I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
We wait for deliverance, we wait for the birth of the Christ child, we wait for the joy of Christmas morning. There are all sorts of spiritual lessons that can be drawn out of the experience of patient, expectant waiting.
Can you imagine then what it must be like to be an inmate on Death Row? What is Advent like for the prisoner who awaits nothing but death?
Last night I participated in A Faithful Conversation on the Death Penalty with Dallas Faith Leaders, a public forum at Paul Quinn College, sponsored by the Texas Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. I was on a panel with a Baptist, Lutheran, and Catholic, and we spoke about our traditions’ stance on capital punishment, and fielded questions from the audience.
It struck me that the Death Row inmate has a very different understanding of what it means to wait. The experience of waiting in prison, behind bars, with one’s destiny in the hands of an impersonal bureaucracy, must be very difficult. I doubt that very few inmates view Advent as a time of hope, of heightened expectancy for the joy of Christmas. There can only be a dull, soul-numbing waiting for impending death, which might be delayed for a few more weeks or months or years, but still lingers just ahead.
Of course, the perpetrator of a horrific crime has brought such a wait upon himself (unless he is innocent, which happens more frequently than we like to admit), and thus, we find it difficult to feel any sort of sympathy for such a person.
But if Jesus is good news to the whole world, then Jesus must be good news even to these whom we consider the lowest of the low. What can the Death Row inmate hope for?
One of the other panelists, Rev. Dr. Stan Meyer, ELCA, said something quite profound in the conversation last night. He said, “God constantly says that he believes in us. And that goes for someone on Death Row, too.”
Perhaps what any prisoner needs to know is that God has not given up on him or her, that there yet remains a chance for redemption, reconciliation, and even restoration while we draw breath.
Capital punishment cuts short what God has not cut short; to put it another way, the death penalty perverts and distorts Advent, replacing the hope of new life with dread. Death Row itself is a garish caricature of Advent. It mocks our hope and says that our lives are worthless, pathetic, and ultimately meaningless.
Many of us live life as if we are on Death Row ourselves. Deep down, we think to ourselves that there is nothing significant between birth and death, but a little smattering of joy here and there. We are simply waiting to die. We have internalized the reality of the death penalty.
Fortunately, Jesus mocks Death Row. In his coming-out sermon in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1, saying, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives …”
The good news of Advent is that we have something to look forward to, that our lives have great meaning and dignity, that God still believes in us.
Even those who sit on the real Death Rows of our nation. In fact, Jesus speaks to them directly as well.
And if we were to follow in the footsteps of this coming king, we would indeed release our own prisoners from their sentence of death, and extend to them the grace of expectant life.
Link of the day: Currently, there are approximately 3,134 inmates on Death Row in the United States. What are they waiting for this Advent? Perhaps you can find out for yourself by reaching out to one. The Death Row Support Project is one great way to do that; go to the website and become a pen pal with an inmate.
Prayer: God of life, we pray for those who await execution. Grant that they may know your forgiving and liberating love. Set free those who are innocent of the crimes with which they are charged. And deliver us all from our culture of death. Amen.