My First Thoughts on the Death Penalty

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.

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Abnormal

In college, I majored in religion and in psychology. I found the subjects equally fascinating. With psychology, I was particularly intrigued by abnormal psychology — the study of why some of us, either occasionally or consistently, act outside the bounds of socially accepted behavior. As with any typical psych major, my family was the primary group on whom I applied my new found education.

Mama was in a fragile state for much of my college years. Her life fell apart when my stepfather disappeared with their 5 year old son, my half-brother. He picked David up from daycare and kept going.  Mama also lost her job at a local hotel. She moved in with her parents (Grandmama and Granddaddy to me) in their double-wide trailer.  Grandmama was very sick from decades of cigarette smoking and was not expected to live much longer. Granddaddy was a disabled WWII veteran.  These were, needless to say, very dark days.

Psychology was useful for me in understanding my dysfunctional family, but Mama did not take well to any psychological analysis. Nonetheless, to her credit, Mama pulled herself through the nightmare, relying in large part on the strength she found in her conservative religious beliefs.

Mama was determined to find my brother and to bring him home. She became a sleuth, sometimes wearing disguises to get the information she needed. Mama finally found David in Pensacola, Florida, where she and my stepfather had met. She brought David home, just in time to see Grandmama before she died. Mama soon found a new job and a new man, whom she later married.

I remember talking to Mama on the phone one night. I told her that none of my friends in college had parents who were divorced. “None?” she asked in disbelief. “None,” I confirmed. I was abnormal.

Choices of the Heart

I always wanted to be brave, but I lacked the confidence.  Mama and I moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I was often the new kid on the block.  I was shy and awkward, almost always the tallest girl in the class and the one with the thickest glasses.   If that were not enough to make me a target of class bullies, my hair was “stringy,” as Grandmama called it, and my unstylish hair went well with my unstylish outfits made by her.

It was my sense of mission that gave me courage, or at least the courage to hope that I would be courageous if the need arose.  A transformative moment was when I watched a TV movie in 1983 called “Choices of the Heart.”   The movie was about Jean Donovan, an American lay missionary who at the age of 27 was raped and murdered, with three nuns, by a Salvadoran death squad.   Jean had traveled to El Salvador in 1977 to serve the poor.  She stayed for three years despite the increased danger that drove others out of the war-torn country.

I was greatly affected by the dedication and courage of Jean Donovan to stand by the poor in the face of torture and death.  I wondered if I would have stayed.  Would I have even gone?

In seminary, my favorite classes were those about social justice, race and religion, and liberation theology.  I dreamed of having the opportunity to serve the poor in Central America or in some inner city.  I wondered if all the great social movements were over, and I had missed them.

Changing the Fundamentals

I was only 17 years old when I left home for college. I was not well-traveled, well-read or well-coiffed, but I did have determination, strength of character, and an open heart and mind. Well, my mind was at least partially open. Having an open mind was not something encouraged by my family or my church.

I was a self-proclaimed fundamentalist. Prior to Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, fundamentalists were suspicious of Southern Baptists.  Based on my experience, they had good reason to be suspicious, for my values and thinking were challenged head-on at Carson-Newman, a Southern Baptist College.

My professors, and at least some of my classmates, challenged my black and white worldview, pushing me to think more critically about how Christian values play out in the world.  I was introduced to men and women of incredible faith who had sacrificed everything to empower others.   I began to see the civil rights and the women’s movements in a new light, bringing into focus the cruel injustices that inspired a generation of activists, as well as the now unacceptable prejudices of my home community. I embraced feminism and, ironically to some, discovered the feminine face of God.

In addition, I discovered explanations for the inexplicable, most notably in the area of psychology.  I learned how the experiences in our childhood shape our personality and our worldview; how the brain is a mysterious machine that can tragically malfunction; and how social groups shape beliefs and actions.   And while such discoveries have led some to question the very existence of God, I found reassurance in the recognition of the equalizing effect of the frailty of the human condition.

By the time I left Carson-Newman, my sense of calling had been refined. I would not just serve others, but I would serve the poor, the dispossessed, the “least of these” — whoever they are.