A couple of days ago, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia.
You might have followed the story. He was convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer named Mark MacPhail in 1989. Many of the witnesses – whose testimony was essential to his conviction – recanted. The case became a bellwether for execution in the United States.
I grew up following the death penalty. In 1976, right around the time my grandfather died – the first significant death in my life – Gary Gilmore was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in front of a Utah firing squad. My father, a devout Catholic and liberal Democrat, followed the case closely. In this shadow, I read all the articles, too.
Death row and the death penalty became apt metaphors for a metaphysical reality I intuitively understood at an early age but could not – for decades – talk about in any meaningful way.
You are guilty and you are locked in a cage to await your punishment by death.
That became the working definition of my humanity: I had offended God by killing his son, was locked into a small world in which I might squeeze out only the barest of passing pleasures, and would eventually die a painful death at the hands of a vengeful, retaliative God.
Not a recipe for inner peace and happiness.
In time, I became an activist against the death penalty. I carried signs at trials at which the death penalty was an option. I went to hear speakers like Stephen Bright and others talk against the death penalty. I bought their books. I signed petitions.
Even though in the past five years or so I had began to understand execution as a metaphor for ontological guilt, I still could no make no meaningful interior headway until I encountered A Course in Miracles. It was there that I read this:
You need not fear the Higher Court will condemn you. It will merely dismiss the case against you. There can be no case against a child of God, and every witness to guilt in God’s creation is bearing false witness to God himself. Appeal everything you believe gladly to God’s Own Higher Court because it speaks for Him and therefore speaks truly. It will dismiss the case against you, however carefully you have built it up. The case may be fool-proof but it is not God proof. The Holy Spirit will not hear it, because he can only witness truly. His verdict will always be “thine is the Kingdom,” because He was given to you to remind you of what you are (T5.VI.10:1-8)
Even if accepting that – if bringing it into application – remained difficult, it was as if a heavy veil had been ripped off and a light was now free to shine. There were hints of freedom, hints of peace.
And then I felt this call to follow the last week or so of Troy Davis’s case. And it hurt.
In the past, my attention to death penalty issues was predictable. The policy was unfair and illegal – and people who supported it were mean and heartless. I was empathetic to the condemned and indifferent to the victim and their family.
As I found myself drawn to Mr. Davis’s case, I simultaneously began to pray. I asked Jesus to help me see it differently – even though I had no idea what that meant or how it could happen.
Nor was I ready to apply course metaphysics or principles. I wasn’t able to honestly accept that Mr. Davis and the crime and the execution and the media bonfire were all just projections of my own guilt and fear.
As I read the news and followed the countdown to the execution, I found myself turning to short, small prayers. I prayed a lot for Mr. MacPhail’s mother, for example. One story offered the image of her chain-smoking and flipping through photo albums of her son, waiting for a phone call that Troy Davis was dead.
There was so much pain and loneliness in that image . . . it broke my heart and I prayed that Jesus would bring peace to her.
I prayed for her children. Regardless of who had done it, they had grown up fatherless in the shadow of a hideous crime. What else was there to offer but prayers for healing, prayers for peace?
I prayed for Troy Davis and his family. Navigating a legal maze in the public eye – I admired their courage, their faith, and of course, the pain of their own loss.
Over and over I offered up prayers for the people involved, sure of nothing but that at least I wasn’t hurting anyone.
No doubt some zealous course student is priming themselves for a rebuttal. But none of that was real! That’s the real ticket to inner peace!
To which I reply: I know. But still.
Jesus is very clear in the text of A Course in Miracles that we are not expected to be metaphysical superheroes. That’s what forgiveness is for – when we avail ourselves of it, by bringing our pain and worry and fear and doubt to the Holy Spirit, it slowly shines away our perception of reality in favor of Truth.
What does this mean practically?
In the past, my prayers around the death penalty were generally for me – tell me what to do in terms of activism, Jesus – and for the person being executed. If I prayed for the victim or their family, it was usually to ask Jesus to forgive them for being so cruel and unforgiving. You know – have mercy on their souls.
But this was different. No sooner did I ask Jesus for clarity and help then I realized that what was happening was not about Sean Reagan – his professional career, his moral standing, his psychological narrative, the tale of his upbringing.
And the tiny prayers that I lifted up seemed somehow to wash me of guilt and responsibility. It was as if, in some barely perceptible way, I was seeing the content of the death penalty – which was scarcity writ large – in lieu of my preferred form, which was worldly injustice (that always, however subtly, implicated me).
So there was a softening then, a crumbling. I felt compassion for everyone that was involved – lives had been devastated, were about to be devastated. All that grief and guilt and anger and bitterness – I recognized that. I knew that. I knew those hurt feelings like brothers, even if they had never never arisen in the specific form of violent crime and the death penalty.
Praying that those feelings be alleviated in others helped alleviate them in me.
The Manual for Teachers says early on that teachers of God are men and women who “did not see their interests as apart from someone else’s.” We do this best when we look past form to content. It is then that we learn there is only one mind to heal.
My judgment – that is, a profound need to define what is happening and work it into a preconceived notion of how the world works and what the world is for and what my role is in it – receded. In its place, there was a sense of wholeness and peace. The need to separate experience it into good and bad, right and wrong faded.
Was it perfect? Am I hearing nothing now but the sweet melodies of Heaven? No. Not hardly. I know students who flip a switch and they’re enlightened. I’m happy for them. For me, it’s a slow road and half the time I don’t even know I’m on it. I look up and realize that something’s different. I’m not as angry, I’m not as invested.
And I feel happy, in a quiet and natural way. It’s a feeling inseparable from gratitude – the inclination to say thank you. And that’s a pretty good prayer, too.