Good Friday: The Day Jesus Sat on Death Row

prison-553836On the morning of the very first Good Friday, I imagine Jesus waking in a jail cell alone. I picture him sitting in the corner, eyes trained at a wall, preparing himself for a death that would come at the hands of the state.

Minutes away from experiencing the most extreme punishment of a justice system motivated by fear and vengeance, I imagine Jesus recalling the relationships, encounters, and experiences he had throughout his life.

It is the great love Christ had for all of us that most stands out me as I reflect on the depth of despair present on Good Friday. Forgiving those who condemned and executed him, even forgiving the criminals he died alongside. Christ is our example of unimaginable mercy. For as he looked down into the crowd of those who condemned him, he uttered these words: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34)

I see the reflection of Christ in those sitting on death row today, awaiting a similar death. Men and women, who despite the grave harm they’ve caused are created in the image and likeness of God. Their dignity as human persons handed over to a criminal justice system all too similar to that of Jesus’s time.

As I meditate on state-sanctioned execution of Christ, I am reminded that our faith compels us to follow the example of Christ, who even as he suffered on the cross, chose mercy.

Families of the murder victims whose perpetrators sit on death row show us this mercy of Christ present on earth. At Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), we have the privilege of working and advocating with many of these families who, like Christ, seek mercy and forgiveness in the face of loss and suffering. I have been deeply impacted by the faith of these families. Their losses are unimaginable, yet they remain steadfast in their commitment to upholding the dignity of human life. They recognize that the death penalty is a false promise of peace.

This is not easy work. We see the utter brokenness of the criminal justice system, demonstrated most clearly by the 165 innocent people exonerated from death row over the last 40 years. At the same time, we see crimes which are truly egregious, often committed by people who were once victims of terrible harm themselves. We see cycles of trauma and violence that extend back generations and manifest in horrifying ways.

Catholics and people of goodwill are challenged to answer the Church’s call for the abolition of capital punishment by advocating for the repeal of the death penalty and opposing upcoming executions. We believe in the inherent human dignity of all persons, regardless of the harm we may have caused or experienced, we all have dignity and deserve an opportunity for healing and redemption. This is what Christ teaches us on the cross.

CMN is entrenched in of these dark corners of our criminal justice system. Places devoid of hope and life, where it always feels like Good Friday.

But Good Friday is not the end of Jesus’ story — and neither is it the end of ours.

By the grace of God, we know what happens on that third day. On Easter morning, humanity is redeemed and reconciled. Through Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, we are transformed into a people of new life.

Each one of us has been impacted by harm in some way. But the resurrection of our Savior forever changed how we are called to respond to acts of harm. In the way of Christ, we are called to pursue restoration over vengeance and hope over death.

This Good Friday, how will you answer the call to advance Christ’s justice and mercy?

Going Deeper

The work of Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN) takes root in this scene. As the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice, we mobilize Catholics and people of goodwill to answer the Church’s call for the abolition of capital punishment by advocating for the repeal of the death penalty and opposing upcoming executions.

This May, CMN will release a brand-new faith formation guide centering around restorative justice and our Catholic faith. Published by Liturgical Press, Harm, Healing, and Human Dignity is an invitation to consider our individual and communal responses to harm, and how our criminal justice system falls short of promoting human dignity, hope, and healing. Preorder your copy now!

View More: http://beschdesignsllc.pass.us/holyfamilyheadshots

 

Katlyn Toelle is the Communications Manager at Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice.

 

God Weeps

A carved wooden crucifix sits atop a green and white woven basket from RwandaLast night I dreamed of rows of machetes emerging from a farmer’s field, point first, like the tips of corn stalks. I saw many machetes during my recent trip to Rwanda – sharpened steel used to trim back vegetation and cut paths through the thick foliage of “the land of a thousand hills.”

Rwanda is also the land of a thousand views –the hills and mountains of the lush terrain provide endless scenic vistas of neatly-maintained crops. Rwanda’s equatorial location means that seasons are defined by rainfall. The rainy season is about to peak, and with it the annual April period of national mourning – the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. God weeps from the skies.

Rwanda’s complex history – prerecorded, colonial, political and institutional – setting the stage for tragedy, may be another window on the land of a thousand views, or perhaps, viewpoints. To visit some of the genocide memorial sites, many of them Catholic churches where men, women and children seeking sanctuary were shot and hacked to death by the thousands, is to encounter, in the mounds of faded, bloodstained clothing and stacks of skulls and bones, a lesson we have not yet grasped. The murder of up to a million people over several months by their neighbors, fellow parishioners, family members and leaders, cries out to heaven – and to us, wherever we live.

