EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is from Don Golden, author, activist, and longtime RLC friend, who joined the vigil to end the death penalty on the SCOTUS steps this past weekend.
Saint Luke offers a word of hope for those who fight for justice. Jesus sent 70 disciples out into the world like sheep among wolves. On July 1st I joined Shane Claiborne and a group of dedicated abolitionists on the steps of the Supreme Court to hold vigil and to call for the end of the death penalty. Friends and family were quick to tell me what a hopeless and foolish act it was. “Be sure to pray to the saint of lost causes”. “Do you think that godforsaken town gives a rats ass about what you think?” A mini firestorm erupted in my little Facebook world and I felt like one of those sheep. Apparently, if you join the fold of abolitionists you’ll quickly meet the wolves of ridicule, revenge-lust and the deeply rooted belief Americans have in the myth of redemptive violence.
You’ll also meet some awesome people. During my 15 hours keeping vigil I made new friends and heard their stories. And when you sit with these storytellers on the steps of the Supreme Court in the wee hours of the night before rolling a sleeping bag out on the concrete —another order of magnitude is added to their already heavy tales.
Like Bill Pelke’s story. On May 14, 1985 Bill’s grandmother Ruth Elizabeth Pelke, a Bible teacher, was murdered by four teenage girls. Paula Cooper, the 15-year-old ringleader, was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the state of Indiana. Bill originally supported the death sentence for Cooper until he found himself contemplating the memory of his grandmother and the Bible studies she used to give. He especially recalled one memorable flannel graph about the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ instructions to “love your enemies”. Bill’s spiritual transformation converted him to love and compassion and he fought for Paula Cooper’s release from death row. Shane calls Bill Pelke “the grandfather of the abolition movement”.
I also met Shujah Graham. After moving to Southern California, Shujah experienced the Watts Riots and was in and out of trouble for much of his adolescence. When he turned 18 he was sent to Soledad Prison where he taught himself to read and write, studied history and world affairs and came under the influence of the Black Panthers. In 1973 Shujah was framed for the murder of a prison guard and sent to San Quentin’s death row. The California Supreme Court overturned his death sentence in 1979 and in 1981 he was found innocent and released.
I met George White who survived a wrongful conviction and incarceration and is a gripping and practiced storyteller. And Delia Perez-Meyer who is trying to free her brother from Texas’ death row and she has the charm and force of personality to convince you that she will.
Before the vigil I was a passive opponent of the death penalty. That America keeps company with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq as one of the few nations still executing people was enough for me to reject it. But before July 1st, I hadn’t done anything about it. Joining these dedicated abolitionists was a first chance to take a public stand and to learn something.
The two facts I learned out under the SCOTUS stars that stand out the most are the high number of wrongful sentences and the disproportional way the death penalty is applied based on race. The fact that 156 death row inmates have been exonerated after wrongful convictions since 1973 begs the question how many innocent people were not exonerated, how many innocent people have we put to death? And the degree to which African-American defendants receive the death penalty as compared to whites, especially in cases where the victims are white, further undermines confidence in the system. Even for the believers, the ground is shaky.
On the Supreme Court steps I made some new friends and learned about their faithful efforts over many years with little budget against great opposition. I drew a sense of hope that they will achieve their aims, our aims, to end the death penalty. But I’ve also felt the backlash from my own little circle, enough to understand something about the forces that threaten hope. Ultimately, I look to Jesus, the one who sent out his disciples as sheep among wolves. He has to do something up in heaven to help answer why on earth we still cling to the death penalty. “Why”, as a fellow sheep and vigil keeper sang, “do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?”
When the 70 returned after their mission amongst the hostile forces of the world Jesus said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven”. Jesus is not a fool as foolish as his enemy-loving mission seems in this world of violence and revenge. We should pay close attention to how Jesus ends this story of justice work. He changes the metaphor from sheep to lightening, from certain defeat to inevitable victory. It’s going to happen. Death will be defeated. I plan to be there on the SCOTUS steps next July 1st. Maybe 2017 is the year we’ll see Satan fall like lightening.