The state of Georgia became the object of scorn this week by executing Troy Davis, who was convicted of murdering a cop in Savannah in 1989. Evidence since his conviction casts some doubt on whether Davis did it—how much doubt I have no idea. I have no reason to imagine that Georgia’s pardons and parole board was acting in anything other than good faith. Regardless, Davis insisted that he was innocent up to his death. Many public figures—from Jimmy Carter (predictably) to politicians with solidly conservative bona fides like former U.S. Representative Bob Barr—opposed the execution, as did a former FBI Director, William Sessions.
It was funny the way many news reports also included Pope Benedict XVI in this list of opponents. They might have explained that since the Roman Catholic Church opposes capital punishment in general, the pontiff’s stance would only be newsworthy if he did support the death penalty for Davis!
I hope that my heart hasn’t become numb to these types of stories. Unlike many of my colleagues in ministry, and other Facebook friends, I didn’t feel any deep emotional investment in the outcome of Davis’s last-minute appeals. After all, I’ve lived in a death-penalty state all my life (except for that brief period in the ’70s when the U.S. Supreme Court banned it because of its unfair application). It’s not like I needed the Davis case to wake me up to the sobering reality of it—or to the likelihood that innocent people have been and will continue to be executed, whether Davis, in this case, “did it” or not.
Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted, indignantly, that she can’t believe that people are getting more worked up about yesterday’s changes to the Facebook newsfeed than they are to the fact that the state is going to execute someone. I wasn’t sure what to do with that. As long as Georgia has the death penalty, they (or should I say we?) will continue to kill people with it. If not Davis, then somebody else really soon. If not in Georgia, then in some other state in our union.
If we had to wait for tragedies to cease before we could resume our normal life, who could get on with living? We all have 24/7 access to every kind of tragedy, evil, and injustice if we choose to avail ourselves of it.
The whole spectacle of the Troy Davis story reminds me of a 1975 Bob Dylan song called “Black Diamond Bay,” which describes the last fateful moments in the lives of several people living on a tiny resort island that literally explodes from a volcanic eruption. The last verse shifts abruptly to the perspective of someone (presumably Dylan himself) learning about the disaster on TV:
I was sitting home alone one night in LA
Watching old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news
It seems there was an earthquake that
Left nothing but a Panama hat
And a pair of old Greek shoes
Didn’t seem like much was happening
So I turned it off and went to grab another beer
Seems like every time you turn around
There’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear
And there’s really nothing anyone can say
And I never did plan to go anyway
To Black Diamond Bay.
For me, TV (and the internet) flattened the whole tragic story of the murdered police officer, Mark MacPhail, and his family—not to mention Troy Davis and his family—to just “another hard-luck story” that I’m going to hear when I turn on the news.
The media make events like this one seem unreal to me—too abstract, too distant. I don’t know the facts of the events in question. I don’t know these people on my screen. I don’t know the truth. I could muster some compassion for them, but how do I know my compassion is real, and not simply manufactured by media producers who are trying to tell me a good story—which means better ratings and more ad revenue?
How do I know that my “compassion” isn’t instead a voyeuristic kind of entertainment?
I am, along with the United Methodist Church (see ¶ 164.f of the Book of Discipline), opposed to the death penalty in all cases. As long as we safely imprison murderers so that they are no longer a danger to others, we can afford to wait on God’s justice to be done. Besides, God implements his own death penalty at the end of our natural lives. No one escapes it. And no one escapes justice in the long run. God sees to it.
So here I am, opposing the death penalty. Big deal. Unless or until I can do something about it in a meaningful way, what am I supposed to do about Troy Davis? I trust that God placed compassionate people in his life to help him, and that compassionate people are helping his family now. I trust that God has placed compassionate people in the lives of Officer MacPhail’s family. I’m obviously not one of those people.
Posting angry words about it on Facebook or even on a blog(!) hardly counts as meaningful action. It’s cost-free compassion. I need costly compassion. And that starts with people I know and people who are within my sphere of influence—people I feel called to care for.
In the meantime, I’m turning off the news again.