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People of Faith Launch Campaign Against Capital Punishment

John Holdridge,
Capital Punishment Project
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November 22, 2010

People of faith from across the country gathered at a conference in Atlanta last Tuesday and Wednesday for a “kairos” moment.

As defined by theologian Paul Tillich, kairos, an ancient Greek word, means the “manifestation of the divine dimension of the moment … when the new reality has come, the time of the New Being.”

The “kairos” moment in Atlanta was the launch of a nationwide, decade-long campaign by people of faith to mobilize against capital punishment. The vast majority of religious communities in this country oppose the death penalty, and the Kairos Conference, organized by the North Carolina-based People of Faith Against the Death Penalty (PFADP), was a call to those communities to match their actions to their words. As stated by PFADP, “No religious tradition is as committed to the work of repeal of the death penalty as its statements [against capital punishment] suggest, or as it should be.” Attended by national, regional and state clergy and lay leadership in the religious community, the conference was devoted to “to strategically mov[ing] targeted states toward abolition by generating unprecedented levels of support from the religious community.”

I attended the conference and was deeply moved by many of the presentations. As usual, the words of Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, were inspirational — as were those of her copresenters during the first plenary entitled, “The Kairos Moment: Unleashing the Spiritual Power of Faith-based Communities to Transform the Death Penalty in the Next Decade.” At a workshop on “Death Penalty Ministry: The Dynamics and Politics of Solidarity with the Condemned,” I and others misted up when Ed Weir, cofounder of New Hope House in Barnsville, Georgia, where families of the condemned can stay when visiting their loved ones on death row, said that one family member told him that he was the first person who had ever expressed concern about them and their plight.

The stories of the exonerees — innocent people who were wrongly convicted of murder and sent to death row — proved, as always, profoundly upsetting. Randall Padgett was a prosperous farmer before he was wrongfully convicted of raping and killing his wife and incarcerated for six years. Today, he is broke. Mr. Padgett made the important point that “it’s easy to be convicted of something you didn’t do, but a lot harder proving your innocence.” Both Mr. Padgett and Delbert Tibbs, who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Florida, were incensed that the state never sought to find the real culprits of the crimes for which they were wrongfully convicted, apparently refusing to acknowledge their grievous mistake.

If the exonerees were upsetting, the words of murder victims’ family members were awe-inspiring. Bud Welch lost his daughter Julie Marie in the Oklahoma City bombing, Marietta Jaeger Lane’s 7-year-old daughter was abducted and killed during a family camping trip, and Renny Cushing’s father was murdered in front of his mother in their New Hampshire family home. All three spoke out forcefully against capital punishment. As Ms. Lane said, “don’t kill in my name and don’t kill in my little girl’s name.” Mr. Cushing instructed us that “forgiveness is really good for the person who forgives,” though he added that “forgiveness cannot be imposed.” He also stressed the importance of offenders being given an opportunity for atonement.

Atonement was one of the themes of the keynote address by the Rev. William Neal Moore, who killed a homeowner in Georgia during a break-in and spent 16 years on Georgia’s death row before his sentence was commuted to life and he was eventually released. Rev. Moore, a Pentecostal minister, is living proof of the point made by one religious leader after another at the conference — an opportunity at redemption should be denied to no one.

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