I had never felt so attractive. As I stood on a corner across from the federal killing facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, car after car drove by with people shouting or signaling that they wanted to fornicate with me. What could draw such a reaction?
Perhaps it was the inflammatory sign I was holding, which read “All life is precious.” Perhaps it was the group of nuns to my left holding signs with radical messages like “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Or perhaps many of these passers-by were so supportive of the federal government killing about to take place because they simply couldn’t imagine anything other than a violent reaction to violence.
Whatever motivated the shouts and signals from so many vehicles, it became clear to me in that moment that even if I knew nothing else about Jesus, I would rather be with the people of peace gathered on that corner than with the angry masses calling for death. Even if it was hard and unpopular, I would rather be the other voice.
I was there in Terre Haute to protest the fifth federal execution of 2020. As I write this there have been seven federal executions in 2020, meaning this administration has executed more prisoners than any since the Eisenhower administration. Given this administration’s preoccupation with being the biggest and best, I expect they will try and rush in a few more before the year is out. Much has already been said about the timing of these executions, some set to coincide with the party conventions and some set to happen immediately prior to the debates. It seems clear that the Trump campaign is trying to create a Willie Horton moment for his opponent, but despite this administration’s best efforts most of the country continues to move away from capital punishment, so the playbook from 1988 will likely have no impact.
Nonetheless, the Trump campaign’s intentions were laid bare immediately following the first federal execution of the year – one conducted illegally on an expired death warrant, in the middle of the night, with no notice to the condemned’s counsel – because mere hours after the execution concluded the campaign sent an email bragging about it. They wanted everyone to know right away that the Trump administration had gotten the federal government back in the killing business.
The conspicuous timing of these executions, made obvious by the Trump campaign’s immediate exploitation of them, belied other more subtle issues of timing that get harder and harder to see as coincidences. It’s bad enough that the administration hand-picked cases for execution as part of their campaign script, literally playing politics with human lives during this election year. It is even more horrifying that they were so intent on these executions happening on time per their script that they conducted the first two of them illegally, in the middle of the night, and in the first left a man strapped to the gurney for hours while legal wrangling took place. But we then saw a Navajo man executed in a gross violation of tribal sovereignty.
The federal government had used a bizarre loophole having to do with carjacking in order to sidestep tribal law and treaty obligations. The execution took place the day after Navajo Vice President Myron Lizer appeared at the Republican National Convention. One day Mr. Lizer is appearing at President Trump’s convention, the next day he and the Navajo President see one of their people killed against the wishes of the nation by President Trump’s administration. More recently, we have just seen a Messianic Jew, who was a teenager when he committed a terrible crime, killed by this administration in the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of our Jewish brothers and sisters expressed their disgust that two executions had been scheduled, and now carried out, during the Ten Days of Repentance. Beneath the obvious political timing of this year’s executions lies a clear contempt for the traditions of many in this country.
When I left my home and made the long drive to Terre Haute on August 28th, 2020, I didn’t go to protest the timing or the particulars of that case. In some ways it is easy to protest when the victim’s family opposes the execution or when there are significant questions of innocence. In some ways it is popular to protest in a case of clear violation of tribal sovereignty, when the condemned committed his crime as a teenager, or when there is an incredible story of redemption and transformation in the life of the condemned.
On August 28th, 2020, the man set to die satisfied none of those conditions, although in the end he did ask for a nun to be with him at the execution. No, he committed a terrible crime against a child, as an adult, and the family of that child was in favor of the execution. There were no significant legal concerns or claims of innocence, no other compelling external circumstances, and no amazing story of redemption. That is exactly why I wanted to go and be the other voice.
Being the other voice is a lot harder when there is nothing particularly compelling about the case, but I believe that makes it all the more important. We are all made in the image of God. My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ died for all. To say that even the worst of the worst is beyond redemption is to say that Christ and the cross were not enough. I cannot look my Savior in the eye and say, “Lord, your passion wasn’t enough to save that one.” And I cannot look at my country and say that this society has the right to take the place of God and choose when someone’s life should end.
I had to stand, with a few of my brothers and sisters, against the Trump campaign’s political theater and against the coliseum mob shouting for death. When it seems the hardest and the loneliest, that’s when being the other voice is most crucial.