Last night the state of Georgia executed the kid who they let live under a bridge. Joshua Bishop was a person who never had a fair shake at life. He lived with violence. His mother was abusive; she was addicted to alcohol and drugs. Josh didn’t want to leave her because he didn’t want her to be alone. Sometimes she made him sleep under their trailer. He spent his part of his childhood living under a bridge near a grocery store to get away from the abuse. He was in and out of foster care and children’s homes. When Josh was 19, he was high on cocaine and booze and made the horrible decision to take another person’s life – something he quickly regretted. But tonight – the state of Georgia – in a sober and calculated decision took his life with no regret, somehow believing that this would even the score.
To my little world-changer:
When I first found out you were coming into our world, I knew I had so many things to tell you. While you were still a bundle of dividing cells, I was already imagining how you might change the world – and how we might do it together. Before I even had morning sickness, (and did I ever have morning sickness!) your dad and I had long conversations about how we would invite you into our work and vocations, how you would travel with us and be part of every aspect of our lives. We knew from the beginning that our most important job was to teach you how to create a more just world. Now as a 4-year-old, you still tell people that you will grow up to be “a filmmaker and a professor.” I guess this work of inviting you into our vocations is taking root.
What follows is a confession – a confession of a social justice loving Christian theologian who for too many years didn’t think much about the death penalty. I grew up in evangelical churches who taught me to be pro-life, but were woefully inconsistent. We cared that babies weren’t killed in the womb, but didn’t care as much that poverty might cause them to live on the edge of death once they were born. When it came to prisons, we visited people in hopes they would be saved, but said nothing about the death penalty that was designed to take their lives.
One in thirty-one. That’s how many Americans are in in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole. In the US, our incarceration rate is 10 times higher than that of other countries while our actual crime rate is lower than those same countries. Citing a 600% increase in the prison population since the 1960’s, with no correlating increase in crime, Michelle Alexander has called mass incarceration “the new Jim Crow.” When people of color represent 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of those incarcerated, we are in league with David, staring at a towering giant, armed with a prayer and a handful of stones.