Recently I took an immersion course at Saint Paul School of Theology centered around the prison system in the State of Oklahoma. An immersion course is a short, intensive course that focuses less on lectures and class attendance and more on first-hand experience, on-location learning and, well, immersion in a particular culture and context.
We attended a meeting of Department of Corrections volunteers and chaplains. We attended a session of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. We visited minimum and medium security prisons and talked to inmates; at one correctional facility we even participated in a Kairos reunion weekend, a place for people who have experienced the “inside” version of the Walk to Emmaus and want to keep the fellowship going.
Then, however, we toured Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OSP) in McAlester. It was there that we experienced maximum and supermax units. Inmates call it the walls, and for good reason:
As you enter the campus you immediately see three things: the first blocks of the prison, the warden’s mansion, and the museum centered around this historical artifact:
We spoke to inmates through tiny metal openings in their cell doors as we journeyed through the varying maximum security areas of the prison. We passed through an octagonal room in the old part of the prison several floors high. Around the room was the “line,” a yellow strip you and those in front of and behind you walked when in the room. If you stepped off of the line you were shot.
Our guide was Rev. Dr. Stan Basler, Executive Director for Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries (CJAMM) for the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church and a leading force for restorative justice inside and outside of the United Methodist Church. He also teaches for the Law School of Oklahoma City University and for Saint Paul School of Theology. He was a Kairos leader for many in OSP, and as we travelled from cell to cell he asked that great Wesleyan question, “How is it with your soul?” We walked through rows and rows of prisoners in different areas, stopping between each unit to be cleared for entry by the terminal guards.
We finally made it to the supermax unit, the highest security level and the unit that housed those on death row:
Let’s pause for a moment. We are in the season of Advent, a time where we claim both the past birth of Christ and the promise of the final victory in the future. We claim both revelations in the present - the has come and is coming Christ, and the already but not yet final victory. Both the birth and the promise are alive and well in our hearts in the present. I hesitate to say that such a point-of-view is possible in a place like the H-Unit. Society has claimed the inmates’ respective pasts as both their present and their future. As The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church profess,
“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. We oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
Something I have heard around the table at Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries board meetings is that, “we try not to let an offender or ex-offender’s past control their future.” However, in a retributive justice system this becomes difficult for people who have committed certain crimes.
I remember my first protest of a state-sanctioned execution. I was a freshman in college and a group of us gathered at the Governor’s Mansion the hour before a man would be executed. I didn’t even know his name; I had only half-committed to coming. As the end of the hour before the man’s death neared, an old Catholic priest hobbled toward us along the busy street. We joined hands and observed prayer and silence as the man was executed in this “OSP” in McAlester I had never heard of. I had forgotten about that day, until I finally entered death row and found my way to the execution chamber.
I asked why the door to the room was yellow. The tour guide chuckled and said, “I’ve never known why.” Interesting place to be laughing. I digress. Then we got into the room:
I claimed the significance of his death in the past as a powerful reality of the present. Anamnesis, the has come and is coming. I thought to the future. I thought to the words of the CJAMM board members. I knew I didn’t have to claim the proleptic truth of death. Quite to the contrary, I looked that day to a future without state-sanctioned executions. As disciples, we don’t have to let systemic sins of the past place us into such complacency that we accept them as the truth of the future.
The tour guide began to talk about how the executioner commits the homicide – the state lists the execution of inmates as a ‘homicide’. Telling.
The first of three injections used kills the inmate, but the other two are used to ensure that they are dead and all of their bodily systems have completely shut down. The doctor is selected by the Warden, wears a black hood, and administers the injections from behind a wall. There are three holes in the wall the doctor can stick his or her arm through to inject the inmates. Only the Governor and the Warden know who the doctors are, and they are the only state employees paid strictly in cash that is not recorded by the state. $300.00 per execution.
Once the inmate is dead, they place him or her on a gurney and take them to an elevator that lowers them to the first floor of the supermax unit. They are then placed in an ambulance that is escorted by police all the way to a morgue in Oklahoma City.
In a season of pasts and futures claimed in the present, it is a good spiritual discipline to consider the limits our ability to see a bright future in others. State executions are a touchy subject, and though the UMC currently stands against it, it has not always been this way. I know many committed Christians who are conflicted in their feelings about this kind of punishment, and others who are decidedly for it. This is not to condemn them or ignore their thoughts and feelings. I was conflicted myself, and cared not to put names with faces of those on death row – until I saw H-Unit and stood in the chamber myself; until my memory of the past connected powerfully with the present; until I heard Dr. Basler pray for those ho had repented of their sin, are trying to resist the forces of wickedness and the evil powers of this world, and who are confessing Christ as their savior and putting their whole trust in his grace. Sounds a lot like membership in the United Methodist Church to me.
Fred Kaan is a widely celebrated hymn writer in the English-speaking world. He wrote a song called Help Us Accept Each Other that compels me to consider the limits of my own forgiveness and confidence in Christ’s ability to redeem people.
1 Help us accept each other As Christ accepted us; Teach us as sister, brother, Each person to embrace. Be present, Lord, among us And bring us to believe We are ourselves accepted And meant to love and live.
2 Teach us, O Lord, Your lessons, As in our daily life We struggle to be human And search for hope and faith. Teach us to care for people, For all, not just for some, To love them as we find them Or as they may become.
3 Let Your acceptance change us, So that we may be moved In living situations To do the truth in love; To practice Your acceptance Until we know by heart The table of forgiveness And laughter’s healing art.
4 Lord, for today’s encounters With all who are in need, Who hunger for acceptance, For righteousness and bread, We need new eyes for seeing, New hands for holding on: Renew us with Your Spirit; Lord, free us, make us one!