JOURNAL 9/22/11 -- Tony Davis
“Put them in fear,
O Lord; let the nations
know that they are
only human” [Psalm 9:20 NRSV]
Around 10 p.m. yesterday -- Wednesday, September 21, about an hour before Troy Davis was executed in Georgia -- I tweeted the words: “Memory Eternal, brother in this Exile,” followed by Psalm 9:20.
[NOTE: for those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, a “tweet” is a short message sent over the Internet through a website known as Twitter. It is just 140 characters long, so is actually even shorter than a text message on your cell phone. If you aren’t familiar with text messages, it’s sort of like passing notes in school, except you pass these electronically by means of a telephone keypad instead of a typewriter keyboard. If I get a “tweet” from someone that I really like, I can “forward” it to others, in which case it’s called a “retweet.”]
Just why I tweeted that message is the source of three very hard questions the pending execution forced on me during the following hour … as well as the remainder of the night, and thus far into the present day. They are detailed as part of what follows.
None of them have to do with the guilt or innocence of Mr. Davis, I might add. He may have been completely innocent of the crime with which he was charged, or he may have been guilty as sin. The point of all of this activity – as a lot of people and organizations on Twitter repeated endlessly last night – is that there now was serious doubt about the verdict, easily enough doubt to justify a new hearing on the evidence if not a new trial altogether. Nothing last night or in what follows involves the guilt or innocence of Mr. Davis.
Over the next hour, until Mr. Davis’ death was announced at 11:08 p.m. EST, I did my small but fair share of retweeting – “forwarding” on Twitter – numerous news stories and sometimes poignant, sometimes pithy, almost (but not quite) always indignant quotes about the pending execution.
But this flurry of activity on my part was odd, frankly. Uncharacteristic of me in some ways. And that is how it became was the source of the three Ivery hard questions with which these past hours have left me.
I was a “Johnny [or Jeremiah?]-come-mighty-lately” to the campaign to grant Mr. Davis a reprieve and an “evidentiary hearing” (hearing to give a close careful review to the new evidence) and possibly a new trial. In fact, last night was just my third day of giving the whole issue any attention at all.
Troy Davis had been on death row in the Georgia State Penitentiary for much of the past 22 years, ever since he was convicted of killing a Savannah, Georgia police officer.
His execution came after considerable evidence had emerged that cast doubt on the original verdict. A global campaign to grant him a new trial, if not free him altogether, included organizations such as Amnesty International and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and notable figures including Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, former Director of the FBI William Sessions, and a long list of others.
It was, frankly, the name of the former FBI Director, William Sessions, that somehow caught my attention. I don’t really know why, since, of all the organizations and individuals, ordinarily I would have been most impressed to see Archbishop Tutu’s name. But catch my attention it – or he – did, some three days before. And from then on I began to poke around in the story and, finally, signed an online Amnesty International petition as well as Emailed a county judge in Georgia who, late in day yesterday, was said to be the last person with power to grant a stay.
And then there came my uncharacteristic volleying of tweets and retweets. And then 11:08 was announced … and then suddenly everything else on Twitter seemed trivial and utterly irrelevant … and I gave it up and went to bed.
In the middle of the volleying of tweets and retweets, two things happened that raised the first two very hard questions.
First, someone tweeted a different verse from the Bible (Romans 13:3-4) which would appear to “permit” capital punishment from a Christian perspective. The message stung me, annoyed me; and I barely caught myself in time to keep myself from saying something sarcastic in response.
So the first hard question of the night was: why did this get to me that way? How come I got so defensive, and wanted to hit back? And in particular: am I just as guilty of Bible “proof-texting” as I was muttering, rather loudly, this otherwise unknown Christian brother on Twitter clearly was? (Who, I hasten to say, manifestly did not direct that tweet at me.)
Second, I kept imagining how Mr. Davis would have felt during that final hour – in fact, during all of that final day. It was my own version of things, of course, which means I really was just imagining how I would feel on my last day, during my last hour. And it made me feel almost unbearably sad … and unaccountablyempty. As empty, as void and metallic, as a tin rain barrel. And that is a wretched, an awful feeling, at least my personal “inside me” version of it is.
So, the second hard question of the night was: am I just projecting my own emotions onto Mr. Davis? Projecting them in such a way that I really am not “opposed to the death penalty,” at least in circumstances like these (where there is an apparent deluge of new evidence)?
