“The Fight for Anthony Sanchez”: Last Minute Reflections on the Death of God and an Innocent Man
“IS GOD DEAD?” Yes. I’ve seen it. For over a decade, I’ve worked with those whom our society has chosen to execute. I believe that God inhabits the least of these. I believe that God has died repeatedly…and we are the culprits of such a moral catastrophe. It takes courage to allow the mind and heart to journey to such a disturbing place. How can a dead God be worth believing in? On the contrary, perhaps a dead God is the only God worth believing in. Like the woman who reached out for the garment of God and was healed, sometimes it takes weaving through clarity to find something worth grasping for.
Dead Gods are strange teachers. The lessons they teach are not always clear. But like the woman found out, healing doesn’t usually come from the clarity of rational behavior. You see, only the courageous get to be healed. The ones who choose to touch the dead.
Courage is an interesting cultural phenomenon. It’s sort of a linguistical mirage. Everybody talks about it…but nobody seems to actually know the fullness of what they’re describing. It is partial devoid of perfect. I’ve known partial. Then, I was surprised by the perfect.
Jesus the very incarnation of God is drowning in a world of fear and sorrow. Knowing that society is determined to kill him, Jesus asks those that he trusts to sit and watch with him…to engage what is to come…to be present…deadly present.
Sexual assault and murder are obviously not phenomenon one should look past. When I met Anthony Sanchez, I assumed that I was meeting someone who had sexually assaulted and murdered a beautiful young woman named Juli Busken. Even though Sanchez passionately claimed otherwise, I assumed that he was full of shit. He certainly wouldn’t have been the first guy on death row I’d met who was. I was wrong. Time has revealed new truths. If we open our hearts, new truths can reveal to us the fullness of God.
I investigated for myself. I read the transcripts. I engaged the witnesses. I sought out experts. Slowly, I came to a surprising conclusion…there was an innocent man on death row in Oklahoma. Injustice was metastasizing by the day. I knew that it was my duty to sit and watch with him…to stand guard against an approaching moral catastrophe.
In Gethsemane, Jesus knew that he was the victim of a society determined to extract blood from an innocent man. Throughout human history, people seem determined to destroy that which is righteous and just. Instead of fleeing, Jesus remained in the Garden. On his knees, Jesus prays in anguish, “Is there any other way?” The forces of evil were at the gate.
From the beginning, Anthony Sanchez has known that his execution is more than possible. When people on death row find their backs against the wall, most are willing to say or do whatever it takes to save their life. I’ve seen it…repeatedly. Sanchez is different. From the beginning, he told me that he was not going to compromise his claims of innocence under any circumstance. He hasn’t.
Consistently, Sanchez has hated his attorneys. Repeatedly, they’ve proven unwilling or incapable of fighting for his innocence, even going for almost six years without communicating with him at one point. One of the cruel twists of fate in our system is that justice is something to be bought and if you don’t have the means then you are stuck with the attorneys you have. Such legal hopelessness never deterred Sanchez from maintaining that he was an innocent man.
When the possibility of execution came up, Sanchez told me that he would rather die than waiver in his declaration of innocence. I believe him. Surely, no life is not worth living if you lose your soul in the process. The more that I heard the more that I realized what my job was…remain steadfast in supporting Sanchez in his convictions while doing all that I can to save his life.
Jesus offered no physical resistance. He simply questioned the process, proclaimed his innocence and demanded justice. Injustice has a way of creating insurmountable processes amid assumptions or assignments of guilt. Unquestionably, Oklahoma is one of the epicenters of injustice.
In recent months, Anthony Sanchez has shown unbelievable courage. When he realized that the clemency process would involve an extrajudicial process that declared him to be a monster, his own attorneys refusal to advocate wholeheartedly for his innocence and his participation in a process insurmountably stacked against him, Sanchez decided to reject the opportunity. Even if it meant that he was giving up an opportunity to beg for his life, Sanchez was going to stick with his convictions. Repeatedly he has declared, “l will not participate in a hearing that demands that I act guilty.”
Unable to comprehend the inaction of his attorneys in any other way, Sanchez came to the belief that they wanted him to be executed. Even if that isn’t true, there seems to be little doubt that all trust was gone. Instead of simply rolling over and taking their neglect, Sanchez made the decision to fire them, even if that meant acting as his own attorney in the final months of his life. Repeatedly he has declared, “I refuse to stand with anyone who will not stand with me.” It is important to note that Sanchez is not dense to what his decisions could mean. The possibility of his execution looms large over every decision he makes. However, that’s not his primary concern. Repeatedly, Sanchez has declared, “I would rather die standing on my feet in the knowledge of my innocence than begging on my knees for something that I didn’t do.”
Jesus knew what was likely. Unwaveringly, Jesus refused to move or even beg for his life. His convictions mattered much more to him than his life.
The parallels between Jesus’ Gethsemane moment to Sanchez’s current moment are too stark to be ignored. No matter what the cost, Jesus stuck by his principles, even to his detriment. Presently, the decisions that Sanchez has made are based on his principles, even to his possible detriment. Sanchez is an innocent man who refuses to act like a guilty one. He demands justice and justice alone. Sometimes, courage is not a mirage.
In those final hours, the disciples were told to watch and pray. Anthony Sanchez is asking the same of you. Do not fall asleep. Stay awake with us.
God doesn’t have to die.