Love“Love” by Christopher Brown (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Wednesday night at 11:08, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, a man widely believed to be innocent. A last-minute delay went to the Supreme Court, where a stay of execution was denied.

Meanwhile in Texas, another man was executed. There was no widespread outcry for the life of Lawrence Brewer. His horrific crime was one of which he boasted, one in which there was no doubt of his guilt. He “deserved” to die.

I was troubled by the preoccupation with the “too much doubt” that characterized the Troy Davis case. Not because I disagree with the emphasis; the fact that our government would sentence an innocent man to death — and, by the way, “since 1973, 138 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center — and then follow through on that sentence amid mounting doubt is appalling. A crime was committed in Georgia Wednesday night. One friend commented that the only physical evidence or weapon connected to the Troy Davis case was that used in the execution. That should make us shudder.

However, I found myself forced to wonder why we were comfortable executing Lawrence Brewer on the same night. The answer is obvious: Brewer committed and reveled in an unimaginably cruel hate crime, the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. I didn’t want to know about his crime, but when the phrase “I am Troy Davis” was splashed across various social media outlets, I felt like I had to add “I am Lawrence Brewer,” and I needed to know what I was really saying. Reading more about Brewer, I found a part of myself glad that he is no longer on this Earth. According to an article in The Huffington Post comparing the two death penalty cases, Brewer wrote a letter with these chilling words while in jail for Byrd’s murder: “Well, I did it. And no longer am I a virgin. It was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.”

No one in their right mind wants this man on the streets. But it seems to me that part of the desire to shut away and then kill someone like Brewer is not only that we want to maintain public safety — it’s that we are afraid to acknowledge what we have in common with him. We do not want someone like Brewer to be human because we do not want to see ourselves in him. I do not want to identify myself with a white supremacist whose racism led him to torture and murder a black man. It is easy for me to say that I would never commit such a crime, but what really separates me from Brewer?

"It Is Finished"“It Is Finished” by Christopher Brown (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” This quote gets used a lot of the time to highlight the nice things about human community and relationships, the ways in which we can and should build one another up and take care of one another. That is absolutely right, but it seems to me that in this broken world, if there is ever going to be healing and reconciliation, we must admit that we belong to each other not only in our goodness but also in our darkness.

The reason that history continues to go through cycles of violence, even genocide, is that we continuously (and with good reason!) distance ourselves from the perpetrators of horror, so much so that we fail to recognize those same impulses in our own hearts. We condemn German citizens who did nothing while Jews were rounded up and murdered in their midst, and yet we allow men to be killed by the state, systemic injustice to deny basic healthcare to the poor, suspected terrorists to be held and tortured with no evidence but their ethnicity or nationality in the name of homeland security, and unjust wars to be waged abroad by soldiers with no resources to deal with the repercussions of taking a human life.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist (and the character portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the movie Dead Man Walking) said, “The profound moral question is not, ‘Do they deserve to die?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill them?’” I am reminded of John 8:7, where Jesus challenges the men accusing a woman of adultery: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

I am not advocating lawlessness and disorder. But, innocent or guilty, no human being should have their life taken by the state. We need to acknowledge the inhumanity of the death penalty as being the very thing we are trying not to see in ourselves when we wash our hands of the humanity of someone like Lawrence Brewer.

I have to point out the reactions of each victim’s family to these two executions. The family of James Byrd, Jr., whose body was mercilessly mutilated by Lawrence Brewer, who was unrepentant to the last, begged the courts not to kill him. But the family of Mark MacPhail, whom Troy Davis is accused of killing, welcomed his death, feeling that justice had been served.

I was 14 years old on 9/11. I watched our country’s sense of security crumble with those towers. I still cry almost anytime someone talks about 9/11. And yet, I have never feared terrorists. I do not worry about my safety when I travel. I have caught myself looking at Middle Eastern people with curiosity that borders on suspicion, but I have never really been concerned that he or she is a terrorist or would harm me in any way. What I do fear is that darkness that lies in the human soul, in my own soul, that darkness that leads people like the MacPhails to see death as a victory, that causes crowd members at a GOP rally to cheer when Rick Perry is asked about the record number of executions that have taken place in Texas during his term as governor. I do not fear people like Brewer. I fear the part of me that wants to cheer at Brewer’s death.

As a Christian, I believe that there is only one death in all of history that constituted a victory. If we celebrate any other human death — even the death of Osama bin Laden — we have, indeed, forgotten that we belong to each other, and until our memory is restored, we will have no peace.

I am Troy Davis. I am Lawrence Brewer. May God have mercy on my soul.

Sarah Stockton HowellSarah Stockton Howell is a student at Duke Divinity School and regularly blogs at The Fast I Choose.

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You have eloquently and intelligently 'hit the nail on the head.'
I too think the death  penalty wrong regardless of the victim.  Yet faced with Troy Davis, we not only had to contend with a punishment that we believe to be wrong, but the fact that the chances were excellent that he shouldn't be punished at all.  Repealing the death penalty sometimes feel like an impossible task and while we keep trying, perhaps it is not surprising that when confronted with two victims, and one has a more obvious reason for our sympathy' and has been failed by the justice 'system' that we do have , it is easier to go to work for him?  It is in part an aspect of our human frailty to work harder for the one we perceive to be 'the good guy,' even when others are being wrongly treated as well?  Too Troy Davis' case highlights the cruely and injustice of the death penalty as a whole.  And as he himself so compassionately and intelligently pointed out on his blog the day before he died, we must use the injustice of his death to try harder to change the system for everyone.

A powerful statement.  Thank you.

Thank you for this thoughtful, well-articulated post. Of course we need to ensure our safety and keep dangerous criminals in prison, where they can do no more harm. But killing them simply satisfies a dark, ugly desire for vengeance. It is the opposite of refraining from casting the first stone.

