Hanging Between Heaven and Earth

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

December 2, 2012

The First Parish of Watertown


Opening Words   Psalm 8

O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth! You, who have set such glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouth of babes and children come words telling of your strength, and those words silence any who would oppose you.

When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained;

What are mere mortals, that you should care for them, and human beings that you are mindful of them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honour.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; and have put all things under their feet:

All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;

The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, and everything that swims through the ocean tides.

O Lord our Lord, your majesty fills the earth!





My reading is an excerpt from a memoir written in 1892, by a man who had spent the previous six years as the hangman in the north of England.  He was the first literate man to hold the position.  Before I share his words, I’d like read a few lines from the diary of a French executioner, Anatole Deibler, who kept the position for over forty years – working until 1940. The French tradition was beheading rather than hanging, and Deibler prided himself on being able to do the deed more quickly than he could say “guillotine.” This entry from 1933 is about a 24 year old convicted of murder: “The day of his execution he was very surprised. He thought he would win a reprieve. When the prosecutor went up to him, he stopped him and said: ‘I know, I know. You’re going to ask me to be brave. I will be.’ He got dressed calmly…Whilst his hands were being tied behind his back, he said: ‘It’s cold this morning. I don’t want to catch a chill…’


And here, our English man’s words:

Personally I had a great distaste for the work of the executioner, though I did not consider it in any way dishonourable or degrading, and I had to weigh my family’s financial needs against my personal inclination….   I was convinced that I could do the work as well as anyone, and that I could make practical improvements in some of the methods and somewhat improve the lot of those appointed to die. This last consideration finally decided me, that, and the fact that some neighbors opposed my appointment, saying it would disgrace a respectable family…


I spent the Thursday night before my first execution smoking and reading in the little room at the back of the jail kept for the executioner. The chief warder seemed to touch upon the subject with great reluctance, and said that he felt quite upset concerning the two culprits, and that he hoped they would get a reprieve. I could see in his countenance a deep expression of grief…  Before bed, I knelt and asked the Lord for strength to perform my duty.


In the morning, breakfast was brought into my room, and later the magistrates came to see me and review my plans…. After they departed, I filled my time walking about the prison grounds, and thinking of the poor men who were nearing their end, full of life, and knowing the fatal hour, which made me quite ill to think about. My meals did not seem to do me good, my appetite began to fall off, nothing felt good to me, everything that I put into my mouth felt like sand, and I felt as I wished 1 had never undertaken such an awful calling. I regretted for a while, and then I thought the public would only think I had not the pluck, and I would not allow my feelings to overthrow me, so I never gave way to such thoughts again.


After dining, I had the honour of having a drive in an open carriage, . . . which I enjoyed,  after being inside the prison gates since my arrival on  Thursday. … Then I learned that a reprieve was refused, and the law was to take its course, which made me feel as bad as the condemned men for a time. But I drove it out of my mind. … I retired to bed after reciting my prayers, and thinking only another night and I shall be back with my wife and children. Saturday night I was very restless, and I did not feel so much refreshed for my night’s sleep, as I was thinking of the poor creatures who were slumbering their hours away, in the prison cell, just beyond where I lay, thinking of the dreadful fate that awaited them in such a short space of time. Two men, in full bloom, and had to come to such an untimely end, leaving wives and large families.  One poor woman, I was informed, her mind was so affected that she was removed to the asylum, she took it so to heart. …


I retired but only had catnaps all night one eye shut and the other open, thinking and fancving things that never will be, and which is impossible. I was dressed and up at 5 a.m.; and felt more dead than alive as I had such a responsible part to play in the programme for the day. I fancied the ropes breaking; I fancied I was trembling, and could not do it ; I fancied I fell sick just at the last push. I was nearly frantic in my mind, but I never let them know. 6 a.m. arrived. I heard the sound of the keys, clattering of doors, sliding of bolts. Breakfast had to be served earlier than usual. No prisoner allowed out of his cell until all was over. The public had begun to assemble on Calton Hill in groups. 7 a.m. arrived. I made my way to the scaffold, and the principal warder locked the door, not to be opened again until the procession enters for the great event of the day.  . . At 7-45 the living group wended their way to the prison, and into the doctor’s room, ready for the last scene of the drama. The prisoners were brought face to face for the first time since their conviction. They kissed each other; and the scene was a very painful one, to see mates going to meet their end on the gallows. I was called to do my duty.  I then proceeded to pinion the prisoners, previously shaking hands, bidding good-bye to this World. Both men seemed to feel the position very much. The procession was formed, headed by the High Bailiff, the Chaplain reading the litany for the dead. Both the prisoners walked without assistance to place of execution; where everything was done as quick as lightning, and both culprits paid the highest penalty of the law. . . . The magistrates, and doctors, and even the pressmen, admitted that the execution of the two men had been carried out in an humane  manner as possibly could be, and that the poor fellows  had not suffered the slightest pain…  As this was my first execution, I was naturally anxious to have an assurance from my employers that it had been satisfactorily carried out.




