Do you have a book you can say changed your life? I do. I was a freshman in college when I read Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean. It had a profound impact on what I thought and believed and ultimately upon the trajectory of my life and career.
Since reading that book more than 25 years ago, I have been adamantly opposed to the death penalty. I recall this conviction as the first time I came to my own conclusion about an issue apart from what I gleaned from my community, culture and family. It certainly influenced my decision to pursue law school and once there take an advanced criminal law course on the death penalty in Texas.
In my last semester there, I wrote an independent research paper on views of the death penalty by major world religions. It just so happens that a few weeks after settling on the topic, the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which I never had heard of, released a report on the death penalty in Texas. The culmination of a two-year study that included a trip to the death chamber in Huntsville, it was and is a remarkable work I recommend often. In just 60 pages, it examines Scripture, Christian practice, history and the modern application of the death penalty. In the conclusion, it calls for a moratorium on executions in Texas. I didn’t know much about the CLC, but I knew this was a courageous stand for a majority white Baptist organization in Texas.
With this as my only introduction to the CLC, and struggling to find where I might begin my legal career, I took seriously a friend’s suggestion that I should visit with Suzii Paynter to see if she had any employment or volunteer opportunities. At the time, Suzii served as director of public policy at the CLC, and we never had met.
A few months of volunteering at the CLC in Austin turned into a contract lobby position during a special session of the Texas Legislature, which turned into a position with Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, which has led to a nearly 20-year career serving at the intersection of faith and public policy, with one foot in a capitol building and one foot in a church.
Last year, just prior to Virginia’s vote to abolish capital punishment, I wrote a column for Baptist News Global detailing many of the reasons why I oppose executions.
Last week, I spoke on a panel at The Future of the Death Penalty conference at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Holy Week was an especially appropriate time to discuss how Christians feel about state-sponsored executions.
In my presentation, I began by discussing passages of Scripture commonly referenced when debating the death penalty. I’m personally convinced the death penalty as practiced today is incompatible with the Christian faith.
“I’m personally convinced the death penalty as practiced today is incompatible with the Christian faith.”
When it comes to Jesus and executions, we don’t have to wonder WWJD? He was presented with a defendant caught in the act, clearly guilty of a grave capital offense. He stopped that execution (John 8). I don’t know why he wouldn’t stop one today.
I do recognize, however, that sincere Christians might disagree and interpret Scripture to give governmental officials the authority to take life — in theory. Such a theoretical conclusion does not seem to take into account the realities of how and who we are executing.
Surely those who see capital punishment as compatible with Christian faith would not say the state can kill innocent people. And yet, for every eight executions, there has been one exoneration of someone on Death Row released and determined innocent.
Likewise, I doubt they believe capital punishment should be reserved only for the poor, the uneducated, those with ineffective lawyers, or those who have suffered childhood trauma and mental illness — the most marginalized among us — but that is almost always the case.
It is impossible to ignore the system’s inherent racism when Death Row hosts a disproportionate amount of people of color and those who have been convicted of taking the life of a white person.
I find it disturbing that the states with the most executions are the ones known as the Bible Belt. It is not surprising, however, given the racial history of the death penalty, that these also are former Confederate states.
“I find it disturbing that the states with the most executions are the ones known as the Bible Belt.”
I concluded my presentation in Beaumont on a hopeful note. I believe Christians have enough political influence to end this practice. I also believe younger Christians are far less likely to overlook the injustices and abuses in the system.
I’m grateful that Fellowship Southwest established a strong partnership with Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty long before I became executive director. Rick McClatchy of CBF Texas serves as a board member, and at their annual conference back in February, they presented Marv Knox with an award for years of courageous editorials and leadership in founding Fellowship Southwest.
Fellowship Southwest is committed to promoting compassion and justice in our region. A main area of focus for us will be working toward racial justice and helping churches and other people of faith do the same. Advocating for the abolition of the death penalty is clearly in line with these values.
Texans have an enormous opportunity for impactful advocacy right now. As you likely have seen in our communications and in the media, Melissa Lucio is scheduled to be executed April 27. She is convicted of killing her 2-year-old daughter back in 2007, but many experts, former judges, state officials and several members of the jury that convicted her now believe she is likely innocent.
The current district attorney of Cameron County, the governor and the Board of Pardons and Parole all have roles to play to stop Texas from killing her. Call them today.
For the life of me, I cannot fathom what good it would do in this world for us to kill this woman.
Stephen Reeves serves as executive director of Fellowship Southwest.
The death penalty is dying a slow death; it’s time we pull the plug | Analysis by Stephen Reeves