Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sadly, We Maintain the Status Quo

Holy Week is always something of a roller coaster ride. We go from the triumphant march into Jerusalem during which "sweet Hosannas ring" to a steady plodding toward death. We know, even as we sing Hosanna, that we will, before the week ends, be singing "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded." And then, in the dark at the start of the Easter Vigil we see the new fire, we baptize new brothers and sisters in Christ and we begin the rejoicing of the resurrection. For church musicians, the rapid cycling of Holy Week comes in two hour blocks of rehearsals, so we are really buffeted.
For most believers, this Holy Week roller coaster ride is tempered by "normal" life, the life led outside devotion and worship. For those of us who supported repeal of the death penalty in Colorado, the roller coaster dominated more aspects of our lives.
I was struck by a meditation I read this week:
But, let me ask you, what of someone who is not a good person?  How do we feel about that person's death?  I think the basic human reaction is one of justification -- they got what they deserved.  So, in considering the death of Judas, don't we withhold our sympathies?  Maybe shake our heads and purse our lips?
The thing about death is that it is so final, whether it is the death of a good person, like Jesus, or a "bad" person, like Judas.  Scripture tells us that God does not value the death of anyone. But we, in our humanness, do make a distinction. In the death of Jesus, isn't that fallacy uncovered as well? Are we not to seek and serve Christ in all persons, regardless?
The demands of the Gospel are both for compassion for those who suffer, and for action that raises the dignity of every person. Sin does much to devalue human life. As disciples of Jesus, should we not, as he did, do what we can to be a corrective to that trajectory?
 I was hopeful that our House Judiciary committee would do their part to correct our death penalty trajectory, Sadly, they did not. Maybe they salved their consciences with the possibility of putting the death penalty before the people, but that will not happen. We will continue to kill people as our way of saying that killing someone is deserving of death. We will maintain the status quo.
This year, the roller coaster of Holy Week has a different perspective for me. I've hit an extra bottom this year, the disappointment of today's vote on the repeal of the death penalty feels like an extra trip to Golgatha. It is only in the certainty of the coming Easter that I find hope.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Politics, Faith and the Death Penalty

It has been a strange couple of days. Unlike last year when I was a volunteer advocate for both health care and juvenile justice, this year we have more volunteer advocates and I thought I could concentrate on health care. But there were few health care bills early in the session and my justice friends started begging me to sign on with the repeal of the death penalty, so last week I agreed. The repeal bill was introduced late on Friday and the first hearing, before the House Judiciary, came yesterday. It was a long hearing -- more than nine hours of testimony from families of victims both for and against the death penalty, former wardens, people speaking from their faith perspectives, exonerees, District Attorneys both for and against, prosecuting and defense attorneys, professors, law enforcement officers, even a death penalty jury foreman. We heard a letter from a former corrections official who said "when you execute the death penalty, dig two graves -- one for the prisoner and one for the executioner. My grave is a psychological one." Those words stuck with me, echoing in my head much of the afternoon and evening. I can quote them almost exactly even more than 24 hours later.
Those in favor of repeal, in purple clothing and wearing purple ribbons, far outnumbered those opposed to repeal. Even most of the families of victims testified, amidst tears, that the lengthy process of a death penalty trial constantly kept their wounds open, that the execution itself was painful and did not bring the healing they had expected. Several said "killing him did nothing to bring back my brother/sister/son/husband/etc."
Even though I testified in favor of the death penalty, I had to wonder about the victim's families who felt confident that an execution would bring justice and/or resolution to their suffering. In one case, there are many years of appeals to come before the execution. For another victim's brother, the execution was converted to life in prison without possibility for parole (LWOP). For him, it seemed there was no hope of resolution. He testified in great, gruesome detail about the grizzly details of his sister's kidnapping, torture and murder by a gang. It sounded like a story he felt compelled to tell, almost as if the telling of it might eventually relieve his pain.
I wondered if hearing so many witnesses quote  the Bible about "Vengeance is mine. says the Lord" was painful. Did they still have faith in God? Had that died along with the relative? Had their need for revenge or justice or whatever replaced their faith? Did it anger them to hear others who lost loved ones in a violent murder scene take a different view than theirs? Is their grave a psychological one, dug along with their loved one's grave? I heard one victim's sister testify in a hearing today say that it hurt to see the attorney that initially represented her brother's murderers. Her anger extended to that attorney and his mere presence at at the hearing the night before upset her.
I found myself praying for the families, that they might come to some sense of peace within themselves, that they not have a psychological grave.
There was no vote on the bill last night. At the time, I took the Chairman's words at face value, that the decision was too serious to be made at such a late hour after so many hours of wrenching testimony. The technical term is that the bill was laid over until a later, unspecified time. It was sadly unfulfilling. There was no resolution. I began to identify with the victims families, needing resolution. What I did not know until much later was that the Executive Director of the Department of Corrections had been murdered in his home. Apparently, word of the murder had reached the members of the committee.
In the middle of today's flurry of calls about what might or might not happen with our repeal bill, a friend called to tell me that her father decided not to have surgery to remove the large tumor growing in his brain. He is at peace with his decision to die, but his daughter is not there. Everything in her screams that it is too soon for her father to die, she is too young to be without a parent. Her son doesn't understand why his grandfather is not fighting this tumor. We talked about how hard it is to relinquish control or our perception that we are in control. I wonder if my friend will find her sense of peace and resolution at her father's death, if she will recognize that the decision was not hers to make or if she will wonder if things would have been different if only... I pray she will not find a psychological grave, but instead bury her need to "fix" in time to share a few peaceful months with her father. She has that opportunity.
The families of the victims don't have that possibility and I do not think the death penalty will help.

