taking the words of Jesus seriously

Despite 650, 000 signatures, a letter from over 50 members of the US Congress, and a personal plea from former Georgia governor and US President Jimmy Carter, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Troy Davis yesterday. He is scheduled for execution at 7pm today. Within our broken criminal justice system, it appears that all appeals have been exhausted for a man whose guilty verdict depended on evidence that was later recanted in a case where nine sworn affidavits now implicate another man. But Troy Davis issued a statement this morning saying, “I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath.” What Troy knows is that all of us still have the power to choose life.

In December of 2001, after observing a series of executions nearly every week in North Carolina, a group of faith-based activists came together to ask what we should do. We knew there were victims’ rights activists, many of them also people of faith, who supported the death penalty as a just punishment for violent criminals. We also knew death penalty protestors who argued against the death penalty because it disproportionately targets poor and black criminals and is an embarrassment to Western democracy. What we were most struck by, however, was the way the execution rite mimicks Christ’s passion in this Bible-belt state, almost as if the salvation of the people depends on human sacrifice. The problem with the death penalty, we started saying, was that it forced us as citizens to participate in idolatry. We wanted people to know that Jesus died once and for all so that no one else would have to. More than anything, we didn’t want to participate in the idolatry any longer.

So on the night when the state was scheduled to execute Kenneth Lee Boyd, the 1000th person to be executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, fifteen of us went in sack cloth and ashes, knelt before the prison, and blocked the entrance to prevent the witnesses from entering the building. Without witnesses, we knew, the execution could not go forward. In a matter of minutes we were arrested, and the execution continued. The next time an execution was scheduled the police put up barricades to prevent us from entering the prison from a sidewalk. So we processed through the intersection in front of the prison singing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and held a worship service, honoring our Savior who laid down his life as a ransom for many. Again, we were arrested and held in jail until the execution was completed. After we had done this a couple of times, the magistrate in Wake County assigned us each $5, 000 bail. I spent the night in jail, waiting for a bench judge to let me out the next afternoon on a promise to appear for my court date.

After more than six months and a total of 65 arrests at four different executions, we finally had our day in court. The state presented its case, establishing that we had indeed trespassed on prison property by presenting aerial photographs and testimony from our arresting officers and the commander on duty. We agreed that all the facts were true, but told the judge that we wanted to offer in our defense an argument for the necessity of our actions. He invited me to take the stand and asked me to summarize our case. I told the judge that we were Christians, and that we could not support state-sponsored executions that expressly mimic Christ’s passion. I told him our Christian convictions compel us to take direct action to prevent any murder. We had trespassed at the prison to prevent a murder that we believed to be unjust and idolatrous.

“Before we proceed, ” the judge asked, “could you tell me how you read Romans 13?” I knew there was hope if the judge wanted to talk about the Bible. So I quoted for him Paul’s injunction in Romans 13 to “submit to earthly authority” and said that we had learned from Martin Luther King that when a law is unjust in this country, it is the Christian’s responsibility to break it and thereby bring it before a court that can evaluate its justice. “We are here today, your honor, to submit to your authority and ask for a decision about the justice of the death penalty.” The judge nodded and asked us to present our case.

On the stand we talked about our relationships with people on death row and their family members. We explained that we had exhausted every legal means to try to stop the execution of the four men whose executions we had ultimately tried to prevent by trespassing. But more than anything, we talked about Jesus and the good news that all human sacrifice had been brought to an end at the cross. The prosecutor asked if we had shared our faith with the prisoners before they were executed, and we said we had. As a matter of fact, all four of the men had been fellow Christians. “Doesn’t Paul say, ‘To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord?'” he asked. I was on the stand at the time and gladly took the opportunity to explain that neither Jesus nor Paul preached a salvation of the soul apart from the body. The Romans crucified Jesus’ body, but God raised his soul and his body from the dead. I said I knew I was just a preacher in a public courtroom, but I’d come to preach salvation of the whole person.

After my testimony as to our convictions and intentions, we asked the judge if we could call theologian Stanley Hauerwas as an expert witness. The judge hesitated, but we said we thought the court should here from an expert on church doctrine whether there was any merit to our case. “Well, since he has come and waited so patiently, I’ll let him take the stand, ” the judge said. Dr. Hauerwas explained to the judge the strong position against capital punishment that Pope John Paul II held, together with most of the major teachers of the church. “After all, the State executed our Lord, ” Hauerwas said. “The church has always had a problem with capital punishment.” He went on to recount for the judge a history of Christian civil resistance to slavery, Jim Crow laws, foreign war, and nuclear armament. “This is what Christians do when their convictions run up against the systems of this world, ” he said. “They get in the way.”
With that, we rested our case and waited for the judge’s verdict. He began by saying that one of his early mentors had advised him that it was not wise to speak at any length from the bench. Generally, he followed that advice. But he wanted to diverge in this case to say both that he admired our courage and that he was honored to hear this case in his courtroom. It was not in his power, however, to decide on the justice of the death penalty. He said that his job was simply to rule as to whether we were guilty of trespassing, which we had agreed that we were. So he found us guilty, but suspended any sentence. We walked out of the courtroom knowing that the judge had done all he could–if he wanted to keep his job, that is.

A lawyer who had been following the death penalty in North Carolina for years congratulated us and said he didn’t think executions would last another year. Less than six months later, the North Carolina Medical Board issued a statement saying that it would be a breach of medical ethics for any physician to participate in an execution. The state’s protocol, however, mandates that a physician be present for an execution to take place. This created a legal tangle, the result of which has been a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in North Carolina.

I recall this story today to say that we all have the power to choose life. The execution of Troy Davis cannot go forward if District Attorney Larry Chisolm, Dr. Carlo Musso, or any of the several dozen guards and prison officials on duty today refuse to comply. It cannot go forward if the people of Georgia, who these officials represent, stand in the way and refuse to see an unjust murder carried out in their name.

State-sponsored ritual killing cannot continue without our consent and participation in it. We all have the power to choose life.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. He is an author, speaker, and activist who currently resides in Raleigh, NC at the Rutba House. You can reach him at his website, www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com

About The Author


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a celebrated spiritual writer and speaker. Together with his wife, Leah, he co-founded the Rutba House in Durham, NC, where he also directs the School for Conversion (www.schoolforconversion.org). Jonathan works closely with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II to spearhead The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Jonathan's newest book is "Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion" (InterVarsity Press).

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