“There is a solemnity to these executions that must be protected.”
The pre-meeting is always the space where one is told where to stand, how to move and what to say. This pre-meeting was no different. I was there to be instructed on how to act during the execution of one of the guys that I’d served as a spiritual advisor to. Everything was so pleasant that I almost forgot what we were there to talk about. Then, it all came rushing back with one phrase.
“It is your job to keep the person calm while the execution is carried out.”
Suddenly, all of the evil that I was about to wade into became apparent once more. I thought I’d known what I’d signed up for … to be a loving presence for someone condemned to die … I now began to realize that the powers that be had different ideas about my role than I did. As I pondered the juxtaposition of conflicting expectations, I began to realize exactly who they expected me to be.
I also realized, I’d heard this before in a different yet altogether similar context. Suddenly, I was transported back…
“I don’t want to see you go through this hell no more. No more, no more, no more. (Pause) We’re trying. If everybody will relax. The best thing you do is to relax, and you will have no problem. You’ll have no problem with this thing, if you just relax.”
“It’s not to be afeared. It is not to be feared. It’s a friend. It’s a friend…”
“Lay down your life with dignity. Don’t lay down with tears and agony. There’s nothing to death…it’s just stepping over into another plane.”
“Free at last. Peace. Keep your emotions down. Keep your emotions down. Children, it will not hurt. If you’ll be — if you’ll be quiet. If you’ll be quiet.”
“If you knew what was ahead of you — if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.”
“No more pain now. No more pain…”
“That’s what death is, sleep.”
Are these the phrases I was supposed to say? Were these the labored phrasings of the Jonestown pavilion decades back? The mechanical words were so hollow. The stains of evil were so palatable. Or were these the phrases of a state official determined to put a positive spin on a very evil moment? The blatant attempts to disguise murder as something more humane made me sick. If it weren’t for Jim Jones’ words on the death tape, I might have gotten it twisted. Since I’d heard the evil words before, I knew were they’d come from. I knew what their intention was.
“…to keep the person calm while the execution is carried out.”
Though the setting is different, the result is the same: poisonous words introduced to mask poisonous actions to bring about a poisonous end.
Perhaps, the greatest temptation is always to do what they tell you. Then again, what choice do you have?
For the sake of the one who asked me to accompany them to the execution chamber, I followed their rules. In my words, I sought to resist. In my presence, I sought to give witness to the evil before me. In my anger, I sought to make sure that everyone knew how righteousness should respond to injustice. After it was over, I made sure to tell the official…
“There has never been and there will never be solemnity in the midst of an execution.”
I have no doubt that the expectations that were placed upon me were much more akin to Jim Jones than Jesus Christ.
“Choose this day whom you will follow…”
(Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood is a Baptist pastor, theologian and activist living and working in Arkansas. Dr. Hood’s extensive work has appeared in numerous media outlets, including in the Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Los Angeles Times, WIRED magazine and on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR. He writes regularly at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jeffhood/. The collection of his articles for this site appears here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)