September 22, 2011

Troy Davis & the power of forgiveness.

Then Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Luke 23:34

Troy Davis did not eat his last meal; he refused the Ativan commonly taken by inmates to calm nerves before an execution. Here was a man who went to his death fearlessly, with dignity, and with all of his faculties intact.

Upon being asked if he had any final words, Troy said yes.

He raised his head so he could look at Mark MacPhail Jr., who was an infant when his father was murdered, and William MacPhail, the victim’s brother.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Davis said to both of them, “The incident that night was not my fault, I did not have a gun…I did not personally kill your son, father, and brother. I am innocent.”

Davis then asked his family and supporters to look deeper into the case so they could find the truth.

And to the prison officials he said,

“For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls.”

The lethal cocktail of drugs was then administered, and Troy Anthony Davis lost consciousness; he was dead within 14 minutes.

Troy Davis was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and there was no physical evidence tying him to the shooting murder of Mark MacPhail (Thanks to an astute reader bringing the court documents to my attention, this claim has been nullified. There was indeed physical evidence in the case, the most compelling of which were identical bullet casings found at the two different shooting locations the evening of the crime.) Seven out of nine witnesses recanted their testimony (The judge did not find the so-called recantations valid and so, officially, there are no recantations as such.) Over a million people from around the world raised their voices and called for clemency, including former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope Benedict XVI. Troy’s execution was an utter failure and an indictment of the U.S. justice system, and one that his attorney referred to as a “legal lynching.”

But before the end of Troy’s life yesterday, he expressed nothing but dignity and forgiveness; he looked at the victim’s family in their eyes. He could have chosen not to say anything, not to look at them at all, but he didn’t. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the fact that Troy acknowledged the MacPhail family so intimately and without anger was a powerful act, and one we should not forget so soon.

Contrariwise, in Texas yesterday, another state sanctioned murder took place, but in this case a perpetrator of a grisly crime, Lawrence Brewer, was guilty beyond a doubt. Thirteen years ago, Brewer was one of three white men convicted of chaining James Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, by the ankles to the back of a pick-up truck and dragging him along a bumpy asphalt road to his death. The victim’s blood was found on all three men’s shoes, and his body parts were strewn over three miles of the rural Texas road. In letters introduced as evidence in the case, Brewer bragged that the experience of killing Byrd “was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.”

While in prison, he joined a white supremacist group. Since the murder, Brewer had remained unrepentant, claiming his innocence by saying he was simply along for a ride with friends.

Brewer’s last meal, which he ordered but did not eat, consisted of two chicken fried steaks smothered in gravy with sliced onions, a triple meat bacon cheeseburger with fixings on the side, a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapenos, a large bowl of fried okra with ketchup, one pound of barbecue with half a loaf of white bread, three fajitas with fixings, a meat lovers pizza, three root beers, one pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.

At the time of his death, Lawrence Brewer had no final statement to make. He reportedly tearfully glanced at his parents and family, who were viewing the execution through a nearby window, took several deep breaths, and closed his eyes. I can only imagine his parents’ pain.

And at the vigil yesterday held by Byrd’s family members, his eldest daughter, Renee Mullins, had this to say, “The execution doesn’t mean that much to me because it doesn’t bring my father back. I want the world to know that I have forgiven him (Brewer) and I don’t hate him.”

The victim’s son, Ross Byrd, further stated,

“You can’t fight murder with murder. Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”

The type of forgiveness exhibited by James Byrd’s children reminds me of a remarkable woman in Rwanda by the name of Iphigenia Mukantabana, who was able to forgive a former member of the Hutu militia that hacked and clubbed her husband and five children to death during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Not only did she come to forgive him, she weaves baskets with his wife and calls her a friend; she shares meals with the two of them. Iphigenia’s capacity to forgive is staggering, and it is a shining example of what it is to call oneself a Christian.

Recall in 2007, the Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania. A gunman burst into a one-room schoolhouse and shot ten young girls, five of whom died from their wounds. He shot himself shortly afterwards. Amazingly, the gestures of forgiveness from the Amish community began almost immediately after the shooting. Nothing could have been more Christ-like. Several members of the community, some of whom had only buried their daughters the day before, went to the killer’s burial service and hugged his widow and other members of his family.

I’m not sure if I would be capable of such magnanimity towards someone who murdered my loved ones. All I know is that these people are just ordinary people who exhibited extraordinary forgiveness—forgiveness in the truest Christian sense. Forgiveness that is severely lacking in our country right now. I recalled these acts of forgiveness because of Troy Davis’s execution last night, which touched my heart and continues to bring tears to my eyes as I type these words. And yet I hear American politicians proudly calling themselves Christians while simultaneously supporting a policy that goes against the teachings of Jesus Christ.

America cannot call itself a Christian nation if it embraces capital punishment. Rick Perry, the death penalty zealot who never loses sleep over any execution that happens in Texas, certainly is no Christian. And neither is Barack Obama, even if his stance isn’t nearly as extreme.

The death penalty is a broken and racist system that needs to be abandoned permanently. The execution of Troy Davis was a travesty of justice, and just one example in a long line of injustices incurred by this nation since its inception.

If the Troy Davis’s of our country can die based on zero physical evidence, then American justice is no better than the Taliban’s.

Jesus, the ultimate man of peace, love, and revolution, as we know him through the gospels, forgave his crucifiers. Likewise, I imagine he would have been appalled by the execution of Troy Davis.

I urge all Americans to start a dialogue about the death penalty starting with this question:

How do pro-death penalty Christians handle the disparity between the teachings of Jesus Christ and their belief that capital punishment is a morally sound practice?

Please ask your pro-death penalty friends and family members how they reconcile these two beliefs. Ask them earnestly; ask them now.

And then keep the dialogue going.

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