All the situation in and of itself clearly asked for – and on this point I was and still am adamant – was a new hearing, possibly a new trial. The situation in and of itself did not require me to announce – as I did, above all with Psalm 9:20 – that I was opposed to the death penalty.
And that last sentence by itself raised the final question:
Third, am I really opposed to the death penalty?
Or is this merely a part of my “liberal internal Parent”? My internal “authority figures” derived uncritically from various real-life figures (persons, books, institutions etc.) from over the past thirty-or-so years? Go back more than 30 years, and my internal “authority figures” were quite conservative, even if I never called them, or me, by that name.
And so the third hard question is just that: is my current ethical, political and (maybe above all) religious liberalism just as unexamined, just as “artificial,” as my former conservatism was? Do I just do public knee-jerks when I say what I believe, what I stand for, what I trust the faith is all about?
Let me tell you, those three questions make for one very hard night of tossing and turning and downright bizarre dreams.
I can’t say that today, not quite 24 hours later, I have any “answers.” I’d like to say I have some “directions,” some “directional” sense of where my own personal provisional conclusions might lie. That least my own mental, emotional and spiritual compasses have more/less swung to True North, so that from there I can begin on a journey that isn’t completely random and haphazard.
I’d like to say that ... but I’m not even certain about that. Yet.
Nevertheless, this is what last night’s events and upsets have begun to teach me … or at least to hint about where True North might be located, so at least when I start into the next step I won’t quite fall off the edge of the world. Yet.
[1ST HARD QUESTION]
There was another Christian who tweeted her own annoyance at statements being made that that were entirely too broad, too unnuanced, and unsubstantiated. I seriously doubt this was referring to me. But in recent months, I have been far more “brazen” than usual in voicing my own opinions all over the place. And so last night I also was growing “paranoid” to to a certain degree, as my string of tweets grew longer and longer. I'm still just not good at this speaking-my-mind business. I would have made a lousy prophet.
Of the three questions, however, this one has stopped ringing around my head the most – ringing as though someone was beating on that tin rain barrel with a sledge hammer. Of my “direction” here, if not my final “answer,” I am increasingly certain today, the day after.
Here's one thing: you just can’t make complex arguments on Twitter – 140 characters will hardly fill out a Hallmark Card birthday greeting.
A second thing is, I know why I chose Psalm 9:20. There just wasn't enough room to say.
I did it for two reasons, other than the fact it, among dozens of similar verses in the Book of Psalms, happened to be part of my own daily Bible reading that morning.
I did it because it is a way of chanting my argument, much in the way aprokeimenon is chanted during Liturgy (and often is just a short selection from a given Psalm) … it summarizes the reading, or in my case the “argument,” to follow. It’s a deliberate pointer; it’s a not-so-subtle hint about what’s to come.
And I did it because I know what that verse means. I know how it picks up previous verses and their themes in Psalm 9 (and anticipates others in Psalm 10, the two psalms originally having been just one psalm, now artificially divided). For that matter, it is a common theme throughout not only the psalter, but the entire Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”).
I also know, by the way, what Romans 13 means ... but more about that towards the end here.
And that them in the Psalms and elsewhere is: from the biblical perspective, all the nations continue the endlessly repeated “Fall” of the “Adams” and “Eves” of all generations, the folks who populate the nations. And that "Fall" we all go on repeating, individually and corporately (nationally in this case) is to give in to the temptation to be like God (Genesis 3:5). In this case, to bestowdeath (last night, execution by lethal injection) as a curse for actions (murder of a police officer in this case) pertaining to the Fall. It is usurp the right that belongs to God, and only to God, namely to take vengeance (Deuteronomy 32:35 et al.)
Now, interestingly, Paul quotes this Deuteronomy verse at Romans 12:19 and extends its implications to verse 20 – just before the chapter from which the Christian tweeter tweeted. In other words, the state's right to wield "the sword" is prefaced by -- arguably limited by -- a prior, previous injunction against taking vengeance. The key word, "context," is much heeded in these discussions -- but unfortunately, at 140 characters Twitter doesn't allow much of that.
But there is no wiggle-room. It doesn’t matter whether Mr. Davis, or any “Mr. Davis,” also gave in to the temptation to be “like God.” That judgment is strictlybetween God and Mr. Davis.
