taking the words of Jesus seriously

On April 21—just days after Easter—Oscar Smith is set to be executed in Tennessee.  The state has 32 people currently on death row and though they have written a letter to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee to invite him to pray with them, they have yet to receive a response.

People of faith know that the cross was used as a tool of state violence, but it also a symbol of redemption.

That is why on Easter Sunday, the March4Mercy is taking place.  Organized by Death Penalty Action in partnership with Red Letter Christians and Vote Common Good, the #March4Mercy will be a nine-mile trek in which participants will nonviolently call for the end to these executions.

One of the people planning to participate in the march is Tennessee activist and seminary student, Justin Jones, who said that that he is participating in the march because “God is calling us to be on the margins”.

RLC editor, Rebekah Barber, recently spoke to Jones about the importance of the march.


Rebekah: As we approach Easter, why do you think it’s so important to make a connection between the cross and present-day methods of capital punishment?


Justin: Particularly in Tennessee, it’s important because we are here in the buckle of the Bible Belt.

We have elected officials—like our governor–who espouse rhetoric of Christianity and use it as a symbol to beat down LGBTQ people, to beat down women, to beat down people of color–but lose the real meaning of the cross and how it was both a symbol of state violence–the ultimate symbol of state violence–but also it should be connected to redemption, grace, and mercy.

It is horrific that, right after Easter, right after the governor signed a proclamation and claimed to follow the cross and its message of resurrection–that he will go and be like Governor Pontius Pilate and allow someone to be killed on his watch without flinching.


Rebekah: You have participated in vigils for people on the eve of their executions. Can you tell me what these experiences have been like?


Justin: Every time there’s an execution in Tennessee, there is a vigil right outside the prison. You get a piece of tape. If your tape is green, that means you’re against the execution. If it’s yellow, you’re for it. That’s how it was when I went.

There are two sides. There are people who come in support of executions. On our side it’s usually a multiracial, intergenerational group of folks who are there to bear witness because what’s happening inside that building is that the state is claiming to represent us—saying this is the will of the people of Tennessee.

I think it’s so important that we are outside there saying that that is not in our name.  We are not going to perpetuate the cycle of violence and keep killing, and killing, and killing to show that killing is wrong.

I think being out there is such an important act of witness and an act of moral dissent to say that we do not condone, we do not legitimize, we do not support this act of violence being committed against our brother or sister by the state authorities.


Rebekah: On a personal level, why are you deciding to participate in the upcoming March4Mercy?


Justin: I’m personally opposed to the death penalty and capital punishment because we know it disproportionately effects the poor and people of color. We know that it does not stop crime and violence from happening, but it perpetuates the cycle.

I’m participating because I think it’s important recognize that, just as we are seeking mercy, that all people are worthy of mercy and forgiveness and redemption. The state should not be the one to say who is worthy of living or dying–that’s a very dangerous thing. This week is showing that it is a very dangerous precedent when we allow the state to take and give life.

My faith compels me to be there.  I claim to profess to follow a crucified savior who was resurrected, but nonetheless, murdered by the state. The state should not have this power.

On a more personal level, I just think that we’re perpetuating trauma when executions happen. Executions usually happen as it gets dark, and they have the law enforcement on horseback. It’s a very traumatic thing. I think that is not something that any of us in this state need.

It’s not bringing healing, but that trauma, that energy, that spirt—it lingers when you take a life and the whole exhibition of it is traumatizing our whole community.

I hope that we can be a small part of fighting to end that and that it might contribute to some social healing in our community: a community that is healing from so much violence.

Here in Tennessee – the birthplace of the Klan; here in Tennessee–where people are dying from a myriad of reasons–where there’s lack of healthcare, poverty, and police shootings.

Here in Nashville, there are so many acts of violence. Why would we contribute to that and compound that trauma we’re already dealing with here in Tennessee?


Rebekah: Especially as it relates to these scheduled executions, but also some of the other acts of violence that you just mentioned, what do you think God is calling us to do in this moment in response to all the the violence that we’re seeing?


Justin: I think God is calling us to be God’s hands and feet. That’s why I’m marching with Bro. Shane Claiborne–because I think we’re called to be a living witness to our faith and not just confine our faith to a church one day a week for two hours. We’re called to live it out in the streets and live it out in the public square.

I believe in public theology.  I believe in action with our faith– so I think God is calling us to lift each other up. There’s so much happening in our state right now in terms of fearful rhetoric, hateful rhetoric, and divisive rhetoric. We’re called to be the ones that say, “What are you doing for the least of these?”

That’s what the death penalty is. It’s about the least of these. I think God is saying “I am here.” I am here in the death chamber. I’m here sitting with those who are dying because we haven’t expanded Medicaid.  I’m here sitting with those who are suffering from pollution because we want to pollute the Cumberland River. I’m here with those who are hurting because of the militarized police in North Nashville. I’m here with those who are resisting with those who are just trying to lift their head above the fray.

I think God is calling on us to be among those and to not be comfortable in this moment. I think God is calling us to be discomforted and to discomfort–especially those who are in power–and those who can just sit at ease while this suffering is happening here in Tennessee.

I think God is calling us to speak out and bring the church into the community, not in terms of evangelism, but in terms of saying, “let us show you what our faith is. “

Our faith is a faith that teaches us to love each other and to affirm each other. It teaches us to heal and to bring redemption and grace.

Jesus never wrote anything down but acted on his faith and was an activist. Jesus was an organizer. He was someone who was a disrupter and someone who went to places where he was not always welcome, but it was important to be there.

God is calling us to be on the margins because that’s where God is.

About The Author


Justin Jones is a community activist and graduate student at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

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