On April 22, 2019, after years of work, SJR159 passed, which is the first step in making the abolition of slavery universal in Tennessee, with no exceptions. A friend in prison convinced me years ago that mass incarceration will never end until we can no longer apply slavery and involuntary servitude to those who are convicted of a crime. Four and a half years ago when I pledged that No Exceptions would lead the struggle for universal abolition, I was told by numerous individuals that it would never happen in Tennessee. It’s happening. Thank you to all of you who believed. Stay tuned though, we aren’t close to finished, this is the first step in a multi-year process in Tennessee, and once it is on the ballot we will need folks fighting for this constitutional amendment across the state. Additionally, we are taking this fight to the federal level. The 13th Amendment doesn’t actually abolish slavery as most of you know by now. In collaboration with other groups at the national level, we’re going to change that reality. A huge thank you to our partner in this struggle Rep. Joe Towns, who never quits; and also a big thank you to Sen. Akbari for working this through the Senate.
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.
On Good Friday 2015, we (Jeannie Alexander and Michael McRay) joined friends and con-spirators in a Citywide Stations of the Cross for #ReclaimHolyWeek in Nashville. Standing on Legislative Plaza, in the shadow of TDOC’S headquarters at the Rachel Jackson Building, we led the group through Station 8–Jeannie with a reflection, and Michael with a prayer.
Station 8: Jesus is hung on the cross to be crucified
Matthew 27:33-44The Message (MSG)
32-34 Along the way they came on a man from Cyrene named Simon and made him carry Jesus’ cross. Arriving at Golgotha, the place they call “Skull Hill,” they offered him a mild painkiller (a mixture of wine and myrrh), but when he tasted it he wouldn’t drink it.
35-40 After they had finished nailing him to the cross and were waiting for him to die, they whiled away the time by throwing dice for his clothes. Above his head they had posted the criminal charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Along with him, they also crucified two criminals, one to his right, the other to his left. People passing along the road jeered, shaking their heads in mock lament: “You bragged that you could tear down the Temple and then rebuild it in three days—so show us your stuff! Save yourself! If you’re really God’s Son, come down from that cross!”
41-44 The high priests, along with the religion scholars and leaders, were right there mixing it up with the rest of them, having a great time poking fun at him: “He saved others—he can’t save himself! King of Israel, is he? Then let him get down from that cross. We’ll all become believers then! He was so sure of God—well, let him rescue his ‘Son’ now—if he wants him! He did claim to be God’s Son, didn’t he?” Even the two criminals crucified next to him joined in the mockery.
On the day of Jesus’ state execution three criminals were crucified, not two. In reality, from the church and the states perspective Jesus had it coming. He was guilty of sedition. He was a criminal. We can look back now those of us who believe he was the son of God, or a prophet, and see him as holy and without fault, and sinless he may have been in relation to God, but not in relation to the state.
Jesus entered Jerusalem embracing the conflict, the fight, the arrest and unavoidable execution. Consider his own words:
Luke 12:49-53 The Message (MSG): “I’ve come to start a fire on this earth—how I wish it were blazing right now! I’ve come to change everything, turn everything rightside up—how I long for it to be finished! Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront! From now on, when you find five in a house, it will be— Three against two, and two against three; Father against son, and son against father; Mother against daughter, and daughter against mother; Mother-in-law against bride, and bride against mother-in-law.”
And in the Temple:
Matthew 21:12-17, The Message (MSG): 12-14 Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of loan sharks and the stalls of dove merchants. He quoted this text: My house was designated a house of prayer; You have made it a hangout for thieves.
From one place to the next he is having to duck out in the middle of the night to avoid being lynched. How does he refer to the religious leaders in his community? Brood of vipers charged with making the people twice the son of hell as they are. And in the end, fear, anger, confusion, and love all combine to form an initial plan of indeed buying swords, taking up arms. Jesus was a dangerous man. Crucifixion was a punishment Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition. The other two men crucified with Jesus were refered to in the Greek as “lestai” in English that has most often been translated as “thieves” but actually it meant “bandits” which was the most common designation for insurrectionist or rebel. Make no mistake, this was a revolution brewing.
Let me tell you about the dangerous men I call my brothers, friends, partner. Just as the Roman Empire created a state of systemic violence and corruption that resulted in insurrection of many forms, so too has the American Empire, the American nightmare created systems whereby the rational choice for many is to live outside that system, to live as outlaws. We howl Jesus’ innocence but sleep comfortably at night while a system of carceral slavery has exploded in this country, where we trade in human flesh and warehouse hundreds of thousands of men and women for life, who do not pose an ongoing threat to you or me. But they too are dangerous to empire. Black and brown bodies that bear witness to the war that empire brought to their homes, their communities, and their brother insurrectionists poor whites who too choke on violence, poverty and shame. Jesus the Son of God is also Jesus the insurrectionist, the rebel, the criminal. And we have cleaned him up and all but buried his message in order to sell him to the masses. But where does Jesus really stand? With the condemned who resisted a system of destruction, often meeting that system with their own violence? Or safe in the shadow of the flag pledging allegiance to machines of death and retribution, state machines that hold the monopoly on violence? Why is Jesus on the cross? Because that’s where his people are. – Rev. Jeannie Alexander
Prayer: In December 2013, Michael wrote this prayer after a devastating encounter doing chaplaincy work in the mental health pod of Riverbend Maximum Security Prison. He shared it after Jeannie’s reflection.
O God, come to our assistance. O Lord, make haste to help us.
Where are you? How come when we call in our hours of great distress, in our moments of deepest need, you do not answer?
Perhaps you too are weeping, crouched in the corner of your hallway, and can’t get up. Perhaps you too choke on your tears and can’t raise your voice. To know you also can be so shocked by our horribleness to each other that you cannot speak, to know that you also can be so traumatized by walking in hell that you must stop to weep, would give me some manner of peace.
God, mother and father of a broken people, if the system we’ve created baffles me, it must surely baffle you—for you are just, and this so-called “justice system” is not. It is hell; it is darkness and flame. It consumes those who get close; it brutalizes souls. The Scriptures say Christ came to set the prisoners free. But how long must we wait, O Lord, for it to be so?
Jesus, you said that when we encounter the least of these in prison, we encounter you. I try to believe that.
But was that really you in there? Was that really you the officers carried out of the unit to the ambulance? I didn’t expect you to look like that. I didn’t think you would have a razor in your hand. I didn’t think you would smear blood on your face while I talked with you. Have the principalities and powers really broken you so brutally that even you can’t resist the demons of despair, fury, and self-hatred? I knew you would be in prison, Lord. That’s why I came. But I didn’t think you would be in hell.
Days like that make me angry. I want to burn the place to the ground, and some days, I want all those responsible for it to burn too. Some days I wish for desolation. And I know you said to forgive them for they know not what they do. But sometimes I think they know.
So God, please, please, have mercy.
For our inhumanity to each other—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
For our condemnation and confinement of broken people to broken systems—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
For believing in punishment when transformation is needed—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
For abusing our power and creating suffering—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
For not always seeing the image of you in each human being—Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Breathe into us your spirit of loving kindness, of a justice kissed by mercy, and a truth met by peace. May we be as present as possible with each person we meet behind those horrid walls and on these lonely streets, and may we always remember that whatever we do for them, we do for you.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,