Commentary
By Cari Willis 11-02-2017

During a visit with Fr. Steve Patti, a Franciscan friar in Raleigh, I shared how I had walked with a beloved friend through the process of his execution — the horrific details, the insane nuances, and the bits of grace. At the end of my story all Fr. Patti said was, “It sounds like everyone involved in the execution was wounded.”

I have thought about that word many times since: Wounded.

The Scripture that has come back to me, again and again, is Isaiah 53:5: “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 in its original context. I found it means “pierced or bore through,” as well as “to profane oneself, defile oneself, and pollute oneself.”

I had never heard, and actually never expected, those definitions.

As the state officials and correctional officers were taking part in my friend’s execution, they were profaning, defiling, and polluting themselves — no one was looking at the proceedings. Every one of them was looking down or looking away, then peeking over to see what was going on with my friend.

Those of us who were watching from the observation room were also 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. We were to sit in our seat, and act as well-behaved participants, as this dreadful drama unfolded before us.

And my friend was certainly being defiled and polluted as he was pumped full of drugs that were never created to kill. He was wounded in the worst possible way.

As a society, we want to forget Matthew 5:38-42, when Jesus reframed an “eye for an eye.” 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.”

No one cared to get to know the man that they were killing — in Jesus’ case, and in the case of my friend. The judges and governor had made up their mind on who he was based on media headlines. No one saw any need to sit with the man who was on the 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 a crime he had committed years ago.

But my friend was not his crime. When giving a lecture at Duke's School of Divinity a few years ago, Sister Helen Prejean said, “None of us are defined by our worst acts.”

My friend was one of the most loving people I have ever met. He was my theological partner, who opened my eyes to see God’s irrational and unbounded love and mercy. 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. He lived his life based upon Jesus’ words, to love God and to love one’s enemy as well.

And it was love that he spoke of at the very end of his life, with gratitude for all that he had received from God and family. He told all of us who were around him that he loved us with an enormous love.

Since then, I have thought often of Mary under the cross. I 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, and for 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, nor from any of the women who were under the cross with her.

There is a voicelessness to grief. How do you put in words the enormity of that kind of grief, pain, and trauma?

As my friend was brought into the execution chamber, he strained to see those of us who were there to pour out 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 took my shoes off. 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 for our friend, in the midst of the horrific and the profane.

On the day that I first met my beloved friend, nearly two years ago, I wrote in my journal, “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.

Rev. Cari Willis is a volunteer Chaplain for men on Virginia and North Carolina's death row. 

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