When I heard Sister Prejean speak many years ago, and she signed my copy of her book she wrote just two words: "Choose life."

Why do we find that so hard?

This was a great piece - the death penalty does not remove darkness, just empowers it.

You were "being" rational until you wrote, "As a Christian, I believe that there is only one death in all of history that constituted a victory.", an irrational belief. Christians cheering Rick Perry also seemed irrational to me. My rational view of recent executions is that humanity aborted two more lives.

Thanks for your comment, Doug! I don't know that my goal was to be "rational," but I'm glad you thought I did that for the most part and hope my one non-rational statement didn't detract from the overall argument. I agree with your "rational view of recent executions" wholeheartedly.

Thanks for your comment, Doug! My main intention was not necessarily to be "rational," but I'm glad you thought the majority of my article held together and hope my non-rational statement didn't detract. I wholeheartedly agree with your "rational view of recent executions"!

I live with a public defender engaged exclusively with capital murder. That death penalty gets a lot of play in our discussions together, and with friends and acquaintances. The position of Sarah Stockton Howell, that the person on the other side of the bars (or burning a village and torturing and killing the occupants, or a party in "extraordinary rendition", or the 9-11 hijackers) is of us, is elemental, but so discomforting that it does not persist explicitly in conversations - though I wish that it would. But, concurrently, human nature, development, and circumstances are the basis of mitigation in the penalty phase of a capital murder trial when the state is seeking death. 
Done thoroughly and knowledgeably, penalty phase mitigation opens broadly for view the life of the convicted. Victim's loved ones and community may also be asked by either side to come forward in this phase. The penalty phase is not so closely bounded by what is allowed in testimony and argument as the guilt phase. Guilt is by then concluded and accepted. Also, jurors have guaranteed in advance that they could choose the death penalty. The state tries to evoke severity or even vengeance in the jurors, while the defense takes the position that the act proven may not be so surprising in the view of the jurors, given the total picture and their own life experiences. The jury is left to determine whether death is the best course for the state to take and the court must comply with their decision. Admittedly, residual doubt about the strength of the state's case could still figure in, with one or more jurors in rejecting the state's claim that death is due. But this too acknowledges shared vulnerability to error, misjudgment, hubris, or even malice. The penalty phase, despite its formal, mechanistic, and practical way under current American law, at least leads more toward Sarah Stockton Howell's understanding than away.

I don't think our systems, what the Apostle Paul called "powers and principalities" will ever see the unity of humanity.   We as individuals can see past the differences and recognize that we are all filled with both light and shadow.  This was a brave and lovely essay - thank you Ms. Howell.   It reminds me of this from Thich Nhat Hang ----    (I am the girl raped by pirates . . . I am the pirate)


Simply beautiful. Thank you.

Eloquent and wise beyond your years, but I honestly can't connect the last paragraph to the rest of your article. Jesus Christ is one of my heros, a true role model, but I have never understood his death as being a victory for the rest of us. Perhaps he was victorious, but it's still up to us to make our own way.

Well Articulated... So much truth inside the article..Christian or Muslim or Hindu it doesn't matter..I strongly believe We as Humans don't have any rights to kill fellow being. But, at the same time, Will the world ever be the same without Capital Punishment? btw, it's great of you to point out one of the greatest quotes of Mother Teresa.

Thank you for your essay Sarah.  Years ago I was driven past San Quentin Prison and told that Charles Manson was inside there.  I have often thought of that moment and felt glad that he wasn't killed; I wasn't exactly sure why I felt that way; you have put the reasons into words beautifully.

This is a thoughtful, balanced, and finally beautiful essay.  The presence of evil in the human heart, in mine, and others, has always been prominent in my mind.  In fact, I am far more shocked by humanity's acts of kindness than its acts of cruelty.  I do think that there was one element to the discussion which was omitted - an element which is perhaps more difficult to acknowledge than the commonalities we share with those who commit horrific acts: the possibility that horrific acts are engendered in part by the actions of the victims.  Christ said, "let he who is without sin cast the first stone."  Rumi said, "before you condemn the perpetrator, look into the heart of the victim."  Brewer's actions were not committed in a vacuum, nor were Hitler's.  A woman who dresses provocatively is not to blame if she is raped, nor is a man flashing fistfuls of cash to blame for his mugging, yet neither are innocent.  Being African-American, Jewish, Native American, or a victim of a crime does not equate with innocence, or even lack of responsibility in provoking anger.  Often people we dismiss as bigots can produce cogent arguments to support their beliefs; dismissing them because they hate, or commit violent acts is the same sort of denial the author describes in this essay.  God bless us all, God will judge us all.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, baring your soul.

A year after 9/11, I boarded a flight from Muscat, Oman to
Doha, Qatar.  I was the only Westerner on
the plane.  The curious looks that bordered
on suspicion were directed at me—because of my ethnicity.  That day I learned the sting of xenophobia, and
garnered a new appreciation for its inherent unfairness.

When we are able to distance ourselves from each other, we
are able to treat others as sub-human.  The
sad irony is that when we are consumed by such a frame of mind, we forfeit our own

critical thoughts, beautifully expressed. i hope many young people will discover your work. thank you Sarah

Wonderful, courageous essay. Thank you.

Powerful, intelligent, insightful. Thank you!

Well said.  Thank you for stating what should be obvious.

Thank you for sharing. Your words resonate with me - in my understanding of myself as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I feel poignantly the universal need for the acknowledgement of these dark spaces of human truth. There must be space for me to tell my story, there must be space for my abuser to tell his story. They are two sides of the same story of pain, and it is my belief that we cannot move beyond that story of pain until both sides of it are acknowledged and heard, with love.