Faith and the Death Penalty – God’s Grace Gets the Last Word

Harold Wilson speaking and offering testimony on his experience in prison and exoneration. Speaking at Executing Grace book release.

A night at Arch Street

Shane Claiborne's new book Executing Grace

Last night over 100 people filled into Arch Street Methodist in Center City to make space for faith in Christ to address the Death Penalty. I’m pretty excited about Shane Claiborne’s new book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing UsYou can see professional photos of the event by Amanda Capasso here.

Circle of Hope joined Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, The Alternative Seminary, Amnesty International, Red Letter Christians, and Witness to Innocence in varying stages of planning this time of worship, storytelling, celebrating Shane’s new book on the topic, and the call to action. Over a dozen Circle of Hope singers, musicians, and performance artists contributed to leading the event.

A sharing time

Harold Wilson [check out Democracy Now’s story here], born and raised at 18th and South in Philadelphia, shared about the trauma of being on death row for 17 years for crimes he did not commit. He is the 122nd exonerated death row survivor, the 6th in Pennsylvania. During and after his ordeal, his faith in Christ remained steadfast. He said, “God will deliver you from all evil and God will walk with you.” Regularly, he repeated the prayer of Jesus dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” as he awaited his own state-sponsored execution. Harold encouraged us to give Jesus a chance to reach people and touch them before killing them cuts those chances too short.

Vicki Shieber, Director and Co-Founder of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, told the story of her daughter Shannon, the only known fatality of the Center City rapist [The Inquirer’s coverage database here]. She shared a story of profound loss, her 24-year-old daughter and Wharton student at UPenn, was raped and killed by Troy Graves—who would not be apprehended until nearly five years later and a string of rapes in Colorado. She and her husband had been against the death penalty for their daughter’s murderer from early on. The Shiebers saw what kind of “closure” executions brought other bereaved families and opted for a way to wholeness that includes a relationship with Graves’ mother and eventually the perpetrator himself. She expressed gratitude for how much profound good has come from something so terrible.

Blew shared a performance piece putting the historical deadly violence against Black people in the United States into personal contexts and stressed that God’s grace will have the last word. Shane read a little from his book, and shared powerful stories and insights like, “If we believe a murder is beyond redemption we need to tear out half our Bible” and “The Death Penalty did not happen in spite of Christians, but because of us”—linking the largest concentrations of state executions to the same places where lynchings took place 100 years ago.

Amazing Grace

The night closed with a story about Kelly Gissendanger, a repentant accessory to murder, who when she was being executed in Georgia last year used the song Amazing Grace as her last words. We sang these powerful words together.

Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a child like me.
I once was lost but not I’m found was blind but now I see.

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