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!

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