Killing and the Myth of Closure

Almost all occurrences of the word "closure" in American public life are questionable and even worrisome, especially because the word is most often deployed after a killing. In addition to ample empirical data that execution rarely affords closure for victims' families, Christians have special theological reasons to be concerned about the myth of closure through murder, state sanctioned or otherwise.

"Closure" has emerged once more in public conversation, this time surrounding the execution of Osama bin Laden. Numerous voices in the media have used the term when arguing that public celebrations were a sign of closure brought about by bin Laden's death.

Most recently, Rep. Duncan Hunter [R] has called for the release of bin Laden's death photos arguing that they would bring "closure" to the families of 9/11 victims. What precisely is meant by closure in this context? Can killing or evidence of killing (i.e. gruesome photos of a mutilated bin Laden) bring closure?

Before we can answer this question, we must first launch a conversation in which we think collectively about what we mean by the term itself. This hard question must be posed because the term is routinely employed to justify capital punishment: execution purportedly brings "closure" to bereaved families who live to see their beloved's murderer suffer capital punishment.

So, does closure mean that a prolonged season of mourning can now come to a close, since the disruptions inaugurated by the original event of wounding are no longer with us? Does it mean that fundamental psychological and spiritual needs of survivors and the families of victims are now met and brought to resolution? Can it mean that those wounded can now return to the world as it was before loss and violence?

The empirical data suggests otherwise. Studies on families of those who have suffered violent loss suggest that an execution does little to move these families toward a new level of health and functionality, even though they may be active campaigners for capital punishment. Michelle Goldberg, writing in Salon in response to the furor generated when Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death penalty sentences of 167 death row prisoners, argued, "No psychological study has ever concluded that the death penalty brings 'closure' to anyone except the person who dies, and there's circumstantial evidence that it can prolong the suffering of grieving families."

Apart from social scientific studies, most of us intuitively suspect that healing and resolution are unlikely to magically arrive as a consequence of execution. It's hard to imagine, for example, how any family who has lost a child to murder can ever find "closure" when the murderer is executed. Trauma just is the sort of event that is never entirely resolved, something that we are never over and done with.

Christians have a special reason to find talk of closure to be uncongenial and unpersuasive. At the heart of Christian narratives is the wanton execution by the Roman state of an innocent man. That should, in itself, make Christians wary of state-sanctioned killing. But what is most striking about Christian narratives is that even the resurrection of Jesus does not bring closure.

Particularly in the resurrection story as narrated by the Gospel of John, Jesus' resurrected body remains unbounded and open to the world. To Thomas, who doubts what he is seeing, Jesus says, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe" (John 20:20). Not even the resurrected Christ possesses a closed body, a body free from evidence of wounds received. Thomas can stick his hand into it. This most mysterious of narratives suggests that not even the risen Christ and hence the divine life finds "closure." New life, yes; closure, no.

Perhaps then the church that seeks to be the body of Christ should forgo the quest for closure but seek instead to be a community that longs for healing transformation, not by ignoring its own wounds but by transfiguring those wounds into sites of and for communion.

As for the nation, can it be that our work does not rest in the futile attempt to close the traumatic wound -- and surely not by way of violence -- but in a strange alchemy wherein those places in our lives that have been painfully ruptured might become sites of deeper connection to others? Perhaps new life comes not from closure but from our arrival at a fragile, tentative moment in which the unsought for and undesired wound becomes for us a resource for deeper relationships?

What might this moment look like with respect to bin Laden's death? Perhaps now, Americans can recognize from widespread expressions of relief from mainstream Muslim communities, that we no longer need to ask the unproductive question, "Why do they, Muslim terrorists (the latter word is often intentionally left out to justify a clash of civilizations), hate us, Americans?"

Rather, Americans should recognize that "they" have more reason for peace of mind than "we" do. After all, Islamic extremists have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims! With that recognition, perhaps Americans might also call into question how we demarcate the lines between "us" and "them," especially when such demarcations tacitly assume or explicitly assert that American Muslims are not genuinely American. Such healing of our national body may not amount to closure, but it might mean that our wounds can now lead to healing and perhaps even new life.