Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: ‘Open the Eyes of these Men’

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
24 January 2021
Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

Even before the extraordinary and shameful events that unfolded in the American Capitol there was an apocalyptic feel to the last days of the Trump Presidency

On Wednesday 6th January I woke to the news that the US had executed a woman called Lisa Montgomery

The first women for seventy years to be put to death by the US Government

She was given a lethal injection at a federal prison complex in Indiana and pronounced dead at 1.30am in the morning

This was a woman who had suffered severe mental trauma as a child and was clearly mentally ill at the time of the crime

But that was not enough to save her from being put to death in the last gasp of the Trump administration

But tragically, she is not alone

But since Donald Trump restored Federal executions in July 2020, the US Government has applied the death penalty to 12 people.

The outgoing administration has executed more American civilians than all the States combined –

The first time this has happened in US history.

But that is not all

Since Trump lost the election in November he has presided over no less than four more

The last time that a lame-duck president presided over an execution was in 1889 – 130 years ago

One might imagine that this barbarism was behind us – not a bit of it

As one commentator remarked

“It’s hard to understand why anybody at this stage of a presidency feels compelled to kill this many people. This is a complete historical aberration.”

At the time of starting this sermon, two more were due to die before Joe Biden’s inauguration

Even before I had finished writing, Corey Johnson was executed whilst Trump was in the midst of his Capitol crisis

On Saturday morning Dustin Higgs was put to death

The entire Federal pool of prisoners had been put to death in what can reasonably be described as a demonic exercise of power

And we hardly hear a word of protest on this side of the pond

Whenever I hear of the death penalty, I am reminded of George Orwell’ first novel “Burmese Days”

Published in 1934, it drew upon Orwell’s time as a colonial policeman in Burma

And he recounted the story of how he was involved in an execution

Today in the UK we just have bare headlines and little narrative, it is so easy to forget how chilling capital punishment really is

Perhaps we need Orwell to awaken our senses

Let me read a short passage

Eight o’clock struck and a bugle call, desolately thin in the wet air, floated from the distant barracks. The superintendent of the jail, who was standing apart from the rest of us, moodily prodding the gravel with his stick, raised his head at the sound. He was an army doctor, with a grey toothbrush moustache and a gruff voice. “For God’s sake hurry up, Francis,” he said irritably. “The man ought to have been dead by this time. Aren’t you ready yet?”

Francis, the head jailer, a fat Dravidian in a white drill suit and gold spectacles, waved his black hand. “Yes sir, yes sir,” he bubbled. “All iss satisfactorily prepared. The hangman iss waiting. We shall proceed.”

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. 

The unspeakable wrongness of the death penalty struck me as a teenager

I watched Richard Fleischer’s wonderful film “10 Rillington Place”

It is about the serial killer John Christie

What stood out for me most in the film was the conviction and execution of his neighbour Timothy Evans for the murder of his wife and daughter

A murder which he did not commit

He was illiterate and signed a confession which he did not even understand

He was hanged for a crime committed by his neighbour – who paradoxically played on his war record as a respected member of the civil defence

I was so disturbed by the film that I discussed it over breakfast with my parents –

Both of whom were supporters of capital punishment

We inevitably disagreed

However, the message of the film was so powerful that it has stayed with me ever since

Indeed, the older I become the more sensitive I get

My soul grieves in what have been, literally, the dying days of the Trump Presidency

Thank God that it is over

Which brings me on to the story this morning

It is a little known passage from the Old Testament – but one which resonates with my own life as it involves the treatment of prisoners

With historic resonance, the King – in this case the King of Israel – asks Elisha whether he should put the prisoners to death

Instead of appealing to mans’ base instincts Elisha tells him to do the exact opposite

“No” he says “set food and water before them so they may eat and drink”

In this New Year, still in the season of Epiphany, I would ask us all to examine our hearts

We have journeyed with the Wise Men and have seen the Christ Child

We have seen him face to face and remind ourselves

That Christ came and lived amongst us here on earth

And that all men and women are made in the image and likeness of God

In two months’ time, our Lord will also suffer the death penalty

Will you be there seeking his blood or seeking mercy?