Elisabeth Wilder lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and is studying at Eastern Mennonite University. She is spending this semester in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Protestors holding a “Stop Executions” sign stand on the steps of the Supreme Court on Jan. 17 to protest the death penalty. Photo by Elisabeth Wilder.
At 10 a.m. on Jan. 17, the dark skies had just began pouring when approximately 80 people walked outside a local church and over to the steps of the Supreme Court. Faith leaders, community organizers and individuals from all across the country had gathered in protest of capital punishment on a day marking 40 years since the first execution after the revival of the death penalty in the United States in 1977. The protest was organized by Abolition Action Committee, a nonviolent group that organizes a protest against the dealth penalty every five years.
Ruthie Beck from Harrisonburg, Virginia, was one of the protesters in attendance: “Growing up as a
pacifist, I would have always said that I was against the death penalty,” she said. “I knew killing was wrong and that it was not what Jesus intended. However, I wasn’t filled with the passion to fight for the abolition of the death penalty until I read Shane Claiborne’s book, Executing Grace, which talks extensively about the damaging effects that the death penalty has on the victims, family members of both victims of crime and of those executed, and everyone involved in the execution process. When I heard about the protest that was occurring on the steps of the Supreme Court, I was moved to go and be a part of it.”
Among new friends and comrades, Beck and others braved the rain and cold to protest. Led by Tony Campolo, popular speaker and professor at Eastern University, Philadelphia, the crowd chanted for change of law, sang in solidarity with victims and families affected by the death penalty and prayed for peace.
Forty individuals carried signs designated with a year and the name of every person who had been executed that year. Others held signs with slogans like, “When Jesus said love your enemies, he probably meant don’t kill them” and “Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing is wrong?”
Eighteen attendees were arrested for congregating on the steps of the Supreme Court with a banner that read “Stop Executions.” Faith leaders such as Shane Claiborne, the Simple Way Community, Philadelphia; Father John Dear, Catholic priest, author and former director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Monterrey, California; and Rev. Leroy Barber, Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh and a Mennonite Mission Network partner, led the group in this nonviolent direct action. Family members of murdered loved ones and community members also chose to be arrested to challenge the power of capital punishment.
Kate Kauffman from Goshen, Indiana, was another protester moved by events of the day. “Once I got to the protest, I felt the message of love and breaking the cycle of violence played out in every interaction, including the interactions with the police,” she said. “The way we protested was the most meaningful part for me. “
By 11 a.m., those who were arrested were placed in the basement of the Supreme Court for holding and
the crowd of protesters was beginning to disperse. Their work was done for the day and the sun was just beginning to peek out from behind the clouds as people began gathering their things, as if God was beaming with approval for what had just transpired.
The work is not done though. The death penalty still stands as a fair form of justice, even though studies have consistently found that it is racially biased, an ineffective deterrent, and that many individuals on death row are innocent. As Christians, we can’t forget that our innocent savior was killed by capital punishment, which was a sentence handed down by corrupt powers. Let us not be foolish enough to believe that we are beyond such evils today and are called to stand up for life. In the words of John 8:7, “For he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Author’s Note: To learn more about what you can do to end the death penalty, read books including Executing Grace, Just Mercy, The New Jim Crow or consider donating to the Equal Justice Initiative, The Death Penalty Project or the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. To read more reflections about the event, check out https://www.redletterchristians.org/.