Culture At Large

Declarations of love, even on death row

Johnathan Kana

“For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.”

Solomon’s poetic words came to mind as I viewed a work of digital art created by Darius Kazemi. Recently featured in The Atlantic, the piece consists of a black screen, against which white text fades in and out at predetermined intervals. Phrases are excerpted from the last words of executed Texas death row inmates, based upon a curious selection criterion: each contains the word “love.” It’s both hauntingly austere and profoundly beautiful.

For me, there’s a poignant congruity between Kazemi’s juxtaposition of love and death and the extravagant declaration of love’s permanence in Song of Songs. Both seem to hint at a virtue that transcends merely romantic notions of human love and relationships - something that steadfastly endures and ultimately conquers the horror of the grave. I detect flickers of this sentiment in the words of one condemned man: “I have known the love of a good woman, my wife.” Or in another’s promise just before breathing his last: “I’ll always remember you, and love you forever.” Perhaps the proximity of death somehow sharpens a sinner’s ability to perceive a luminous reality.

There’s a poignant congruity between Kazemi’s juxtaposition of love and death and the extravagant declaration of love’s permanence in Song of Songs.

The church has wrestled throughout its history with the canonical significance of Song of Songs, but an enduring evangelical tradition regards the romantic ecstasy between Solomon and his Shulamite bride as a portrait of the unfaltering, jealously passionate love with which God eternally elects to redeem sinners. The church shares the bride’s rapture, for the love of Christ overwhelms the power of the grave, wedding us to Him in a union more permanent than death. If there is any redeeming power in human love, it is in its ability to point us toward this Love of all loves - a love that reaches down into the darkness of a state prison and makes itself known even in the final utterances of those in whom sin has run its full course.

For many, Kazemi’s creation will be little more than a digital novelty. It may even elicit the scornful derision of others. Still, for me those words fading in and out on the screen symbolize how even the vilest offender retains a glimmering imprint of the divine image and therefore shares my claim upon the extravagant love of God in Christ. Whether the condemned individuals behind these words ultimately made peace with their Savior is not for me to know. But of this much I am certain: these statements represent creatures preparing to meet a Maker who is love; who for their sake took on human flesh and entered the death chamber ahead of them; who will not allow even their execution to separate them from Him.

“I love all of those on death row, and I will always hold them in my hands.” It seems only appropriate that this, one of the most surprising statements to appear on Kazemi’s palette, could equally well have belonged to Jesus himself.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Art, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Theology