The warden saved the gas chamber for the last. I was in San Quentin State Prison only by our Chapel Choir being on on a west coast tour and I having writing ahead for a personal tour on the basis of taking the Wheaton course on criminology. (I guess I presented my request rather presumptuously because he seemed to presume upon my letter that I was the professor.)
The choir had made our way down from Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland to the Bay area. My appointment came between our church concert in Oakland and another in San Francisco. I rented a car and taking three guys with me, we drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County and to San Sausalito. (I tried to act professorial, and let him assume these other choir members were my students.)
The assistant warden kindly gave us a surprisingly thorough tour and answered our earnest questions thoughtfully. In the gas chamber, now, he pointed to the one-way glass window beyond which witnesses sit. He rehearsed the protocol and demonstrated the procedure.
A chemical capsule is placed on a lid beneath the seat in which the condemned prisoner is strapped. When the warden gives his signal, the lid drops and the capsule falls into a vial of another chemical. A reaction results, which generates the lethal gas. And that’s it.
With this, he studied our facial expressions and bodily motions. I don’t know what he saw, but I remember how I felt. As if this weren’t enough, he concluded: “Cute little gas chamber we have here, isn’t it?”
A “cute” gas chamber? I had already visited the electric chairs in Cook County and Statesville. Earlier, were gallows. There have been firing squads, the guillotine, and various devices of execution—none “cute” or any other euphemistic or dismissive adjective.
That evening, back in a pleasant San Francisco church, we sang ever so sweetly, as we had throughout the tour, a beautiful choral arrangement of Isaac Watts’ already lovely “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” What had previously been routine struck me profoundly: a wondrous cross? A cute gas chamber, a wonderful electric chair?
When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride…
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thrones compose so rich a crown?
A monstrous incongruity, this: a wondrous cross. An oxymoron, as they like to say, “of biblical proportions.” Indeed, biblical; precisely biblical.
One day in all of history on one ordinary hill in the midst of many hills, one man who appeared no different from any in the gawking crowd hung on a cross exactly like those thousands erected all throughout the Roman Empire to execute the vilest criminals. On this one cross that one day two thousand years ago, a promise was kept and lives were forever changed on that — here it is — wondrous Cross.
On this one cross, on this one man there was laid forever all the sins of every man alive on every continent and all the sins of every man who had ever lived anywhere and all the sins of every man who would ever yet live wherever—and everything changed.
Never a “cute” gas chamber, but forever the wondrous Cross. Now George Bennard:
…And I love that old cross…
has a wondrous attraction for me…
a wondrous beauty I see…
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.