There ain’t no salvation in the grave
Growing up in Black churches, I remember hearing the phrase “There ain’t no salvation in the grave.” In my mind, this well-worn phrase served as an attempt to describe how fragile human life is while considering the eternal and urgent work of the Gospel. The fragility of human life has been made even plainer when we consider the multiple nationally televised lynchings of Black and Brown bodies by the police and the state-sanctioned violence of the death penalty.
I was in law school during the years of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland. My program required two courses on something they called “criminal justice.” Ironically, neither class (nor most law school courses) were really about justice. Criminal Procedure focused on the constitutional parameters of criminal justice, primarily focusing on the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments. Criminal Law focused on what crimes are as a matter of law. In the latter class, we talked about theories for incarceration and punishment.
Most scholars describe six main theories of punishment: Retribution, Deterrence (specific and general), Incapacitation, Rehabilitation, Denunciation, and Restorative. The death penalty is largely rationalized as incapacitation, deterrence, and retribution, but it fails to meet the criteria for all of them. Obviously, the death penalty clearly incapacitates, but at what cost? Statistically and anecdotally, the death penalty fails to deter even the most severe of crimes. It also fails as retribution because it is a poor substitute for justice.
As of 2020, there are twenty-five states that still have the death penalty. The federal government and the United States Military may also give the death penalty. Since 1973, there have been 1529 executions. In 2020, there were seventeen executions. More than half of these executions were done by the federal government. Many times, the people being executed were wrongfully convicted. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, they have exonerated approximately one wrongfully convicted person per every nine that has been executed. The stakes are high.
Each execution has its own complex and often heart-wrenching story, but the circumstances surrounding Brandon Bernard’s execution were particularly devastating for those of us who do this work. Despite showing complete remorse and transformation in the twenty-two years he was on death row, he was still murdered. Even though five of the twelve jurors, suggested that they would have not voted for the death penalty, he was still murdered. Despite the countless hours of appealing to three presidents, he was still murdered.
So, what are culturally engaged Christians to do with the complicated realities of justice for victims, the humanity of the accused, and the sheer inevitability that the system will accuse, incarcerate, and potentially execute the wrong person? We shouldn’t stand for it.
We cannot allow the State to have the power to murder people. We cannot make it right when we inevitably get things wrong. The courtroom is testing of wits and wills and gamesmanship as much as it is the space of fact-finding and the truth. People can lose their lives simply because they did not have a good lawyer or strategy and not because they were guilty. As people of the Good News of Christ, we believe that God can change the heart of even the worst of us. This transformation is not a removal of consequences. Yet, no one can be redeemed or reformed if they are dead. There is no justice when innocent people are killed. There ain’t no salvation in the grave.
This article is dedicated to the memory of every person whose blood has been unjustly spilt by the state.