On Tuesday, after celebrating the MLK holiday, I engaged in my last act of resistance in the Obama era. For over 30 hours, I and 17 other faith leaders and people of good will from the black church, evangelical, Mennonite, Roman Catholic and other value-based traditions were jailed for protesting the death penalty. In the Central Booking division of the Metrpolitan DC Jail, I sat in a roach infested cell, remembering why we were there.
It has been 40 years, over 1400 executions. Family members of the executed as well as family members of people who have been murdered led our procession to the Supreme Court of the United States, calling for an end to a barbaric and immoral practice of killing those who have killed. I don’t believe in the death penalty because I don’t believe you eliminate killing with more killing. Violence is not the solution. Especially when the agent of the execution, the United States of America, has more blood dripping from her hands than any person being executed. Dr. King was right when he said our government is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
Our nation seems to be addicted to death. Its muscle memory is one of aggression and dehumanization. There has not been a day in this country’s history that the bodies of dark and indigenous and poor people have not been subjected to arbitrary violence with the complicity and at times sanction of the State. Even as we exercised our constitutional right to protest, knowing that the location of our protest put us at risk of arrest, I never imagined we would be treated so unevenly.
At times we were treated with care, as when one of our comrades started to hyperventilate due to a panic attack, and the Supreme Court police were responsive. Or when my brother, Leroy Barber, had shoulder pains due to a previous injury and they brought Advil to relieve his pain. Other times, we were cursed, ignored, manhandled, placed in roach infested quarters, denied access to phone calls and shown that we were regarded as less than human.
It was harrowing.
I am learning to have pity on the participants in this system. For many of them, their indifferent and uneven behavior seems to be a necessary coping mechanism for human beings asked to carry out the inhumane on their very human neighbors.
Our dehumanizing system has the full attention of my righteous indignation and moral rage. If you consider our 32-hour ordeal, it is but a small reflection of the cruel and unusual punishment state sponsored executions unleashed on the bodies of the executed and the souls of we the executors.
None of us have the moral standing to take the life of anyone given our own moral inconsistencies as participants in a fallen and corrupted system of governance and justice.
As we were handcuffed, shackled, led from cell to cell, van to van, holding room to holding room, we heard from various officers how this seemed to be excessive treatment for protesting. Yet they continued to comply with their inhumane treatment. I wondered what caused these officers to become adjusted to injustice. Why would they not complain about working in an environment with roaches and insects of all varieties streaming across the floors and the walls? Why would they be agents of such a system, knowing that it is excessive?
I’m reminded of what a mentor said to me: there are many ways to kill a person: physically, spirually, emotionally, psychologically. It seems to me that the guards who work in the system, and we the citizens who have empowered this system, are already victims of a moral execution. I can’t help but think that the death penalty is only possible because we all have had our moral conscience seared. We are already dead people walking. We have become a people who tolerate the conditions of injustice and violence and dehumanization, so we can profit from it with incoherent and morally bankrupt payments of false security, temporary safety and constant retribution.
But is the God of all creation and sustainer of life calling for something more from people of faith? How can we who claim to follow the One who came to set the captive free be so committed to captivity? How can we who drink from the Well of Life be such complicit agents in the instruments of death? Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words ring out to me: “Few are guilty… all are responsible.”
As God always does in times of challenge, we experienced the Light shining through the dark places. Literally. The bodies of black men who were citizens of the District of Columbia darkened these spaces of incarceration, and their light emanated through to show us great comfort. They didn’t know us, but one told me, “You don’t belong here, let me give you some advice… don’t let them wear you down. That’s what they want this process to do. Wear you down to the point of despair and have you act out so they can keep you longer.”
I thought about it: tightened cuffs, which cut off circulation; cramped transportation; invasive body cavity searches; insect infested quarters; metal beds with no mattresses; toilets with bugs crawling inside and out; soggy sandwiches and kool-aid; chained feet; chained waists; long waits in rooms with no chairs or benches; no food for hours at a time; having to beg guards for access to a toilet; being told false times for your release; standing before judges and lawyers who look down on you; being cursed out by guards; being manhandled by large white men who taunted us with Trump jokes.
I can think of at least four times I almost broke down. But the light of the incarcerated gave me hope. My spiritual disciplines sharpened during my already engaged season of fasting and consecration steadied my soul and spirit. The enriching conversations Shane Claiborne and I had with the young men in our holding cell gave me life and hope. One of them was so captivating and brilliant; I told him he could run for office to represent his community. He said, “I always thought that…maybe I’ll give it a go when I get out of here!”
All of this has shown me that life is always at work, even when death appears to be surrounded us. Each arrest related to civil disobedience has left me with takeaways that inform my calling to serve God’s people. If God has no pleasure in the death of anyone, we must ask ourselves, why do we? Why is it necessary?
For some, this is a “necessary evil.” To them I would say that our collective moral resistance, particularly in the age of Trump, must be a necessary virtue. For people of faith and good will to engage in this kind of duplicity in our name is not acceptable. And given what this new administration has already unleashed and promised to institutionalize, we must become more clear why executions in our name cannot continue.
We must abolish the death penalty and end executions, whether they happen in the death chamber or the on street corners. If we do not engage in moral resistance, we risk a death of our spirit which makes us complicit. And then we can protest no more.
Ezekiel tells us that God has no pleasure in the death of anyone. Neither should we.