Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer: The Burden of Care

He didn't say we didn't care about capital punishment. He didn't say we didn't care about the state killing "anyone." He said we didn't care about Lawrence Brewer. And, the truth is, he's right.
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One of the interesting things about Facebook is how it can sometimes burst the protective bubbles in which we often hold our more important moral conversations and force us to do some actual reflection. On Wednesday night, I watched in horror and shame as my home state of Georgia killed one of its citizens because he had been unable to "prove his innocence" before the final sands of legal process dropped away, despite the steadfast presence of what can only be described as reasonable doubt of his guilt. I lit a virtual candle on my own Facebook page; I affirmed that "I am Troy Davis" in the sense that if it could happen to him, it could happen to me; I commiserated virtually with some other like-minded friends about the tragedy of Davis' death, the barbarity of the death penalty and the injustice of its selective and flawed application, and went to bed.

But then, earlier today, a friend with whom I often find myself in disagreement on political issues caught me off-guard with a Facebook post. First of all, I wouldn't have pegged him as anti-death penalty, which was a good learning experience in itself. But his post itself was a sobering and provocative moral reflection from David Henson, an Episcopalian youth minister and blogger from Augusta, GA. Among many points to ponder, Henson charges that those of us (himself included) who lit candles, virtual and otherwise, for Troy Davis didn't care about another execution that happened yesterday, which was Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist who brutally murdered James Byrd, an African-American man, by tying him behind a truck and dragging him until his body was literally torn apart.

My first reaction was that Henson really got that part wrong. Focusing on Davis' case doesn't mean we didn't care about Brewer. I myself certainly care that the state has the power to decide that anyone is no longer entitled to his or her own life on the basis of their actions, no matter how heinous. As a Christian theologian, I can't reconcile that with my tradition's profound commitment to the infinite value of each individual life and the hope and power of redemption despite (and perhaps even because of) divine judgment. And as someone who cares about the moral dimensions of public life, I continue to be astonished that many of the same people who would join in the applause for Governor Perry's record-setting number of legal government executions can, in the same breath, question the basic competence of the government to manage much of anything effectively and summarize their political philosophy as one of "limited government."

But that's not what Henson was talking about.

He didn't say we didn't care about capital punishment. He didn't say we didn't care about the state killing "anyone." He said we didn't care about Lawrence Brewer. And, the truth is, he's right. I cared about Troy Davis, about a man who was quite possibly the victim of an unjust application of an unjust law, ironically all in the name of justice. And I cared about the death penalty being applied against anyone. But I didn't "care" about Lawrence Brewer, the perpetrator of one of the most despicable hate crimes in my lifetime. I wished the state hadn't killed him and still think that the law which allowed it to do so is immoral and unjust, but that's not the same thing.

Do we really have to "care" about Lawrence Brewer? I suppose it depends on what you mean by "care." Affection? Appreciation? Fondness? Obviously not. But what about concern for him in terms of recognizing him as a human being, not simply an issue? That's still a tough order. It's an awful lot easier to be against an issue like capital punishment than for a person like Lawrence Brewer. It is hard to imagine how a human being could do what he did. But it is Lawrence Brewer's personhood, his humanity, that really matters when it comes to how we should treat him.

Let's be very clear: Lawrence Brewer's views were beyond despicable and demand sharp and loud judgment; his crimes were appalling almost beyond imagination and demand severe and lasting punishment. But he is nevertheless still a person, still human, still a creature of God which Scripture tells us bears the very image of God in some mysterious way. And so his humanity is not an "issue" to be debated nor a privilege that can either be forfeited by him or demanded of him; it is a reality that makes profound moral demands on us to honor, which don't go away even when he profoundly, hideously rejected his own moral responsibility to care about James Byrd.

Dick Gregory understood that. As Henson points out, it was an aged African-American civil rights leader who was one of the few voices raised to defend the humanity of a white supremacist who was clearly guilty of a truly heinous hate crime, holding vigil and even fasting in protest outside Brewer's prison.

Yes, I am Troy Davis. I still think that's an important prophetic and moral statement to make. But yes: I am Lawrence Brewer, too. Even as I type it, my fingers want to recoil from the keys in protest. But that's precisely why they, and I, and we, have to say it and mean it. I am Lawrence Brewer, whether I like it or not, because we are bound together inextricably in our common humanity. And I (and we) do have to care about that, because if we do not, we don't simply dehumanize him; we dehumanize ourselves as well.


May God Bless Your Souls

Prayers for Troy Davis

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