Sunday, May 3, 2015

from dying unprepared, good Lord deliver us

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

The execution by firing squad in Indonesia of a group of convicted drug smugglers has many around the world shaking their heads in dismay. The death penalty is a difficult issue for many. In this case, on the one hand, there seems little doubt that these men were guilty of the crimes they had committed, and were given a fair trial according to the laws of the jurisdiction they broke the law of. They knew the risks and they have paid the price; no injustice has been done in that sense, save in the case of one whom it is alleged was seriously mentally ill. 

On the other hand, I have never been persuaded of the effectiveness or the necessity of the death penalty. I understand that society needs to protect itself from dangerous criminals; and so, for example, if one man needs to shoot dead another who is threatening his life or that of somebody else I understand fully that it is something that must be done, even if I regret the necessity of it. But the cold-blooded brutality of taking a person out and shooting them or hanging them or however it is done, often many years after whatever crime they have committed, is something I find not only hard to stomach, but difficult to justify morally. In the self-defense case I mentioned earlier, if his assailant, on seeing his intended victim was armed were to put up his hands instead of continuing the attack, and our man shot him anyway, we would not think of that man as justified.

In the case of these men in Indonesia, they had been incarcerated for around ten years; clearly prison proved a sufficient means of society protecting itself from them for all that time; and there is no reason to presume that more time in prison would not have proved an equally adequate protection.

Leaving the issue aside, I wonder what went through those men's minds in the days and hours before they were led out to die? Samuel Johnson once said to his biographer Boswell 'Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.' That is sometimes put a little more pithily as 'the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.' The point being that the prospect of immanent and unavoidable death tends to get a person thinking about what is most important. I know from my own experience of ministering to the dying that many like to make use of the time they have left in making peace with those around them; and, very importantly, making peace with God. 

While I know some people say they don't want to see death coming, I know for my own part that I would appreciate a least a little time to make some final spiritual preparations before stepping over the threshold from this life to the next. Those of you who recall your Shakespeare may remember that it was a source of great bitterness to Hamlet's father that his brother murdered him in his sleep, as his ghost says 'Cut off even in the blossoms of my sins … no reckoning made, but sent to my account with all my imperfections on my head.' It is with good reason, I believe, that in the litany we pray 'from sudden death deliver us.' And so we may hope, that even if the lives of those men in Indonesia were cut short – very short indeed, for they were all young men – that they did not die unprepared and go to meet their maker with, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, all their imperfections upon their heads.

These thoughts about the risk of dying unprepared, tie in with both our epistle and Gospel today, both from St John. The first tells us that if we abide in God's love we stand with boldness before him on the day of judgement – in other words, unafraid that our soul will be found, to again quote from Hamlet, 'as damn'd and black as hell, whereto it goes.' For, as the second says, our Lord himself speaking in our Gospel reading, 'whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.' But of course Christ gave us this warning so that we might not die unprepared; he died for our sins and rose from the dead that we might have eternal life; and through our baptisms we have also died and risen – died to sin and risen to new life in Christ. We continue in that new life by abiding in him – by loving God and loving each other, by hearing and obeying his word.

Accounts of the last days of those men in Indonesia speak of their seeking comfort and guidance from their priests, their spiritual advisers; so we may hope at least, that whatever else they suffered, they were spared the fate of dying unprepared. Let us pray that they may rest in peace, even as we pray for the consolation of their loved ones at this difficult time for them; and pray also that God may grant us that most joyful of gifts - that of ending our own lives as those who abide in Christ. Amen

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