How could they do this? How could we do this, within the last century or so – to indigenous Americans, Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Bosnians and so many others? As Good Friday approaches we line the route to Golgotha once again, watching the innocent led to slaughter.

How can we do this? By using real or contrived differences of race, socio-economic class, religion, lifestyle, language, or ethnicity to create communities of scapegoats, onto whom we pour the verbal venom of our fears, our hatreds, our ignorance, our insecurities. Once dehumanized and separated from “us,” the “final solution” can seem logical, necessary, patriotic.

At one parish genocide site, the Eucharist in the tabernacle was destroyed by gunfire before the terrified members of the Body of Christ, crowded into the liturgical space, were murdered. The heroes of genocide in Rwanda are those who hid their neighbors, sometimes at the cost of their own lives; those, like Sister Felicitas Niyitegeka, who chose to die with the targeted rather than be separated from their brothers and sisters in Christ and live. Accompaniment and solidarity were expressed in the laying down of lives.

Healing and restoration linger on the horizon in Rwanda. Many of those who survived, scarred and traumatized, have not been able to speak their stories – it can be dangerous to do so. Counseling resources are inadequate. The broken church is trying to be a vehicle for healing and wholeness. Many significant tensions are unresolved, as seen in the most recent refugee situation involving neighboring Burundi.

How do we move forward with justice, mercy and love, learning enough about ourselves as human beings to ensure that such crimes never happen again – anywhere? Such a perspective includes hard work, and open hearts, minds and ears; solidarity in action. The way forward is to experience and to share God’s love – the love, as the Easter Vigil testifies each spring, that never dies. Love that sees each life as precious. Love that finds new, respectful relationships, not weapons, emerging from ground soaked with the blood of our scapegoats.

Headshot of Susan Stevenot Sullivan, USCCB

Susan Stevenot Sullivan is director of education & outreach at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.


Go Deeper!

Vulnerable, Yet Strong

Kimberly Baker of the USCCB.

Kimberly Baker of the USCCB. (Photo by Renata Grzan/RenataPhotography.com)

As we near the conclusion of Lent with Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum, we enter into deeper reflection on the Passion of Christ. Both God and man, Christ humbled himself to experience very deep suffering and even death. This sacrifice of love ultimately led to triumph over sin and evil and made salvation possible for each of us. Christ’s passion invites us to reflect on the very real connection between vulnerability and strength.

There is something about vulnerability – its humility, its directness, the capacity to be hurt – that is frightening and uncomfortable. Yet, how many human endeavors require vulnerability as a pre-requisite for success? Romantic relationships begin with the risk of rejection. Athletic training carries with it the risk of injury and pain. In wartime, the soldier who faces his enemy is at his most vulnerable, yet also his most courageous. A person who is willing to be vulnerable has a chance at succeeding at any number of things. Vulnerability requires a certain boldness.

And here we see a strange contradiction: a person who refuses to be vulnerable may actually be very fragile inside, whereas a person who knows how to be vulnerable in a healthy way may have a lot of internal strength. This positive kind of vulnerability might be manifested in choosing to face new challenges, giving generously in the different aspects of life, and finding security in Christ’s love and therefore freedom from fear of personal weaknesses or setbacks. If vulnerability can be connected with interior strength and contribute to growth on the personal level, the same is true for our culture, especially in how it views its weak and dependent members.

In his encyclical letter, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote: “A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through ‘com-passion’ is a cruel and inhuman society” (no. 38). When we refuse to accept and support the weak and suffering members of society, we lose our compassion as individuals and become less human. Society does not improve by disregarding its weaker members; it instead stifles love and care for others by setting increasingly narrow standards on what lives are acceptable and what lives are ‘burdensome’ or ‘worthless.’

The pro-life perspective does not fear vulnerability in the human condition – it embraces it. A culture of life does not pressure people to live up to an artificial standard of health or physical perfection in order to feel a sense of self-worth and purpose. Rather, each person is regarded as special and unique, as a gift to the community in a profound way, no matter their state of health and mental or physical abilities. A society that reaches out to and accompanies its weaker members in their suffering and vulnerability is a truly strong and courageous one.

Our acceptance of our vulnerability, individually and as a society, is the measure of our humanity. Let us remember how immensely we are loved by God – especially when we are vulnerable – and how greatly we are valued in his eyes, no matter our physical or social condition. As we meditate on the suffering of Christ during Holy Week, let us not be afraid to walk in his footsteps as we spread this beautiful pro-life message to others. For in Christ we have our greatest example of someone who could be vulnerable, yet strong.

Kimberly Baker is programs and projects coordinator for the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. For more on promoting a culture of life, visit the Secretariat’s Life Issues Forum.