Sermon:  Hanging Between Heaven and Earth


Last May, Bob Shay was out riding his bike on a Sunday afternoon, meditating upon what he had heard in church that morning.  It seems the message had been promoting the feeling of kinship among all people, which made Bob wonder what to do about people we don’t want to feel a kinship with.  To quote the man himself, “I got to thinking about UU’s problems in dealing with the concept of evil and evil people (there are no evil people, only people whose behavior, for various understandable reasons, leaves much to be desired….).”  I wondered what would happen “if we had a show of hands at a Sunday service: how many people…, if having to make the decision whether to order the killing a massively evil person – Bin Laden, Hitler, Saddam etc., with only the choice of ordering the killing or not – with no due process but also no worry about collateral damage etc,  would say do it.”  On one level, Bob’s interest in the topic was a simple one: he likes to provoke and get people thinking, and he believes that we have a broader range of beliefs in this congregation than we may think.  On another level, it is complicated.  He reported bringing his internal dialogue to the dinner table, whereupon a genuinely unpleasant argument with his spouse developed.  The conversation ranged freely over issues of evil, capital punishment, slippery slopes, and logic.  Then it was turned over to me, to resolve in fifteen minutes or less.


I would like to say that the church service auction this year included some conflict resolution training by Robert Kubacki, and I wondered if I could purchase that workshop and offer it to Bob and consider my work here done….


When Bob and I met to talk about what he was hoping for, it seemed the topic grew and spread out rather than becoming focused.  But that makes sense.  It is a big issue, and it is one that tends to quickly become emotional.  In figuring out how to cope with evil, we have to define it and ask how it comes into the world.  Do we blame God, the devil, other people, accidents, or nature?  Once we decide who or what is to blame, then what?  It’s not as if you can eradicate nature, or put an end to all tragic accidents, and it seems to me blaming God or Satan doesn’t get us too far, either.  But blaming other people….  Well, that is something we can act on: Should we exterminate people who violate our understanding of what it means to be human?  Unitarian Universalists, as Bob implied in his comments about not dealing with evil, generally say no.  Most religions outside of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Islam do. But in a way, arguing for or against the death penalty obscures the question.  We end up talking about the law itself, the morality of the law instead of the…..   what noun shall I use?  Sinner? Criminal? Evil-doer?  Human?  When we are talking personally about evil, the focus is generally on coping.  How do we learn to live after great suffering and terrible injustice has been visited upon us or those we love?  What will help us regain ourselves, or a sense of security?   But publicly, the conversation is about the law, and this distances us from the most painful parts of figuring out how to live in a highly imperfect world.  Legal processes grant us a secure frame for questions of evil, but they also make it seem as if the way we look at those questions is ordained, and represents a permanent vision of justice.


Both our French and our British executioners worked with incredible efficiency in order to bring some humanity into a legal process that was inevitable and immutable.  But of course laws change.  Let’s turn to something that doesn’t change: The Bible.  It starts with a story that deals with the consequences of knowing good and evil.  The traditional interpretation of what happened in Eden is that disobedience caused the problem; that evil is a punishment and could have been avoided if Eve had not ignored God’s instructions.  God told her not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but she plucked the fruit anyway, and offered it to Adam.  I actually really like this story, and I think it can be helpful, as long as we can forget the way it has been construed. To me, this story is not about disobedience and anger and punishment; it is about the suffering that comes with awareness.  Adam and Eve are put in a position where they must make choices.  Even if they do not eat the forbidden fruit, they can’t escape knowing that the tree is there.  It was specifically pointed out to them. Psalm 8, our opening words, sums up the first three chapters of Genesis: the heavens are created, and dry land, and fish and trees and flowers and animals, evidently including a talking reptile, and then people, who are given dominion over all of it.  The psalmist asks, why are we different from the rest of creation?  Even in Eden, Adam begins to understand the burden of that responsibility.  He and Eve are one step removed.  They don’t get to play by the law of the jungle, because they have to think about consequences.  Humanity is different because it is made in God’s image, and is a little lower than the angels, which sounds nice, until you think about it.  Hovering just above the earth, we can see the problems – the suffering and the dangers – but what can we do?  What needs protecting and what should be banished?   That is what God has to wrestle with after placing Adam and Eve in the Garden.  It doesn’t go so well.  First God lies a little in an effort to keep them from straying, and when that doesn’t work, God casts them out forever, cursing them all the way.  And the message is that we are going to have to struggle in very similar ways.


