Wednesday, May 23, 2012

2012.05.23 How Should Things Be? A God's Eye View.

How ya gonna live your dash? These words startled Fred Allen out of a breakdown and into a breakthrough.  The dash is what falls between a birth date and a death date on one’s tombstone.  The question has a flavor of the eternal in it.

Allen had been working as a member of a tie-down team in the death house of a Texas prison. His job was to make sure an inmate was securely strapped onto the gurney before a lethal injection was administered. The tie-down job could be compared with the ancient work of nailing down (securing) criminals to crucifixion crosses in ancient times. No one should  have to such a thing.

Fred Allen had officiated at 125 executions until one day he strapped down a woman, the first to be thus executed, and something happened.

I heard Allen’s story in Werner Herzog’s documentary film, “Into the Abyss. A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life,” a film that chills and warms simultaneously a story fraught with contradictions.

Herzog, with skill and compassion, interviewed everyone affected by a violent crime in which three people were murdered. The crime had no defensible motive (stealing a car); it was perpetrated by young and undeveloped brains out of control; two 18 year old young men were found guilty; and it happened in a “gated” community. 

I heard the voices of the murderers and their families, families of the victims, the prison chaplain, and law enforcement officials.  Some years had passed but they spoke as if it were fresh though not emotionally immediate.  Capital punishment is legal in Texas, but no state can afford to wear the self-righteous badge on this issue.

Herzog’s documentary, however,  was not polemical. Rather it sought to unveil the inner story from the perspective of ALL the participants. It was like a play, each interview a scene, the script coming from the hearts of all of the principals who together made a whole story, a parable that challenges but does not tell you how to think or what exactly to do—like most biblical parables.

This drama of the human soul—territory of the unexpected—unfolded in uncanny and utterly unpredictable ways. Listening, I could almost get a God’s eye view into the spiritual innocence of the bared soul.  I wondered if I could know God through what should happen or through what shouldn’t happen—or both?

Michael Perry, 28, was executed on July 1, 2010 for the murders.  Perry’s co-defendant, Jason Burkett, in a separate trial, received a life sentence. 

Was it a fluke or an injustice that Burkett got a lesser sentence than Perry? Shouldn’t he too have been executed?  Perhaps, but his life was spared because of the not too late confessional testimony of his father. With  uncharacteristic humility, Des Burkett, a hardened criminal softened. From prison he spoke of his own criminality and lifelong drug addiction. His son never had a chance at a life, he said, because he never had a father. Two women jurors wept.

What if we could interview all the players in Jesus’ execution trials:Pilate, Pilate’s wife, Herod, Peter, Mary, Barabbas, crowds? What if we could get the inside story?  We try feebly but we really can’t explain it forensically. But Jesus had a father, too, a spiritual one by whom he felt abandoned and to whom he cried out. Like Burkett’s earthly father, Jesus’ Heavenly Father intervened to make sure His son didn’t die forever —as intended. Should he never have died, or should he never have been raised?  Mary Magdalene wept.

Its easy to say I’m against capital punishment. It’s not easy to see the issue made flesh. I couldn’t play either/or. Morality went out the window.  I had to participate in a God’s eye view‚ even though I should have felt disgust, shouldn’t have felt empathy with “bad guys” when my heart had melted listening to the grief of the woman who had lost her mother and her brother, “my whole family in one fell swoop.”

At one point Herzog, joshed with Perry about fate and faith, allowing as how the Old Testament would have been in favor of capital punishment, but Jesus probably wouldn’t have favored it, right?  He fed Perry his line and split divinity in half—a serious theological error that should have been cut.  Still, it was endearing. The interview must have been difficult for Herzog, too.

Michael Perry, dark-haired, young, handsome, leaned into his words. He was mere days away from death yet he spoke with hope. “Ya never know,” he said with a shrug and a smile. He wasn’t a monster, simply a child. I’d never been able to separate the sinner from the sin, more than in my head, until seeing this film.

At the end Perry said his last words: "I want to let everyone here who is involved in this atrocity know they're forgiven by me.” Was he trying to emulate Jesus? Who should be forgiving and who forgiven?  He sobbed briefly, mouthed "I love you" to his mother, and twice whispered, "I'm coming home, Dad." I don’t know if he meant God or his absent father.

The lethal injection took nine minutes. 

Fred Allen strapped and watched. He had spent time with the death row inmates, most of them men. He had provided amenities, like a solicitous mother.  He took orders, served a last meal, maybe chatted. He made sure they were clean and dressed in their own clothes, no prison garb. Then he escorted them to their death. It was his job; it provided a fine pension. He should  do his civic duty.

Nevertheless, when Allen had to strap a woman he soon broke down.  The woman had been calm, accepting. Allen shook and sobbed convulsively. This shouldn’t happen to a woman.

“I just couldn’t control myself at all,” he said. “This thought came to me, how ya gonna live your dash? I’m gonna stand still and watch the birds. How come there are so many humming birds? Ever notice?”

Fred Allen retired early—and forfeited his entire pension.

Jason Burkett is serving his second 30 year sentence. He married in prison and his wife is now pregnant even though they were never allowed to touch each other. Parthenogenesis or sperm as contraband? Burkett will soon be a father.

How ya gonna live your dash?  How should ya?