Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Mark 15:33-47) transports me to the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarrat, Virginia, where a group of 6 ordinary citizens have volunteered to do their civic duty and witness the execution of a condemned man. A van shuttles them to the sight, and they are escorted in the viewing room. It’s been almost 75 years since capital punishment has been open to the public in the US, but a dozen states, including Virginia, require witnesses from the citizenry. The condemned have a choice, lethal injection or the electric chair, and most choose the injection. Occasionally, the witnesses see the chair in use.
It’s interesting that the law requires these citizen witnesses, who are not part of the system. It’s a long way from the rationale used by the older, public forms of execution, when the thought was that the sight of a criminal paying the ultimate price would serve as a deterrent to crime (and the more gruesome the execution, it was theorized, the stronger the deterrent, though research disproved that theory). It is also somewhat fascinating to me to think about what kinds of people volunteer to witness executions. Some are part of the criminal justice system, but many are not, working as shop owners or cooks or social workers or preachers or postal clerks. Perhaps they are motivated by the same thing that draws many more of us toward movies like The Green Mile, Dead Man Walking, or Monsters Ball or the old tv show In the Heat of the Night, on the occasions when Chief Gillespie had to go to Parchment to witness an execution of someone he had helped convict.
We don’t know how many people crowded onto Mount Calvary to view the very gruesome and gory spectacle of crucifixion on the day of Jesus’ execution. Mark’s gospel account lists seven specific witnesses, but says there were many others who were present. The Romans reserved crucifixion primarily for crimes of sedition, and Jesus was definitely hung as a revolutionary, undermining the authorities and the powers that be. The criminals on Golgotha would generally have attracted attention as members of the government’s “most wanted” list. So they drew a crowd, some from the criminal justice system, and many more from the run of the mill citizenry. On that “good” Friday, you had nearby onlookers who were listening for any words to come from the condemned. They mis-quote Jesus’ words from Psalm 22, mistaking his words “My God, my God” (Eli Eli) for a call to Elijah. Someone offered him some wine vinegar on a sponge. Jesus finally gave up the ghost, and one of the Roman centurions on duty had an immediate revelation that this must be the Son of God. A prominent Council member went to Pilate to gain permission to take the body, an unusual act, since part of the supposed deterrent of a crucifixion was for the dead body to stay on the cross for days, rotting. Some women kept their distance and watched. These are all such random details, all calling out for so much more narrative. How could a Roman guard have made such an outlandish leap of faith, to think that one of the most hated criminals, dying the most ignominious death, was the Son of God? What led him to that conclusion? And what did that conclusion lead him to do? What prompted the person of privilege to risk his reputation and get involved, going as far as the governor’s office to seek permission to care for the disgraced man’s body? What were the women thinking as the kept vigil from a safe distance? What did the mockers do when the sky darkened? So many possible stories, all left to our imagination. Except for our story. What do we do when we witness this execution? We are much like those in Virginia, looking through a window, the window of a 2000 year old text. Or is it looking-glass, a mirror that reveals something of our own lives? What is it that draws us to this story, this window, this mirror, and how do we react to what we see? Our possibilities are at least as varied as those present that day – sometimes we will mis-hear the words; sometimes we will mock; sometimes we will make outlandish claims of faith; sometimes we will risk our reputation by taking care of the body; sometimes we will keep our distance. Maybe we will do all of this over the course of a lifetime, or over the course of a week!
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.