Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wondering What Will Campbell Would Say About Last Night's Two Executions

Last night two men were executed. You've probably heard of the first, Troy Davis, a man whose guilt has become more and more questionable every year since his conviction in 1989. The other is a man you may know less about: white supremacist Lawrence Brewer, who by all accounts is absolutely guilty of brutally murdering a black man in 1998 by dragging him from the back of his truck.

The publicity that the sentencing and the (for so long pending, for so long prolonged) execution of Davis garnered across the nation as well as internationally is -- despite its tragic failure -- something to be celebrated. A profound injustice was planned, coordinated, and enacted in spite of the evidence and massive public outcry, and to have highlighted this as flagrantly and prophetically as possible is nothing but good news for advocates of the end of the death penalty.

But in light of the odd, awful coincidence of the execution of both these men on the same night, and in such politically and socially inverse situations (clearly guilty racist murderer, questionably convicted African American), an enormous question arises for anyone concerned with the question of the justice of capital punishment.

Are we willing to fight for a world in which both Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer would still be alive today?

That is a hard question to answer. And we should resist the temptation to be rash in answering "radically," as if we don't have, deep inside us, a vengeful satisfaction in the death of a white supremacist. I know I do. Troy Davis's case is so clearly and profoundly a matter of injustice that it overwhelms me that people had to fight for him at all -- and that they lost!

But Lawrence Brewer? I don't know how to "fight" for him. I don't know if I could.

So I'm wondering, today, what Will Campbell would say about all this. Campbell is that extraordinary apocalyptic minister of the gospel of radical reconciliation, present in solidarity with oppressed blacks in the 50s and 60s and on, and somehow equally present in solidarity with white racists and killers. Not, mind you, in solidarity with their bigotry or actions, but with them as human beings for whom Christ died, whose sins are not too great for the work and love of the God of the cross.

What would Campbell have us say about last night's executions? Some have made a start in that direction. For myself, the question is shattering; it reduces me to ungrasping, unknowing prayer -- prayer, in this case, to the God whose own human life was lived in solidarity with such men, even to the point of death. To the point, that is, of being executed himself at the hands of an unjust state.

Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.


  1. I'm not sure if you've seen/heard about the response from Byrd's family, but they are showing us the way forward: And my Twitter timeline was full of people speaking out for Brewer, often quoting Byrd's family, as well. There is hope.

  2. Thanks for the link. What powerful words:

    "The execution doesn't mean that much to me because it's doesn't bring my father back. [. . .] I want the world to know that I have forgiven him and I don't hate him."

    "I feel sorry for Brewer because he has so much hate inside of him. [. . .] And didn't understand how to get out of him and he took the wrong path."

    "If my mother was here today, she would say these words, no violence, but peace."

  3. Thanks for your question and searching commentary. For me, it is not a difficult one, not because I am so "radical," or above all that, but because I believe absolutely in redemption. Absolutely. I would fight for Brewer to live. The much harder question for me, that seems a necessary corollary to your question, is whether I would be willing to begin the hard work of reconciliation with such a man. I am afraid my answer is impoverished next to the witness of James Byrd's family.

  4. I don't think this a radical question at all. I simply think it is a sad statement to the violent bent of our American society that this is even a question.
    It is never - never! - acceptable to take another human life.