November brought this city life, new life born in the streets in defiance of indifference, new life preparing us for Advent and the waiting to come. As this article is written the last few days of Advent lead us to hope in the messianic promise fulfilled, in the fullness of time the revolution in Mary’s belly revealed. And my boasting and fearlessness is put to the test as I preach to a crowd that the cross that we wear around our necks is a symbol to all that the very worst they can do to us is put us to death, and there is no power in death for we believe in the God of resurrection. And the world obliges, and puts us to death.
I look to the God of resurrection at 1:00 a.m. on December 2 as my friend and brother in Christ, Cecil, is injected with chemicals deemed too inhumane to be used in the euthanization of animals. It’s so cold outside as he dies. We stand in the freezing rain outside Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, marking the minutes; bleeding heart abolitionists, Jesus too had a bleeding heart. I watch the ambulance slowly pull into the prison 10 minutes before murder and I begin to shake, this madness need not continue, and he doesn’t have to die. This does not have to happen! I begin to pray: hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus, holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death amen. I pray not for a miracle but for mercy, mercy in death. My friend dies with the word “love” on his lips. Sweet mercy.
One week and a day later it is still so cold, so very very cold. In the morning hour just before dawn another man dies, a man without a home, burning, burning so hot like a star fallen to Earth, silent as a burning Buddhist monk protesting the brutal regime of the South Vietnamese government. Like a wise woman struck dumb, following a star, I stand at Kevin’s deathbed under a bridge in the dirt. Three hours after he burns I arrive at his camp, a camp marked now with the carbon etched form of a body staining the ground curled up against the stones of the fire pit; our own little Hiroshima in Tent City. His camp mates say there was not a sound, no screams from the dying man. Silent resignation perhaps or perhaps he was dead before he ever hit the ground, infused with yet more killing chemicals, as primed as the creosote soaked timber he was burning.
We pray as a group trying to understand, and I tell the members of the dead man’s camp “this is not God’s will. This is not the Kingdom among us. This is society’s failure to abide by God’s will. In the beloved community every man shall sit under his own vine or under his own fig tree undisturbed.” Kevin’s death was not the result of divine punishment, but of human indifference.
Kevin’s camp mate and friend pulls an old dirty grey blanket toward us, it is filled with what the police left behind after their investigation: burned twisted bits of glass, and plastic, shoes, and Kevin. He tells us that it was Kevin’s wish to be buried at sea. Although he could not swim, Kevin said it was to be his baptism. And so we grant his request in the sea of the Cumberland as his friend proclaims “I baptize you in the name of the Father.” It is finished, and we stand on holy ground, on tortured ground.
Both men were killed by a culture of death: one man directly murdered in a clinical sanitized pantomime of a medical procedure, the other man killed indirectly, but no less assuredly, by a society that will pay millions for the death penalty (hundreds of thousands more than the cost of life in prison, never mind the possibility of restorative justice over the current model of retribution), billions for war, and a brass farthing for low income housing.
I want to lash out, where were all of you so called pro-life members of the community, be you Christian, Muslim, or Jew? It’s so very easy to be pro life when the person in question is one so innocent they’ve not yet touched the earth, but what about the condemned man, what about the homeless man? Where are your demands for life? You hypocrites of omission, your silence kills.
But I am too tired to lash out. I need to heal; I look for the resurrection and the life in the world to come. I seek sanctuary. And though I carry within me the heart breaking knowledge that two more brothers have died this Advent, frozen to death in the Nashville cold, I carry too the aching anticipation of a new world revealed by a Suffering Servant, a God that Thomas Merton described as mercy, within mercy, within mercy.
(This article was published in the January issue of The Contributor.)