NEW YORK — For Sister Helen Prejean, the first stand a Catholic takes against the death penalty in the United States doesn’t need to be grand. In fact, she believes all it takes is a desire, and a pen, to start on the path towards change.
“I urge everybody to raise your voice in the public square in some way,” said Prejean, a leading American advocate against the death penalty. “One action. To sign a petition. To write a letter to the Attorney General of the United States on behalf of these lives with these names, these people. Do not kill these people and to raise our voice. To do that, and once we get in the current of the river where we’re activists with other people, then life surges in us.”
Prejean was speaking during an online discussion Friday organized by the Georgetown University Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, where panelists advocated against the death penalty, and lamented the three federal executions scheduled for next week.
President Donald Trump resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus. There have been 10 federal executions since. The most recent were Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old from Texas, and Alfred Bourgeois, a 56-year-old from Louisiana, who were executed last month.
If the three federal executions scheduled for next week go forward, the number of federal executions in the last half-year of Trump’s presidency will conclude at 13.
“17 years we haven’t had any executions, and now there’s like a spree. You’ve already killed 10 and the plan is to kill three more. Our moral challenge is to work out of hope. Hope is an active verb, and we cannot be paralyzed and overwhelmed by what is going on around us,” Prejean said.
Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan Jr., executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches, tied the last string of federal executions to the “Operation Warp Speed” initiated by the government to create the coronavirus vaccines in record time.
“The president and attorney general Barr, formerly of that position, have also undertaken ‘Operation Warp Speed’ with respect to executions in federal prison,” Sullivan said.
“An illogical step that proves nothing because anyone who has lost a loved one to murder can tell you executions do not give us wholeness, do not restore us, do not help us grieve. They simply put hollow empty instruments of death that continue cycles of death. Cycles that claimed our loved ones. So, I’m prepared to say today, do not kill in our names.”
Sullivan has dealt with murder in his family. His sister Jennifer was murdered in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, 24-years-ago. To him, murder is murder.
“It is embarrassing to me that the states, and in this case the federal government, would replicate the value systems and ethics of killers, of people who claim lives through acts of violent crime in our land,” he said.
Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, reiterated the plea from Sullivan to stop the upcoming federal executions, but noted what happened under the Trump administration is likely an aberration. President-elect Joe Biden has stated his opposition to capital punishment.
Now, Murphy said, is the time to hold Biden’s feet to the fire.
“As Catholics, we need to be a strong mobilized and persistent voice calling on our states, our legislators, our governors, but also calling on the new administration that has already opened the door here,” Murphy said.
“Catholic Mobilizing this week has launched a petition to President-elect Biden saying thank you for your opposition to the death penalty, we want concrete steps. So, what we’ve said is absolutely imminently, or immediately, suspend all federal executions when you get into office.”
But as the death penalty still exists in many states – 28, to be exact – Sullivan will also advocate against racism in the criminal justice system. He recognizes that Black people are at a disadvantage in the court of law.
“We know when a white person is murdered there’s more enthusiasm, more resources, more interest and a fixing capital punishment, death penalty to those who were convicted of those crimes,” Sullivan said. “We also know when a black person is accused of committing one of those crimes, a vicious crime of murder, then that person is more likely to receive the death penalty than anyone else.”
Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, like Prejean, had a simple request to Catholics as a way to create change: Start everyday with the gospel.
“I think this is very urgent, because, if not, we get coopted by political parties of all different kinds, and we kind of get pulled into an agenda and say, well, the other issues aren’t so important. The gospel sets the agenda, and we have to be people who let the gospel light in,” Flores said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg