether any prisoner has the right to know what pharmaceutical company manufactures the poison that will kill him or her. In other words should the person facing death know what drugs will be used to spur death and what business benefits from such death dealing?
Many companies are refusing to identity themselves due to what they perceive are threats of violence from anti-death penalty advocates. From Oklahoma to Texas to Florida, officials are attempting to safeguard suppliers of lethal injection drugs for the sake of manufacturer security. In cases where pharmacies are known, they have refused to sell to prisons or are reneging on deals to supply lethal drugs such as the widely used pentobarbital. This decreased supply has corrections administrators scrambling for replacement pharmaceuticals. For example, Ohio’s first attempt at such a drug substitution recorded an inmate taking 15-25 minutes to die. This new, untested compound mixture proved more deadly and elicited savage bodily reactions upon injection.
What should have been a calm transition from life to death became a spectacle of dehumanization. Maybe it is that neither life nor death is ours to control. It is not up to us to just tell people to “go ahead and die already!”
The role of race in the imposition of the death penalty is just one of the controversies that continues to surround the issue.
Whereas there is a morbidity that ensconces this world, this time of year reminds us that death gives way to life. Spring and the budding of cherry blossoms help to restore our belief that the brute, coldness of winter does not have the last word. The return of sunshine and warmth coerce us to embrace moments that are life-giving and life-affirming. After the darkness of disintegration, there yet appears the light of resurrection.
The passage in Luke 24:13-35 speaks to the life after death. On the morning of the resurrection of Jesus, two men are walking outside of Jerusalem. They are recounting what happened three days earlier. The images of the crucifixion, blood, and bowels have seared their minds. They cannot get beyond who they saw die or how he died. To these travelers death is the order of the day. No life could ever ensue from such horror. There would be no “walking dead.”
Jesus approaches the two sojourners unknowingly. Still they stick with their tales of human demise. In a humorous sort of way, they tell Jesus what happened to him. Yet, Jesus continues to walk with men and listens as they try to console each other. He does not leave them to figure out death alone. He does not mock their ignorance. Jesus shares his own story to remind them of the light and hope he had promised. Still not aware of the identity of their conversation partner, Cleopas and his colleague invite “the stranger” to eat and drink with them. At the point of rendering hospitality, the two become aware of the presence of Jesus. When it seemed they were at a dead-end, the One who is the Resurrection and Life revealed himself. There was indeed life after death.
Although there is much needed conversation over the death penalty and lethal injection, at times a glimmer of light surfaces from the dark state of corrections in the U.S. Mary Jones, an African American woman, now 74, walked out of a California prison recently. She was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for her role in a 1981 murder. Jones had maintained that the gunman, Mose Willis, forced her to cooperate. Willis died on death row. Almost 32 years later due to mediation from USC law students, Mary Jones is a free woman.
That is the human hope. Good can come from bad. Confusion can yield clarity and closure. Pain holds the possibility of surrendering to pleasure.
So go ahead and die already! Die to whatever holds you back. Bid farewell to people that mean us more harm than good. Slay the fear or timidity keeps us from dreaming and being what we are called to be. Death is not so bad. For unless something dies, nothing can live.
Rev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, an ordained Baptist and Disciples of Christ minister, teaches New Testament at Belmont University. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree summa cum laude in Speech Pathology/Audiology from Howard University; a Master of Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary, and Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees in Religion from Vanderbilt University.
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