Witness and Remember
If we believe in something, isn't it important to watch it?
BY: Thomas Lynch
After 30 years of directing funerals, I believe in open caskets. A service to which everybody but the deceased is invited, like a wedding without the bride, denies the essential reality of the occasion. It is why we comb wreckage, drag rivers, and bring our war dead home. Knowing is better than not knowing, and seeing, it turns out, is believing. Births, deaths, marriages--the fashions of these passages change, but the fundamental obligations of witness and remembrance remain. And whether we bear witness to joy or sadness, love or grief, life or death, the sharing of it makes the bearing of it better.
Which is why we searched the devastation in Oklahoma City to return the dead
to their families. To deal with loss, we must confront our losses. Witness and remembrance are akin.
The same is so for executions. Such an extreme exercise of the public will and the state's power demands a public witness.
For people of faith, witness and remembrance are essential stations in their pilgrimage. Passover and Crucifixion, Crusade and Holocaust--these flesh-and-blood events call upon the faithful to "see and believe," to "watch and not forget." They are not pleasant, but they are compelling. And while Christ chided Thomas for his famous doubt, two millennia later we are glad to have his unambiguous testimony: "My Lord!" he said, changed utterly
by the moment, "My God!" We might reasonably wonder if those first Jewish Christians would have embraced the meaning of Christ's execution if Pilate had decided to do it behind closed doors, or if Thomas and his co-religionists had never seen the dead man raised to life.
Scripture and liturgy are the record and replay of what was seen and heard. Nowadays we watch for signs and wonders on TV.
When Timothy McVeigh is put to death, it will be the first federal execution in nearly 40 years. For most Americans, it will be the first time in our adult lives that one of our own kind--human kind--will be capitally punished by the government to which we pledge our allegiance and pay our taxes. And yet, except for a select few, none of us will be allowed to watch. The suggestion that this execution be televised is dismissed out of hand by the powers that be for reasons never clearly articulated. In doing so, they substantially undermine the rights and duties of citizens in a democracy to scrutinize the exercise of a government's lethal powers.
Excerpted with permission from The Christian Century.