"He deserves to die, so let him fry."
So say the vast majority of Americans when asked about the appropriateness of the death penalty especially for serial killers such as Timothy McVeigh. After all, he remorselessly reduced a federal building to rubble, crushing 168 innocent adults and children, supporters of the death penalty proclaim: "Hang him high." This is the position of lawmakers in the states that comprise the Synod I serve as an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor. In our recent Synod Assembly held in Atlanta, our body passed a resolution regarding the abolition of the Death Penalty. In this we have resolved as a collective body to encourage and seek dialogue within our given contexts in presenting a unified voice of opposition to the death penalty, seeking legislative and judicial change.
As I reflect on this resolution that I wholeheartedly support, I am making a declaration that no one in our given jurisdictions even in the South should ever witness an execution. Yet, as an ELCA pastor the basis of my theology affirms that the way to my salvation and understanding the regeneration of my baptism is found in being a witness for the execution of Jesus. We as Lutherans refer to this paradox of events as "The Theology of the Cross" where God's glory was revealed in Christ through suffering.
So, are you willing to witness the execution? To gaze at the gore?
It's not a pretty sight.
The letter to the Hebrews contains a theology of the cross, with such details on why the death of Jesus is important and how Christ's sacrifice is sufficient for all sin -- a sacrifice so clearly superior to the old priestly system. Note that the author stresses that the cross is intended to be a visible event, something to be seen and witnessed -- a public and provocative display that confronts us with a divine invitation, and that forces us to deal with an offensive scene. When we stand at the cross and witness the execution, we are required to make a decision: Are we going to "enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus" (10:19) ... or not?
It's not an easy route because not everyone can stand the sight of blood. But if we do enter God's house by this grisly path, this choice makes an enormous difference. It means that we are able to look to the cross with gratitude, instead of disgust; it means that we can see Christ as a single and all-sufficient sacrifice for sin, instead of a senseless death. But perhaps we're too afraid of public opinion to witness to the cross. Maybe we'd rather hide the fact that we were there "when they crucified my Lord." We know that the cross is as provocative today as it ever was, exciting people to anger, passion, grief and confusion. And in our more honest moments, we have to admit that it confuses us as well because we can't always see what's so good about Good Friday, and we can't quite grasp why a loving God would let his only son die a truly agonizing death.
The cross is provocative -- no doubt about it.
And yet, we can't avoid it. This agonizing instrument of death is central to our identity as Christians. We wear it on our lapels, we hoist it on our steeples and we claim to take it up as we follow Christ. It remains a majestic, mysterious and fitting focal point for our worship of a God who transforms evil into good and provokes us to follow him in faith.
There's just no escaping the cross. As Christians we are required to be witnesses for this execution, and to witness it in a way that means more than giving intellectual assent to the central role of the cross in a particular plan of salvation. The cross is powerfully provocative as it calls us forth and stimulates us to love one another not by engaging in works righteousness and to be the Body of Christ in the world.
But like it or not, our Lord is at work in the cross to stretch us, and challenge us and to arouse our passion for sacrificial service and life in the Christian community. The Christ whose execution we have observed is now waiting for us to rise to the challenge of walking his way -- the way of the cross. After we have gazed at the cross and the length of love that our Savior went in reconciling the world, I believe as this resolution speaks that we will proclaim something new. Not the same old frying and dying, but a truly eye-popping form of giving and living, embracing a life of sacrificial service.