A Moral Issue Should Transcend Politics.

Chairman, members of the Judiciary,
My name is Deborah Sampson. I am a Volunteer Advocate for Colorado Interfaith Voices for Justice and a member of the Colorado Episcopal Public Policy Network.

I recently read a quote from Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice:
I'm opposed to the death penalty not because I think it's unconstitutional per se -- although I think it's been applied in ways that are unconstitutional -- but it really is a moral view and that is that the taking of life is not the way to handle even the most significant of crimes. Who amongst anyone is not above redemption? I think we have to be careful in executing final judgement. The one thing my faith teaches me - I don't get to play God. I think you are short cutting the whole process of redemption... I don't want to be the person that stops that process from taking place.
Repeal of the death penalty is not a conservative issue or a liberal issue - politically or theologically. It is a moral issue that should transcend politics.

 Theologically, the scriptures set a tone:
In Hebrew scriptures, Deuteronomy is a book of law.
34 Is not this laid up in store with me,
    sealed up in my treasuries?
35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
    for the time when their foot shall slip;
because the day of their calamity is at hand,
    their doom comes swiftly.
36 Indeed the Lord will vindicate his people,
    have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone,
    neither bond nor free remaining.
In Christian scriptures, Paul admonishes the church in Rome:
18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[a] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
The death penalty is final. It leaves no room for pardon, mercy or forgiveness and these concepts are central to the Bible and, thus, to our theology. In that context, we ask for your vote to repeal.

And that is what I said before the Colorado House Judiciary. It is, by no means, the entirety of my stance on the death penalty which is also informed by the huge price tag for death penalty prosecution and defense and the incredibly high percentage of low-income, black death row inhabitants. In Colorado, all three men on death row even attended the same high school. One must go back some 50 years to see a white man on death row. No statistics seem to exist on which, if any, defendants given the death penalty had private representation from the beginning of their trial process. I'd wager a guess the answer is none. It is a policy that should be repealed on moral and financial grounds.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Back After a Long Interruption

