By Martin L. Smith
Writing is a demanding trade, and I am one of those who has to do a lot of talking and preaching in order to ply it. Sometimes I recite to myself a naughty line memorized from a biography of the novelist Stendahl: “Like all good authors, he must have snared ideas as he talked. This hardly promotes silence, or even discretion. No evening out is wasted if one can say to oneself on returning home, ‘I wasn’t bored; I talked the whole time. And I always find something to learn from what I say.’” I do a lot of teaching and preaching without notes, and I love the challenge of giving spontaneous answers to questions in the conversations that I build into workshops. And I always find something to learn from what I find myself saying! Perhaps this is a regular form of spiritual experience for religious communicators. We experience grace in the moment as we respond to surprise. Often what we ‘find ourselves saying’ turns out to be richer than the stuff we carefully work out in advance. Where did that come from? we ask ourselves, and find that the Holy Spirit seems to be the proper answer.
In a recent workshop I was leading, a participant was moved to express his support for the death penalty. I had referred in passing to the official opposition to the death penalty in the Episcopal Church voiced for more than 50 years, and the almost total condemnation of it in contemporary Roman Catholic teaching. (Pope John Paul II insisted in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life, that cases where the state is justified in killing the offender are “very rare, if not practically non-existent”).
Perhaps it was because the man didn’t sound at all defensive that I didn’t fall into the trap of countering his view directly with a rational case for abolishing the death penalty. Instead I found myself making a proposal to him. Simply this: Would you be prepared over the course of several months, to keep on asking Jesus in prayer this question:“Lord, you yourself were executed by the state. What do you think of capital punishment today?”
A strange quietness came over the room. Everyone seemed taken aback, including myself. We needed time to process the implications of the proposal.
No wonder. There is a lot to consider in this approach to such a controversial topic. First, it makes a difference to directly connect the crucifixion, the cross in the experience of Jesus Christ, to capital punishment. Jesus stood trial, and the state executed him in exactly the same way it regularly executed hundreds of criminals perceived to pose a danger to public welfare. He was one of three identical victims that day. For the executioners it was a routine day in their killing field called Golgotha. Jesus was, and—because God raised him from the dead—still is and always will be, the victim of regular capital punishment.
We tend to discuss the death penalty as a political issue, a matter of social policy, a bone of contention between liberals and conservatives. To reframe the issue in terms of Jesus’ own experience is to surrender a great deal of our sense of control over how the divisive issue might be resolved, about who wins the argument. Suppose we as Christians were to reframe the question in terms of what the mind of Christ is. Suppose he has a mind on the topic, that his mind is made up in the light of his own experience as a victim!
I suppose the second rather shocking thing about the proposal is this insistence that we take our questioning straight to Jesus as the one with the direct experience. Many Episcopalians don’t even pray to Jesus, claiming we should only pray to the Father. Yet the earliest Christian prayer is to Jesus—Marana tha! Our Lord, come! The liturgy invites us to connect directly to him as we pray, “O Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us! Grant us your peace!” By taking our questions directly to Jesus, instead of talking around him, we open ourselves to being influenced and enlightened by what Paul calls simply, “the mind of Christ.” Not instructions to obey but a mindset to adopt, a whole way of looking at the world through this eyes. In this case, what does death row look like today through the eyes of the living Christ, who has been on it himself?
I did suggest repeating this daring prayer for some months. It is rare to receive access to the mind of Christ in a flash. Prayer might be more like a gradual dawning. Or a wrestling match of many rounds, as the tenacious grip of conventional thinking is gradually loosened and something radically new emerges through conscious contact with the living person of Christ.
Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s in Washington, D.C.