A Labor of Mercy: Opposing the Death Penalty in Oklahoma

April 13, 2015

square stateBy Rev. Adam Leathers, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Director of Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries

If you are a social media user, you may have come across a post titled “Take a Bow America: What Every U.S. State is Best At.” It comes complete with a multi-colored map of the United States, indicating a distinguishing characteristic for each state. There have been a few versions, but the one I saw had quite a few amusing and quirky facts. For example, Texas has more pet tiger owners than any other state. Massachusetts has the highest rate of twin births. However, like anyone would, I first directed my attention to my own state, Oklahoma, and there it was in one word: “Executions.” Oklahoma leads the nation in executions per capita. As spokesperson for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, I am well aware of our execution rates but the article revealed something new to me. I realized the death penalty is becoming entwined in the very identity of Oklahoma. Our collective bloodlust overshadows all other characteristics and qualities in which to be proud.

Oklahomans are overwhelmingly in favor of capital punishment. Depending on the poll, only about 12% of us strongly oppose the death penalty. Oddly enough, that is very close to the U.S. Congress’s national approval rating (Congress’ approval rating is actually slightly higher). Despite the numbers, I am proud to be a part of a vocal community for abolition.

To understand the level of support the death penalty enjoys in Oklahoma, we must understand support begins with the desire to protect one’s friends and family. The death penalty and a ‘tough on crime’ mentality are synonymous with protection and safety. Our population equates state sponsored killing with caring and aversion to state sponsored killing with not caring. As such, abolition is often met with frustration and disgust. All too often, people will make the immediate assumption that death penalty abolitionists are inherently comfortable with convicted killers roaming the streets, are indifferent to the pain and anguish of a murder victim and his/her family, and that we value the life of the guilty over the innocent. Such judgments can feel cruel and divisive, especially since I am striving to live according to the explicit directives of Jesus Christ. It feels especially strange in a state in which weekly church attendance and the percentage of self-identifying Christians are significantly higher than the national average.

In the face of opposition and judgment, we must respond with love, empathy, and compassion.  In a word: Christ. I have asked countless death penalty advocates the question, “Do you truly believe, Jesus would approve of us using the death penalty?” To this day, no advocate has responded, “Yes, and here is why.” Here in Oklahoma, the example of Christ should be a powerful one.

At this point, the reader may ask, “How do Oklahomans reconcile their Christian faith with such an overtly anti-Christian principle?” The answer is: it cannot be done. When confronted with the issue, most cast their gaze to the ground, shrug, or occasionally respond with a blunt, honest, “Yes, I am a Christian and no, Jesus would not approve of the death penalty, but I don’t care.”

As an abolitionist, I do not fault the anger of citizens when they hear about a brutal killing. It is natural to feel disdain for such unspeakable acts. The anger is fair. It is righteous and just. Anger toward someone who has burned down a home is also righteous and just but that does not morally permit our state to set ablaze the home of a convicted arsonist. Killing to teach that killing is wrong is not only illogical; it is recommitting an immoral act. We ask the question: “If they kill and we kill them back, what separates us from them?”

In closing, I ask you, the reader, to simply pray for Oklahoma and we who work in support of abolition. We know it is an uphill battle and we are few in number. We also know the likelihood of Oklahoma abolishing the death penalty any time soon is as likely as Congress receiving a 100% approval rating. Nevertheless, we remain faithful and hopeful. As in Hebrews 11:1, “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”