We try not live this way – the avoidance, the threats, the disowning.  So when someone commits an atrocity we begin looking at what happened to cause that behavior, as if chasing it down to its roots will make it all go away, and we will be restored to peace and harmony and the natural order of things.  But the problem with that is that the natural order of things is brutal.  The hero of Yann Martel’s novel, The Life of Pi, is the child of a zookeeper who is frustrated with people’s ideas about nature.  He says  “One might argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, with its absence of parasites and enemies, and the abundance of food…. But ….I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”


Bob’s question addressed this illusion by sidestepping, and by not looking for causes: If you were free to get rid of a terrorist, with no legal or social repercussions, would you do it?  My informal observation is that we have a schizophrenic response.  A frustrated, emotional reaction says “Yes.” That’s how I feel about half the time I read the paper. Last week I heard my spouse mutter “Why can’t we just shoot him?” in reference to the man who murdered ten year old Jeffrey Curley fifteen years ago.  Charles Jaynes, the convicted killer, was in court petitioning for a legal name change so he could better practice his new religion.  I can think of several other cases that provoke a similar reaction in me.  I certainly did not shed any tears when the Navy SEALS shot bin Laden in his walled fortress.  Yet the signs during the run-up to the election proclaiming, “Osama is dead and GM is alive” made me uncomfortable.


This is the other half of my schizophrenic answer, which is to say No.  Given time for premeditation, I wouldn’t order someone killed.  Legal freedom does not grant me moral freedom.  I understand the futility of applying reason to terrorists, of expecting anything to be fair or sensible.  But I still couldn’t actually do it.

I have been plagued by thoughts of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery while contemplating what to say this morning.  It is a story about a community that keeps itself unified and tied to its past by staging an annual drawing in which the townsperson who chooses the marked slip of paper is stoned to death by everyone else. It is a haunting, compelling story that, to me, echoes the Biblical idea of a scapegoat – the animal on whom all the sins are placed, which is then driven out into the wilderness to die.  But in this story, they take a person and place her or him in the middle of the community, and everyone hurls rocks at the chosen one until all that is left is a heap among the stones.  This is also the Genesis story upside down.  Shame becomes a binding force as everyone participates in the tradition, and because of that, can never leave.  Because the community is perfect, you aren’t supposed to want to, but the point is that they can’t.  Because they cannot see good and evil, they remain imprisoned in Eden.  Their desperation to keep things the same means the only permanent feature of living there is ritualized violence.


Jackson and her husband, who was Jewish, lived in North Bennington, Vermont, and this story was written in 1948: the beginning of the Red Scare. Jackson said she wanted to dramatize how pointless violence and general inhumanity were used to keep people out, and that seemingly ideal places were often quite uncomfortable. Her children reported setting out of the house at first light to head for school, and seeing swastikas painted on their car windshield. Ralph Ellison said visiting their home was always tense– although welcomed inside, the streets he needed to take to get there were treacherous for a black man.  Jackson got many, many letters about this story, and protesters cancelled their New Yorker subscriptions.  But among all the outrage and discomfort, the most frequent question she was asked was where to go to watch the stonings.  Sickening, perhaps, but Puritan New England actually insisted that public executions preserved communal health.  I should say that the Puritans did not invent public execution – that was a British import, and it was less frequent here than in Europe.  But the Puritans did invent the idea of making meaning of it, and preaching a sermon at the event, expecting the condemned to take his or her role in the public morality play.


A straight up getting rid of a known killer of thousands who remains a threat sounds like a no-brainer.  It is not the same as the annual lottery or even the condemned criminal on the gallows.  But while we may breathe a sigh of relief when a determined terrorist is no more, it is not inspiring.  I don’t feel better.  I think it adds a bit to the hopelessness about anything ever changing.  Not all deaths are like that. A generation ago, there were students in Tiananmen Square, mowed down by the government.  It was horrifying, and we quickly knew the world was going to change in response.  Not overnight, not fast enough, but change came.  Last February, young Arab Muslims were chanting “We are peaceful, we are peaceful.” Many of them did so knowing that they would be killed, and they were.  These are deaths carry a moral urgency rather than a resignation.  They are sacrifices that are also a preservation of conscience and will as human qualities that matter, even in this crazy world.  I read once, I think in an essay by Robert Calasso, that the most destructive idea that humanity has ever come up with is the notion of creating a good society.  As soon as we are trying to do that, we are getting ready to exclude, and annihilate.  The only way to have a good society is to adapt, let things evolve, grow and change.  We can’t force it, and we need to take the long view.  We can’t create heaven on earth.  That’s part of what it means to be hanging, a little lower than the angels.


