I didn’t think much about the death penalty before college. I grew up a Fundamentalist Baptist. I don’t remember a sermon on the death penalty but certainly knew that plenty of church folk were for it. Something about “thou shall not kill” and “the wages of sin is death.” Though even as a child, I wasn’t sure how you got around the circular problem of killing a killer is still killing.
I didn’t think much about the death penalty in college either. As I came to better appreciate God’s grace and Jesus’ ministry to the poor and dispossessed, I knew I was against it, but my concern was more on the millions of people who needed the basics in life to survive. Only a few persons were executed each year. The greater need was of those dying due to the lack of food, shelter and safety from domestic violence.
I do remember one early formative moment regarding the death penalty. My college boyfriend, Paul, was an avid fan of Will Campbell, a graduate of Yale Divinity School turned country Tennessee preacher. I read Campbell’s book Brother to a Dragonfly and his profile in a book entitled Race, Rock, & Religion. Campbell famously summed up Christianity in one sentence, “All men are bastards but God loves us anyway.” He preached an expansive view of grace that unsettled conservatives and liberals alike.
Like Jesus, Campbell struck up friendships with those who made the establishment most uncomfortable – Black Panthers and KKK klansmen, heavy drinking country singers, and inmates on death row. He became friends with John Spenkelink, the first person to be executed against his will in the modern era. Campbell said about the death penalty that it was “just plain tacky.” He had a way with words. I remember thinking how courageous and fortunate Will Campbell was to befriend a death row inmate.