[NOTE: the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) includes Torah that calls for executions. It also describes in unsettling detail the command of God to devastate and destroy entire villages, inhabitants, livestock. That needs to be the topic of another blog, but in short my reply is: there are “theologies,” plural, in the Bible. Which one qualifies, if not eliminates entirely, parts or all of the others, and under what circumstances, is a complicated answer to a tough question. For me, Jesus is the “Filter” through which everything must flow. Whatever doesn’t get past the Life and Teachings of Jesus, amounts to a series of human scratches on the Divine DVD, the “divine recording.” I will argue forever that Jesus never authorizes taking human life; and that “filters out” Torah and narrative to the contrary.]
A third thing is, I learned long long ago that Romans 13 always has to be balanced with Revelation 13. Sometimes the good and God-fearing state is in fact the Beast. And then one resists. Then one says a loud resounding No! andSTOP IT!
Our nation is only human. We are not deity, are not deities. But we succumb to the temptation to act like deity more and more and more. We have set ourselves up for an approaching Fear, a la Psalm 9:20 ... but that's for yet another blog. Someday.
And that was why I chose that verse for my “prokeimenon,” as it were.
[2nd HARD QUESTION]
If I have a “direction” – a way to set out exploring this question, as opposed to a firm and forever “answer” – and I do, it is this:
My own feelings and experiences of empty dread are the only way I have of bridging the “gap” between my life and that of another … at least until Jesus hascompletely transfigured me in the Age to Come, and I have His heart entirely suffused through mine.
My experiences, from years past, of a long and empty day, with a dreadful conclusion, are the only way I have – initially – to “imagine my way into” that long and empty day and its dreadful conclusion for Mr. Davis.
Actually that is true for any of us, as we struggle to imagine our way into someone else's situation ... to "walk a mile in their shoes," so to speak. We can only go back to our own miles and remember what they were like.
Jesus, as I am rendered more and more “like Him” through the Mysteries – not to mention the Red Dirt Mystery of the execution of Troy Davis last night – Jesus suffers. And He will continue to suffer in the suffering of humankind, whether it is “innocent” or “guilty” suffering in any given instance, until the End which is the Beginning. I can trust Him to transform my limited (and usually not all that righteous) suffering into His during my pilgrimage of faith, in this Exile away from my true Home; and to the degree that happens, my suffering also will be transformed into the suffering of Mr. Davis, and the Mr. Davises of the world.
But my springboard now is simply to use who I am and what I have, because out of that, aided and strengthened and taught and guided by the Holy Spirit, I will connect in the limited ways I am able at this point of the journey with that of a man about to be executed.
One reason I am a Christian, Orthodox or not, is: God takes human being seriously, God takes history seriously, God suffers.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. Until I am one day, one Age, “mature inChrist,” my suffering will have to do as the starting point, as the springboard.
[3rd HARD QUESTION]
As the “groundwork” going on in my own soul since last night shows – meaning, what I have said above (and more like it) – I am opposed to the death penalty because of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is not a “right” given to human beings. Statistics argue, not unimportantly, it's not even an effective usurpation of God's right. We are not God.
We may be on our eternal (everlasting, unending) way to participation in the divine nature – our theosis, our divinization – a la 2 Peter 1:4.
But that God is seen most fully in Jesus of Nazareth.
That God loves and seeks out sinners. He does not kill them.
That God washes feet. He does not chop them off, nor the bodies attached to them.
That God gives life, and in setting life and death before us all, begs us to choose life. He does not countenance our choices of death. Death, indeed, whether delivered by a criminal or by the state, is the handout of the Powers of Darkness.
The State of Georgia last night acted on behalf of the Liar and Father of Lies, the one who (not so ironically?) is Murderer from the very beginning (John 8:44). That the case against Mr. Davis contains lies (some now recanted, some not) is, perhaps, on this reading of Scripture, not altogether surprising.
Jesus came to give Life, which He has in Himself.
He has nothing to do with Death. That is our choice, prompted by the Satan, a name that ironically (perhaps? perhaps not!) means “the accuser.”
Memory Eternal, Tony Davis, brother in this Exile.
I am opposed to the death penalty because of Jesus of Nazareth.