April 14: Watching Executions

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication
   on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced,
   they shall mourn for him,
as one mourns for an only child,
   and weep bitterly over him,
as one weeps over a firstborn.
Zechariah 12:10

On Monday, the day after Easter, the state of Arkansas will execute the first of seven prisoners scheduled to die before the end of the month. The executions must take place before the end of April, when the state’s supply of Midazolam, a controversial lethal injection drug, reaches its use-by date.

Arkansas is poised to do something that no other state has attempted. Since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, there have never been so many executions in such a short amount of time.

The rapid schedule has led to a number of serious questions, including the mental health of some of the inmates, the soundness of a few of the inmates’ lawyers, and the risks involved in bunched executions. 

There is one other problem. According to CNN, the state is having a problem finding enough witnesses to view each execution. State law requires that at least six people be present; so far, they have not been able to find enough volunteers. CNN’s report went on to say, “The volunteer pool is apparently thin enough that state Department of Corrections Director Wendy Kelley invited members of a local Rotary Club to volunteer.”

This dilemma highlights a central problem with the death penalty: as long as we don’t have to watch people being executed, we are comfortable with the idea that certain people should be executed. Were we to have to sit in a death chamber and witness the deed, we would no longer permit the state to kill in our names. We wouldn’t let it happen anymore, for the spectacle of murder, even if legal, is horrifying and inhuman.

In the midst of a song predicting a victorious Jerusalem and a restored nation, the prophet Zechariah says that the people of God will be humbled when they “look on the one whom they have pierced.” They will suddenly mourn, cry over, be grief-stricken by, the sight of their victim. In the context of the book of Zechariah, this “one” refers to God; this is to be understood symbolically. The people have sinned against, or “pierced,” their God.

The early Christians understood this verse to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own crucifixion. In the gospel of John, while Jesus is on the cross, a soldier pierced Jesus’ die with a spear, and the author comments, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled … ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’” (John 19:36-37).

Good Friday is the day on which we all spend time gazing upon the body on the cross, upon the one who was pierced for our sins. We willingly and knowingly sit in witness of the terrible punishment imposed upon the innocent Son of God. We watch because we know that, if we pay close attention, we will be changed as a result.

The question for all Christians today is, “How can we possibly support capital punishment since we have looked upon the one who was pierced for us? How can we allow the death penalty to be enforced in our names when Jesus’ death was meant to put an end to all such violence?”

Prayer: God, the death penalty makes a mockery of the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Give me a spirit of compassion for those who sit on Death Row. May I put my trust in the life-giving Spirit which raises dead things to life. Amen.

Justice Challenge: Become a partner with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, at tcadp.org. TCADP is the leading anti-death penalty organization in the state.