The Cure for Dying While Alive: On the Upcoming Execution of Anthony Sanchez
Recently, I found out that a dear friend is dying of cancer. Instead of treating it as if it is an end, he treated it as a beginning. Since the seemingly grim news, my friend has made it a point to share as much connection with people as possible. Surprisingly, he tells me that the past few weeks have been anything but grim. After making a conscious choice, joy is everywhere he turns. Some might call such a choice courageous. Perhaps. But more than courage, my friend tells me that he is simply trying to be as human as possible in the time that he has left. My weekly interactions with my friend have taught me so much about life. Not the cheesy ‘live like you’re dying’ stuff, but more of the ‘make people count’ stuff and push others to adopt the beauty of such a simple statement. The intensity of my friend’s passion for connectional joy has grown me…especially in the way that I live out my profession.
For over a decade, I’ve served as a spiritual advisor to various people who have been sentenced to death, including accompanying over a dozen people to various stages of their execution process. In the midst of such, I have become a zealous abolitionist. Not primarily for all of the great philosophical and political reasons that people are opposed to the death penalty (although there are many), but more so due to the fact that I didn’t want the state to kill the person in front of me…a person that I’d come to have a relationship with. Humanity changes everything. You see, the death penalty is not about the death of the offender. It is about the death of their potential to be guided to make conscious decisions for joy. It is about the silencing of their humanity…and as such…the silencing of our own humanity…our own ability to experience something more than death with the person we are killing. Shouldn’t we all get the chance to live and interact as my dying friend is getting to? Wouldn’t that be what would make us most human? The death penalty is not about death as much as it is about us. Whether we can handle the intensity of the joy of connection.
Last January, I accompanied Scott Eizember to his execution in Oklahoma. In the weeks prior, I helped him make meaningful connection with his daughter, whom he hadn’t spoken to in a few decades. Through such intense interaction, I watched a very angry man develop a very human side. He loved his daughter with everything that had. That much was clear. The joy of connection changed everything for him. Not long before he breathed his last, Scott turned his head and mouthed “I love you” to her. Dozens of people came to watch a killer be killed. They came to watch death. The image that is ingrained in my mind was that moment of connectional joy…a moment of life.
In the coming weeks (September 21 to be exact), Oklahoma is again planning to kill another one of the guys that I work with, Anthony Sanchez. For nearly a year, Anthony and I have talked every night at 8pm. To say that we have come to know each other would be an understatement…we have become brothers. To some, such a connection sounds strange. But isn’t connectional joy always strange? We live in a society of moving parts instead of a connected integral moving community. In our society, it seems as if the worst thing that a person can learn to be is their self. Through deep connection, Anthony has learned to be who he is…who he was created by God to be. Isn’t the potential for connection enough to keep us from killing him? The potential for connectional joy? How are we going to be better after Anthony is dead? We won’t. We will be worse. We will have lost him and a part of ourselves. We will have lost connection and the possibility of joy.
Currently, I’ve made the decision to pilgrimage across Oklahoma, walking from Death Row in McAlester to the Governor’s Office in Oklahoma City (over 120 miles), to be a physical reminder that Anthony Sanchez is capable of both connection and joy. To declare with my physical body that if you kill him you will be killing a part of me. The potential for connection and joy is the cure for dying while we’re alive. I know. I feel it now more than ever. If you want to feel it, join me in fighting to stop the execution of Anthony Sanchez.