by Michael T. McRay
The following is a revised version of comments Michael shared on a panel discussion at the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee on June 19, 2014, as well as a blog post for Red Letter Christians.
Over the last year, Tennessee has appeared often in national news after it decided in April 2014 to bring back the electric chair as a possible means of execution. As a Tennessee citizen, teacher, Christian, and abolitionist, this was and remains abhorrent. Not only should we denounce the electric chair, but we should also reject the notion of execution altogether.
Myriad arguments can be made against capital punishment. One could speak of the economic issues, pointing out that the majority of “death row” inmates come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. Or one could note that the death penalty costs the taxpayers far more money than even housing inmates on life without parole charges.
One could denounce the death penalty on racial grounds, explaining that a defendant is more than three times as likely to face the death penalty for killing a white person as a defendant accused of murdering a person of color. This country has built itself on favoritism for light-skinned bodies, a reality visible not only in state executions (whether in prison or by police), but also in the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and modern-day mass incarceration, a progression brilliantly exposed in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
One could also speak to the significant flaws in capital punishment, noting that, according to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, 4% of death row inmates are in fact innocent.
One could even reject the death penalty on religious grounds. Like many here in the Buckle of the Bible Belt, I come out of the Christian tradition. And as my friend Shane Claiborne has said, this is a tradition that holds to the dual conviction that none of us are above reproach or beyond redemption. In a state where over 80% of the population claims to be Christian, I am shocked that last year’s electric chair bill passed in the House 68-13 – on the day before Good Friday, no less – a day when Christians remember the death of Jesus, who was also executed on death row.
Not only must pro-death-penalty Christians wrestle with the fact that we follow an executed Christ, but our Scriptures also contain such figures as the Apostle Paul, formerly known as Saul, a man whom the Early Church would likely have considered as “Public Enemy Number 1”. He dragged Christians out of their homes to beat, imprison, and stone to death. If Saul lived in Tennessee today, he would certainly be on death row–unless of course he could afford a top-notch lawyer and was only convicted of killing black people.
But many Christians venerate Saul, who through an encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus, converted to a new way of living and, taking the name Paul, became what many call the “greatest missionary of the Church.” I remain baffled at how we can proclaim the story of Paul and the possibility of grace and redemption for everyone, but then turn to those on “death row” and clarify, “Well, everyone except you…”
Because this is in fact what we are saying when we execute other humans, that they exist beyond the possibility of redemption and transformation. “Sure,” we might say, “Paul orchestrated the killing of numerous Christians. Yes, King David so objectified and lusted after Bathsheba’s body that he used his power to have her husband Uriah killed so that David could quench his craving. But they are different.” We rightly believe killing is wrong, but then ironically demonstrate that by killing those who have killed to show others that killing is wrong.
I believe we are able to operate under this warped logic for two primary reasons. First, we have bought into the myth of single stories; and second, because we have an un-nuanced and fairly uncritical view of justice.
In an eloquent TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells us that single stories are stories that depict only one side to a person or an event. Our media narrates single stories about all kinds of people: Arabs are violent, Muslims are terrorists, immigrants are threatening, poor people are lazy, etc. These single stories produce stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes, Adichie explains, is not that they are necessarily untrue, but rather that they are incomplete. There’s more to the story.
Our criminal justice system, however, thrives off single stories. Our judicial process cares very little (if at all) for the complexity of the accused. We look to assign blame: Did he or she commit the act in question? Are they guilty? Our system is one that often judges people (sometimes forever) for the worst thing they did on the worst day of their lives. Though the theology of Christianity that pervades this state, region, and country is supposedly one of scandalous mercy and forgiveness, we do not extend it in any practical, tangible terms for those convicted of crimes. We have written single stories of these individuals, often in the form of three or four sentence paragraphs in the local news section of our papers, and we accept these reduced narratives as truth. “What more do we need to know?”
I think the first task then, as we consider the values and interests that uphold capital punishment, is to rehumanize our perceptions of those behind the walls. Single stories dehumanize, because they reduce and simplify humans. Human beings are complex; we tend to live in flux, always in a state of becoming. To see the other as human, we must see him or her as complex. We must cultivate a kind of sacred curiosity, an open-minded inquisitiveness that seeks to learn and acknowledge the multiplicity, complexity, and dynamic quality of the other. Creating such a space for storytelling and story-hearing does not guarantee forgiveness, love, or even acceptance of the other, but it carries great potential to foster empathy, that vital exercise where we come to see the world through the other’s particular lenses. It is through empathy that we may find ourselves converted from old prejudices to new ones, ones altered by new faces, new names, new stories, and new relationships.
This has certainly rung true in my experience. Meeting and befriending people in prison transformed them in my mind from constructs of my imagination to companions of conversation, from lifeless black and white ink to life-filled black and white musicians, philosophers, theologians, and comedians.
I had been visiting prison regularly for two years before I ever walked into Unit 2, or “death row,” at Riverbend here in Nashville. My chest was tight with anxiety. I suppose I expected to see the “monsters” of television dramas and horror films. That’s not what I saw. I met men with whom I shared similar insecurities, fears, beliefs, accents, loves, histories, aspirations. When I served as a volunteer chaplain at Riverbend before being banned from the institution, I often attended a Friday-noon prayer service with death row inmates, where we prayed for the abolition of the death penalty. I believe that when you sit around a table with a group of people, holding hands and praying in common, you can no longer advocate for their murder. I suspect this is why Governor Haslam has not accepted the invitation of men on death row to come pray with them.
Because the reality is, proximity affects ethics. Our conception about what is just changes the closer we are to the offense, whether to the wrong-sufferer or the wrongdoer. If it is our loved one who has been killed, raped, attacked, then our view of justice will likely be more demanding, more final, than if it was our loved one who was facing the jury. I suspect many of us who condone capital punishment might begin to reevaluate our justice paradigm if it was our son, our daughter, our friend or parent who suddenly found him or herself awaiting the jury’s verdict. But everyone on death row belongs to somebody. That is someone’s child.
And while the death penalty is a serious and immediate issue that requires address, it is only part of the larger crisis – that of mass incarceration, a systemic disease in this country that results both from our racist heritage and ideologies, as well as our destructive justice paradigm. We understand crime to mean a violation of the state’s laws, and not a violation of human relationships. Thus, we say justice occurs through punishment and pain for breaking the state’s laws, rather than through the collaboration of all affected parties to find a solution that lends itself toward healing and reconciliation.
Perhaps we should ask the question, “Where should justice lead us?” If we want societies of wholeness, health, peace, and security, should we not advocate for a justice that heals and restores, rather than dehumanizes and divides?
We should look for a justice system that liberates rather than enslaves, that seeks to create life rather than destroy it.