Recently, I attended a national conference called The Kairos Moment – People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. It may seem a strange thing to have done just before Thanksgiving and Advent, but actually, the juxtaposition of this difficult and shameful subject and the themes of Thanksgiving and Advent have stayed with me in a “troubling the waters” kind of way. Before one of the plenary sessions in which Helen Prejean was to speak, I was working on the enclosed Advent Devotional booklet, sorting and ordering the pages, and it hit me that I was preparing a tool for my congregation to use to strengthen their faith and witness – a collection of poems and essays – at the very same time I was preparing to do battle with powers and principalities in New Hampshire to prevent the execution of Michael Addison, the man convicted of murdering Officer Michael Briggs on October 16, 2006.
I have no affection for Michael Addison and I have deep wells of anguish and sympathy for the family and colleagues of Officer Michael Briggs. He was a thoroughly decent human being, a fair, thorough, and dedicated police officer. His murder points to the immense failures of a violent, drug-soaked culture in which the line between danger and safety is fragile, held precariously by police officers who try their best to keep calm in situations that can spin out of control in a nanosecond. I would like to be certain that Michael Addison is never released from prison. Ever.
At the same time, I do not want to be a contributor to a culture that accepts the practice of strapping down convicted murderers to gurneys and murdering them. I don’t want my tax dollars to go to constructing a death chamber. I don’t want to expect my public servants, prison guards and wardens to participate in murder. It serves no good purpose. It does not deter violent crime, in spite of what Senator-elect Ayotte testified to the Judicial Committee of the New Hampshire House. It will not bring Officer Briggs back to life. It will not even avenge his death, in the sense that there is no comparison between the relative contributions each of these men made to society.
But the real reason I cannot accept the death penalty? It’s because I am a Christian. I am a disciple of Jesus. I prepare for a new year of faithful service every Advent. I rejoice the day he was born. I look inward at my own manifold sins and short-comings every Lent. On Palm Sunday, I think about how counter-cultural he was. On Maundy Thursday I realize how easy it would have been for me to betray him. On Good Friday, I grieve and rage that Rome, who had the death penalty, killed him. On Easter, I find strength in the promise that life, however temporary, never dies. I celebrate his everlasting presence through the Church - the Body of Christ - every time I receive communion. And I accept, joyfully, the yoke of service in his name.
Because this was a conference for people of faith, there was extensive and free-flowing conversation about religious convictions and perspectives. I was especially interested in the presentations by and for Christian Evangelicals who are, by a wide margin, in favor of the death penalty. And I appreciated the time spent with fellow UCC-ers from around the country. In forums and workshops we looked at racism, poverty, a broken and dysfunctional criminal justice system. We heard from three exonerees, men who had spent time on death row but whose convictions were overturned before they were killed. We learned about strategies for engaging in conversation with people who don’t agree with us.
In many ways, I would have preferred to spend my time reading the Advent Devotional contents than listening to disheartening and painful information about the death penalty. I did crochet a scarf while listening, and spending even an hour in Ebenezer Baptist Church, home of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nascent faith, was inspiring. But the words we were hearing and the determination we were seeking to build was hard.
Christianity is not an easy faith. It requires things of us we would rather not do, like turn the other cheek, forgive our enemies and those who persecute us, pray for the peace of Jerusalem and keep our loyalties clear when it comes to Rome (read – the U.S.) and the Kingdom of God. I am grateful to be part of such a strong Christian community here at CCDC as we prepare for the Advent of our Messiah. I need partners and companions on this treacherous journey, people who make me laugh, who sing together, pray together, question one another, covenant with each other. There is so much to do in our troubled world. Let us prepare together during this Season of Advent.
Love to us All - Carla