Five-and-a-half years ago, I watched people who nearly lost their lives to murder dig a grave for a man who was convicted of and executed for murder.
I was a live-in volunteer at Jubilee Partners, a Christian intentional community in rural Georgia. Jubilee provides temporary housing, an ESL program, and cultural immersion experiences for refugees entering the United States. Over the summer I lived there, I had the privilege of knowing refugees from Myanmar–Karen, Karenni, and Chin people who were the target of government persecution. Many of them had lost their jobs and land, experienced sexual violence, and watched their families die.
In their shoes, I doubt I’d summon much mercy for anyone associated with murder. And yet one hot day in July, I watched these people, along with other residents of Jubilee, dig a grave for a man whom the state of Georgia had executed for murder. Sweat drenched the bodies of the gravediggers as they shoveled the heavy Georgia red dirt out of the hole they were digging.
The grave meant that the convicted murderer could be buried with greater dignity than he would be within the Georgia prison system, in concert with this man’s own desires. Any relatives who wanted to could easily visit his grave in peace and privacy.
I thought about that hot July day in Georgia when I heard that Dylann Roof, the shooter whose racist ideology motivated his deadly shooting spree in Charleston, had been sentenced to death. While it’s easy for me to oppose the death penalty in the abstract, in the concrete, Roof’s actions and ideology trigger a rage in me that made me not at all sorry to hear the news of his sentencing. If Roof’s execution were carried out, what kind of supernatural power could compel anyone of conscience to dig his grave?
In an often-overlooked story in II Samuel, David’s son Absalom has committed fratricide, killing his brother Amnon. David is furious, but he seeks counsel from a wise woman to discern whether he should seek Absalom’s life. The wise woman replies,
We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up. But God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from his presence (2 Sam. 14:14).
So often, Christians make a caricature of an “Old Testament God” who is distant, always angry, and merciless. They juxtapose the “Old Testament God” with a “New Testament God” made known in Jesus who offers grace and redemption. But the God we encounter here is one who is relentless in pursuing the worst that humanity has to offer. The God we find here offends us not because he is angry and merciless, but because he is relentless in attempting to gather all wrongdoers back into his presence.
A lot of people seem to die while still “banished from his presence,” still water spilled on the ground. And that seems counter to God’s intentions for humanity. But II Samuel challenges me to believe that as long as there is breath in our lungs (and maybe even after that), God is forever trying to reconcile each of us to himself…
…even presidents whose behavior and policies I find morally repugnant.
…even murderers who would kill my husband and daughter because of their race.
…even people whose lives fail to reflect the divine image as much as mine does.
When that reconciliation doesn’t happen, God mourns. God’s tears are the water spilled on the ground that cannot be gathered up. And maybe in those moments, God calls us to mourn along with him. We bury dead possibilities for reconciliation in hopes of a resurrection we can’t yet imagine.