Dinner Plates and the Death Penalty
For the most part, I conceptualize STILL as quiet contemplation, and WILD as fierce and unrelenting change-making; contemplative Justice, if you will. It is true, however, that WILD doesn’t just encompass change-making; the concept is far too big for just that. If STILL is a practice, WILD is a way of life. WILD is the application of a practice, not just in one area of our lives, but in all. WILD is full-throated living, deeply engaged and (at least somewhat) balanced. It is two-eyed, enabling us to look, unflinchingly, at the harshest aspects of our reality – death, cruelty, suffering – and to see and create, all around us and at the same time, outrageous beauty. This morning I woke up thinking that this might be one of only a few blogs where one can read about pretty dinner plates and the death penalty, for instance, in the same blog post. (Read on, if you dare.)
The death machine is on my mind because the state of Tennessee – my home state - executed Don Edward Johnson two nights ago. Years ago, I worked for an anti-death penalty organization in Nashville, during which time I met Don on several occasions. I knew Don to be warm and thoughtful. His was a personality that brightened the room. “How’re you doing, Don?” a person could ask. “Too blessed to be stressed,” was his standard, cheery reply. (One wouldn’t expect Death Row to harbor any sort of cheer but, as we know, Light has a way of finding even the darkest places.)
Don didn’t always demonstrate such cheer. He was sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie Johnson. To be sure, the crime fell rightfully under the category of heinous and atrocious.
Don never downplayed the horrific nature of the offense. He went to prison, faced reality (relatively unflinchingly, so far as I can tell) committed himself to his chosen faith and, eventually, did what he could to make amends.
For a time, I was the co-director of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (now called Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty or TDAP). That was years ago, and life has offered me a smorgasbord of experiences since then, some of which have changed my feelings (rather profoundly) around activism, generally, and about abolishing the death penalty, specifically.
Years ago, I could relate to victimhood in an intellectual way only. That has changed. I oppose the death penalty as fiercely as ever, but can see, now, that once upon a time my opposition to state sanctioned killing was tone deaf in certain respects. I felt huge amounts of empathy for the person being killed by the state, and an intellectual sympathy, only, for victims and their families. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing; we need activists who embody the advocate archetype in a particular way; activists and change-makers who identify and protect those whom the rest of society hates in no uncertain terms. But for myself, I am glad for this new perspective.
Even more importantly, my current STILL practice has changed the landscape in ways that are no less profound, and this is really the point…
I don’t sleep on execution night because my sorrow is too acute. To be clear, I haven’t seen Don in years, don’t know him well at all, and haven’t been actively involved in this particular struggle for a long time. I shudder to think what the night was like for Don’s many close friends and loved ones – those who walked with him right to the end – and for his victim’s family members, who have been forced to live with the memory of her violent death for all these years. Still, the harsh reality presses in, even on me, though I am a long way from the death house.
Sitting on my bed, I don’t try to outrun this heavy feeling of despair. Instead, as I’ve learned to do in my STILL moments, I lean into it. The feeling, not surprisingly, is hugely oppressive. But in the midst of this feeling of sorrow, I am aware of a deeper feeling of peace, even now, in the face of this travesty. I’m both surprised by and glad for it.
For me, this is one of the most important byproducts of my practice; this shift from “Something is wrong” to “Everything is Ok.” It’s as if the background music in my mind changes from a constant, low level, dissonant tune to a harmonious one. Obviously, on the one hand, nothing about any of this is “Ok.” The way in which Connie died years ago is not “Ok,” and the way in which Don will die tonight is not “Ok.” And yet…
I’m also increasingly at peace with the fact that I am no longer on the front lines of this struggle, or any other struggle just now. I owe this diminished feeling of guilt to my practice; I am sure of it. As my ego calms down the tiniest bit (another helpful byproduct) I am able to see that if I cycle off the front lines, someone else will step in to take my place, often (always?) doing a better job at organizing that I ever could. This, I think, is true for all of us; lawyers, clergy, change-makers, artists: We are not indispensable. It is Ok to rest.
Finally, and I’m admittedly on shaky ground here, I have the sense that we can trust Don and his journey. I can’t quite explain this feeling, and will try to sit with it in the coming weeks, but the feeling is there. I somehow trust his soul-self to use the current conditions of our world (fucked up as they are) to get what he needs out of this lifetime, and to offer the rest of us his unique gifts while he’s here and after he’s gone. Everything is Ok. I am also aware that this is one of those times, yet again, in which everything is Ok – he is Ok – even while what’s happening tonight is profoundly NOT Ok. (Truth is two-eyed.) We must keep fighting, wildly and with purpose, for grace, for mercy, for change. My friends and compatriots on the front lines are heroes, every one. I honor them in ways I cannot adequately express. Connie’s family members are heroes as well, no matter how they feel about the goings on. They have survived the unthinkable. I stand with them as well, if they’ll have me.
And now it’s Sunday, already, and tonight is "Theology Whore Dinner" night (in which Jimmy and I host dear friends who have a penchant for studying theology, as we do). They are a glorious group of people, and I spend the day preparing house and gardens. We’re eating in the kitchen today, for the first time at our new kitchen table, and using our favorite, white pottery plates. Borage from the garden provides color, creating a beautiful back drop for what’s sure to be a raucous discussion. Life is beautiful and life is brutal, and the more I am STILL, the less I feel bandied about by it all. I am increasingly able to hold both the beauty and the brutality; to sit with both; to hold my center.
May I never confuse the Divine Silence of my practice with personal silence in the face of ongoing injustice. So let me restate, in no uncertain terms, my unwavering belief in redemption, and my fierce opposition to the death penalty. Tonight, we will hold the memory of Don and his victims, along with their families, in the Light.
The death machine, of course, is devoid of Light, and yet the Light shines - in the form of mercy, grace and forgiveness.