Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 82) transports me back to Good Friday of the year 33, Common Era, the day when an innocent man was executed between two thieves. This crucifixion, administered by Roman guards under the authority of the self-proclaimed god of that land, Tiberius Caesar, led to the formation of a faith community. Members of that community began surveying that cross, which eventually led to a plethora of theological traditions seeking to make meaning of the crucifixion, with emphases ranging from ransom and substitutionary atonement to solidarity with the suffering and defiant liberation. Not until this Holy Week had I heard tell of someone who wants to use the cross as a justification for our current crop of self-proclaimed gods to administer the death penalty. That’s what Dr. Mark Creech of the Christian Action League did, as he offered his theological support to a bill sponsored by NC Senator Thom Goolsby to take away all the obstacles that have temporarily stayed executions in NC. The good Dr. prefaced his new biblical insight with a caveat that according to Christian thought, we shouldn’t bear any personal malice or anger or bitterness toward the heinous murderers on death row. This is what Christ was preaching in Matthew 5:38-45, Creech said. Still He affirmed retributive justice by His own death on the Cross. Really? You mean after Jesus spent all that time directly teaching his followers not to exact retribution, that he then went to the cross in order to show us he was just kidding, that the hangman’s gallows and electric chairs and lethal injections and firing squads all had his stamp of approval? That takes exasperation to a whole new level for me. By Dr. Creech’s twisted logic, since Jesus was cruelly tortured, we should take the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause out of the Constitution and begin torturing our prisoners, too. Maybe have a doctor on death row with spear in hand, piercing condemned criminals’ sides to make sure they’re dead.
The Mark Creeches and Thom Goolsbys and Tiberius Caesars of an earlier era must have no doubt had an exasperating effect on the poet who penned the 82nd Psalm, evidenced by the ire in today’s passage. God, the one source of authority over matters of life and death, has taken a seat in the divine council, and holds judgment in the midst of the “gods.” The true God questions these faux pretenders to the divine throne, How long will you judge unjustly? The wicked injustice is described in terms of the neglect and unfair treatment of the most vulnerable in society – the weak, the orphan, the lowly, the destitute, the needy. Perhaps the Psalmist was living under the shadow of a criminal justice system similar to ours, where the condemned on Thom Goolsby’s death row are far more likely to have gotten there if they were among the marginalized of our society – black, poor and poorly educated – than if they were among criminals in the privileged classes who committed the same crimes. Adding to the discrimination inherent in our criminal justice system, while the Senator waxes eloquently and compassionately about his concern for victims’ families who need justice served via executions, he doesn’t account for the distorted reality that the executed are even more likely to have gotten the death sentence if the victim was a white person (only 40% of homicide victims in NC are white, but 80% of NC’s executed criminals were convicted of killing white victims). Caesar’s “compassion” for victim rights is uneven at best, wicked at worst (to use the Psalmist’s word).
Holy Week has not been all exasperation, though. While Thom Goolsby and company were playing god, legislating divine prerogatives over who gets to live and who gets to die, Pope Francis was demonstrating the presence of God, minimizing clerical privilege by washing and kissing the feet of inmates in a Roman prison. When asked about this gesture, one local Catholic, Valeria Montis, summed it up: I must say I am happy to see a pope who doesn’t think he is God on earth. Would that Caesar’s progeny in the NC legislature be as willing to pour contempt on all their pride, abandon their pretensions to divinity and exchange their vials of lethal chemicals and hypodermic needles for a towel and a basin of clean water the next time they consider the fate of prisoners on death row.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.