Oklahomans for Grace and the EJUSA Evangelical Network co-sponsored a panel discussion on Oklahoma’s death penalty at Saint John’s Episcopal Church located in Oklahoma City on March 25. The audience was invited to reimagine accountability when harm happens.
“Oklahoma has been going on an execution spree that we as Christians must lament while we also work to break this cycle of violence,” Sam Heath, manager of the EJUSA Evangelical Network, said. “We hold to the New Testament teaching that ‘faith without deeds’ is dead, and Christians are joining together to end the death penalty and make way for healing.”
Moderated by Heath, the panel featured T. Sheri Dickerson, a minister and racial equity activist, and Connie Johnson, former Oklahoma State senator and former chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Both women shared their personal experience with violence and their call to respond with nonviolence, grace and an opportunity for redemption.
“How can we live in a restorative way? What does it look like to live restoratively?” Heath asked the audience.
Heath set the tone by addressing common arguments for the death penalty. He argued that there was no logical support in a case for capital punishment as it is not cheap, does not deter crime, provokes violence and carried out in a discriminatory, torturous and botched way.
Heath invited the audience to remember who they worship and who their neighbor is. “When we look at who Christians worship, we have an incredible proximity to the system,” he said, encouraging Christians to actively seek out those who have needs.
Throughout his presentation, Heath employed the words of James Baldwin, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” Arguing that Oklahomans want a change in response to harm, Heath pointed to a statistic that 78% of Oklahomans are in favor of pausing executions.
Adam Luck served as the Chairman of Oklahoma’s Board of Pardons and Parole until he resigned under pressure after voting in favor of clemency for death-row prisoners.
Luck joined the conversation, providing a brief but compelling history of executions in the state and the exonerations — 10 of the 190 that have occurred in the United States. “It took being intimately involved with [the death penalty] to gain a really clear understanding of what’s actually taking place,” he said.
The panel discussion aimed to move the audience from awareness to activism. Asked to share any events that led them to their position on the death penalty, Johnson shared that her brother was murdered at Langston University.
The community asked if they wanted to seek revenge on her behalf. “At the time, given the option, it wasn’t going to bring my brother back was my belief,” she said. Johnson later ran for office and campaigned on criminal justice reform.
Dickerson lost four family members to violence. While sitting in courtrooms after the murder of family members, she resolved: “They didn’t have the right to take the life of my family member. No one had the right to take theirs.”
Dickerson said that she identifies as an abolitionist and argued against the death penalty. For her, capital punishment does not bring justice or peace; instead, it had the opposite effect.
“We have moved from the noose to the needle,” Dickerson said. Tying the history of lynching to capital punishment, she added that incarceration is a tool of voter suppression.
The event ended with a call to action, and audience members were encouraged to join groups like Death Penalty Action and to make the work a part of their Sunday morning worship and learning experiences.
To view the livestream of the event, click here.