Sisyphus, the wily and ruthless mythological Greek king of Corinth, was unafraid of the other gods and often tricked them unmercifully. On one occasion, he captured of the god of death which upset the natural order of the world since no one could die while the god was a prisoner. His hubris, however, was his undoing. When finally captured, Sisyphus was given a unique punishment: he was sentenced to roll a gargantuan boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down to where he started whenever he neared the peak. This task had to be repeated daily for eternity.
Oftentimes, it seems that working with death penalty issues is comparable to Sisyphus' task. The same issues seem to reappear daily, with no foreseeable end in sight. The euphoria of victory for one inmate is dulled by a fatuous decision that affects dozens of men in another state. Each day, nonetheless, while pushing the rock up the hill, there is time to reflect on new approaches that might help achieve success. Having served as convener of the Death Penalty Abolition Action Group for the last twelve months, I have a few ideas.
Eradicating The Death Penalty Will Be The Work Of A Small Group- Given the political climate in the United States, a mass movement calling for the elimination of the death penalty and the immediate cessation of executions is unlikely to occur. Historically, a small, dedicated cadre of people has been able to effect change in this country. Abolitionists, southern secessionists, prohibitionists, and the modern Tea Party are groups that have influenced political action inversely proportional to the number of members they represented.
Each of the thirty-two states with the death penalty need a core group of "shock troops" who are committed to devote the time and effort necessary to achieve abolition of the death penalty. This inner corps needs to develop a plan to repeal the death penalty based upon the political climate of the particular state in which they live. Long-range and short-range goals needs to be developed and people recruited who have the skills to achieve the objectives.
The Episcopal Peace Fellowship, partnering with other faith-based groups, should take the lead in achieving this goal.
The National Church Needs To Offer Assistance- The national Episcopal Church needs to become actively involved in eradicating the death penalty. Surely within the committee structure of the national church, there is some group that could help nullify the stain of state-sponsored death. Two requests were made for help from the national church, but recognition that the death penalty is a problem was the gist of the reply. Why won't the church take a lead in helping states repeal death penalty laws?
Education Of Christians Is Ongoing Need- We need to continue educating our friends and people with whom we have contact about the inequities of the death penalty. This program of instruction should start with the people we sit beside each week at church. Some of the most malicious statements uttered about death row inmates are from people who pride themselves on their devotion to Christ. These are usually good people who participate fully in parish life, but have a moral blind-spot when considering executions.
Too many people accept as fact that the criminal justice system is fair and blind. Consequently, they assume everything they hear or read about a person on death row is true. If you can talk with them, interject facts and explain how the system may have conspired against the person then you might have the person reconsider their opinion. Even if the inmate is guilty, you have an opportunity to talk about whether the death penalty as a fitting punishment in the twenty-first century.
Participate In A Death Row Visitation Program- Most states have programs where death row inmates are allowed to have visitors. Check with the prison housing death row inmates in your state to get details on what's involved to visit in the prison. These programs are good for the inmate, but they are excellent for visitors. As a rule, stereotypes of prisons and inmates are shed quickly. You will be a better informed abolitionist, but you will also be a friend to one of those people Jesus told us to remember.
We have a long way to go to abolish the death penalty, and some of the road signs are disconcerting. We must, however, be like Sisyphus. Each day, although we know the rock will roll backwards, we must maintain hope that the boulder will roll down the other side of the hill and that our perseverance has been rewarded.
Editor's Note: Ronald T. Clemmons is the Convener of the EPF Death Penalty Abolition Action Group. He is a member of St. Paul's-Murfreesboro (TN) Chapter.