Berry, the hangman, became famous for calculating the length of rope to match the convict’s height and weight, and ensure the quickest snap of the neck.  He was truly invested in minimizing suffering.  But what really interested me was the way Berry squelched his own gut reaction to the job.  He says he had a great distaste for the work.  He was considering the job because he needed the income, and found polite society’s readiness to shun him painful and hypocritical, so he thumbed his nose at them and took the position.  These people employed him.  They relied on the legal system to execute transgressors and make the area safe.  Many assembled on the hill above the prison to watch.  But like Berry himself, they considered the work distasteful, and they considered him and his family as marked by shame because of it.  We ask people to kill in order to promote justice, but nobody wants to be friends with a killer.  We’d really rather not know.[1]


One of the great and terrible things about the internet is that you can research forever.  I was able to learn more about Berry.  It turns out that a famous Pentecostal evangelical used a story about the hangman in a sermon.  Berry came to believe that capital punishment was wrong – although he never mentioned criminals, who he seemed to believe were all guilty.  His reasoning was that the state had participated in destroying him by allowing him to become an executioner.  In fact, Berry had become so miserable that he was suicidal.  He was convinced that he was possessed by legions of demons – the souls of the men he had executed, which escaped from their dying bodies and jumped into his own.  He was haunted by their voices in his head, and tried to throw himself out of a moving train, but was instead saved by a young religious man, who started bringing Berry on the salvation circuit with him.


Liberal religion is sometimes criticized for its adoption of the idea that we are like God – or, in today’s language, that all people have inherent worth and dignity. It can be seen as a denial of our capacity for evil and proof of a certain kind of arrogance.  The same is said about dominion, about putting humans in charge of creation.  But I think these very same statements are instead humbling.  They mean that we are forced to grapple with responsibility and pain of enormous proportion.  Everything is part of the creation and we are charged with caring for it and keeping it whole.  This isn’t something that happens at a global level or a national one or even a legal one.  It is about the way we live our own lives and the choices we make.  Berry’s journey testifies to the reality of moral injury; to the damage done when core human values are violated.  He was cast adrift, no longer safe even in his own head, even as worked to create safety for his community.   The dead are not necessarily silenced.  But something in us dies.


Because religions exist to serve the whole, we don’t get to kill off anyone in order to feel safer or less frustrated.  Instead, we help each other cope with the reality that terrible, horrific things do happen, and sometimes by our own hand, even sometimes for good reason.  We cannot protect everyone, but we can provide comfort and encouragement and keep trying to do the right thing.  Sometimes we do that by not trying too hard; by not controlling everything, by not believing we can make it all come out the way we think it should.  Near the end of the Odyssey, the hero arrives in Phaecia, where he is given a boat.  It has no pilot, and Odysseus is alone – all of his sailors are dead, lost in his various battles.  The ship has no rudder.  This does not sound good.  Yet the boat is magical.  It simply understands where he needs to go, and can travel through mist and fog with no danger, because the Phaecian’s ships always take people where they most want to be.  Not where they think they should go, but where they want to be. There, Odysseus tells Penelope about all his grief, and everything that he forced his own men to succumb to, and how he was treated like a god and given a ship, so he could cross the sea and get home.  Home. “This was the last word of the tale, when sweet sleep came speedily upon him, sleep that loosens the limbs of men, unknitting the cares of his soul.”


We think the tale is over.  It sounds like the perfect stopping place.  But it goes on for just a little bit longer; just long enough for Athena to wake the hero, and call him out with his armor, and all his weapons.


Closing Words   Mohammed Hafez-e Shirazi  (14th century Persian poet)


I have come into this world to see this: the sword drop from men’s hands even at the height of their arc of rage because we have finally realized there is just one flesh we can wound.

[1]  Prior to the 1830s, execution had a public function that showed a community’s willingness to better itself by getting rid of the worst sinners.  This would ensure a future for the community, and the sinners were no different from anyone else, and in fact helped the community achieve salvation.  They also helped with medical care – for a very, very long time the only bodies that future doctors could use were those left after a public execution.  All others needed proper burial.  But in the nineteenth century, criminal behavior began to be seen as a matter of choice, made by someone who was fundamentally different from you and me.  It was no longer a lapse, or a giving in to temptation; it was a conscious choice, made by someone who had no communal role.  Capital punishment began being administered behind closed doors rather than in the public square.  We both needed to know that evil was being killed off, and needed not to see it.  The good should not know the bad.