It has been a while. In September 2009, my dear husband was diagnosed with follicular B-cell lymphoma. This is a disease that goes into remission, but cannot be cured. Suddenly, the strong and reliable one in our marriage, the one who supported me through countless medical tests, procedures and appointments was the one in need of support.
In December 2009, about halfway through chemo, he was laid off from his job. Thus began the my education in COBRA and, later, in the effects of pre-existing conditions in the individual insurance market. While we were thankful for any insurance at all in August 2010 when he had surgery for colon cancer, COBRA is a constant battle between the consumer and the administrator who wants to cut off your insurance as quickly as possible.  The surgery was considered a cure, for which we are thankful. As hubby reached the magic Medicare age of 65 and COBRA was running out, I learned that there was really no point in applying for an individual insurance plan. With my medical history, there was no way I was getting insurance. Actually, despite my excellent cholesterol numbers, excellent blood sugar, etc., the ratio between my height and my weight meant insurance companies didn't even care about my medical history, I was simply not insurable. I contemplating running an ad "Will work for health insurance," but I really didn't want to take a job. I do valuable volunteer work and I was not ready to give that up for health insurance. Enter a special program called CoverColorado that offers health insurance to folks with pre-existing conditions. I had insurance. It isn't cheap and the deductible is high, but it is insurance that equals what many others get from small employers.
At the same time that I was getting my hard-knocks education on buying individual insurance, Congress was considering the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Thanks, ObamaCare! I read that bill thoroughly and repeatedly. I found myself trying to correct misconceptions about what the bill did and did not do. No, there is no death panel. A nationwide ID card is a good thing that protects our wishes if we are injured outside our home state. And on and on and on. At one point, I had a standard document I sent to anyone who sent me the "55 terrible things ObamaCare will do to ruin your life" email. I studied single-payer insurance options, programs that reduce health care costs, options in health care delivery and countless other related topics. I educated myself in ways most folks don't have the time or inclination to do.
In January 2012, I added to my volunteer titles Volunteer Advocate for Colorado Interfaith Voices for Justice. Yes, I became a lobbyist! My primary area was, and is, health care, though I dabbled in Juvenile Justice to help pass a bill eliminating direct file of juveniles as adults in most cases. I learned about Medicaid, long-term care and loads of other subjects I never thought I'd need to know. In May, I was named to the Individual Experience Advisory Group for Colorado Health Benefits Exchange (COHBE).
Now, in March 2013, we've adjusted to our new normal. Hubby is in remission from lymphoma, I'm more comfortable with all my new volunteer jobs, and I have the time to resume my blog.
It is good to be back!

Thoughts on Voting Rights and SCOTUS

A siren, flashing lights. Fred pulled over. The police car stopped right behind us. We had no idea why we were being pulled over. We weren't speeding. We were on the way home from Junior Achievement where I was CEO of our company and Fred was the CFO. We were good kids.
"Girl, does your Daddy know you got a nigger boyfriend."
"No, sir. He isn't my boyfriend. He's giving me a ride home because Dad has the car at work."
"You kids know you got a taillight out? Gotta write you up."
That was Topeka, Kansas circa 1968, almost 20 years after Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. It was not acceptable to that policeman to see a white girl in a car with a black boy.
Lydia and I were new neighbors out walking and talking, learning our new neighborhood. Children of the '50's, we were nervous when we noticed the sheriff's car that seemed to be on every street corner.
"You ladies live around here?"
"Yes, sir. We just moved in next door to each other on ??? Circle."
"Got any proof of that?"
In Denver suburbia late 1990's, there was still a bit of paranoia among law enforcement about blacks.
On another morning walk, we saw "NIGGER GO HOME! BLACKS GET OUT!" painted on the van around the corner.
A 4-year old says to a fellow student in her pre-school class, "I can't play with you because you have brown skin." The year was 2000. Again in Denver suburbs, not one of the areas covered by section 5 of Voting Rights Act.
Those last three events happened rather recently, more than 40 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed and 50 years after Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. We still don't live in a color-blind world. Even though I thought we'd gotten past the prejudices of the 50's and 60's, we haven't, not even here in our middle-class, highly educated suburban neighborhood. What must it be like in the areas specified in section 5?
How incredibly naive is Justice Thomas when he declares that there is no need for the Voting Rights Act? When Justice Scalia says it is perpetuation of racial entitlement? If this old white lady in suburbia can see that prejudice is still systemic and some SCOTUS justices can't, what hope is there for justice? Just seven years ago, Congress did a massive review of facts and almost unanimously voted to renew the Voting Rights Act. Is it justice if five members of the Court acting on their opinions, and obviously willfully ignorant of facts, can strike down a law that is still necessary?
Some might say that the voter suppression activities that we saw in 2012 were color-blind changes. If they are honest, they might say they were efforts geared toward suppressing Democrat voters, but those most directly impacted were minorities. Look at the photos and you will see long lines of black Americans waiting in 6-hour long lines to cast their ballots. The Sunday voting programs are predominant in Black dominant churches. The counties restricting voter registration were often counties with large percentages of black or Latino citizens. Even if the discriminatory practices were designed to keep Democrats from voting, the evidence indicates the majority of the victims were non-white. 
So long as a young girl hears "I can't play with you because you have brown skin" and hoodlums paint vans with racial epithets and law enforcement expresses suspicion based solely on skin color, the Voting Rights Act and all its provisions must be preserved. To kill it in the Supreme Court is to kill justice in this country.