Everyday Ignatian is a monthly series by Shannon K. Evans, a writer and mother of five living in Iowa who is chronicling moments of grace in the midst of her chaotic daily life through the lens of Ignatian spirituality.
By Shannon K. Evans
January 26, 2021 — A few weeks ago I spent an hour sitting on a folding chair in the snow behind a row of hammered-together crosses and candles that kept blowing out in the wind. Our local Catholic Worker community had organized a simple public protest of capital punishment, each of us taking shifts throughout the day to keep vigil for 10 prisoners who had been federally executed in the past year, as well as the three who would be put to death only days later.
Represented among us were elderly women and college students, middle class moms and single men. With the blessing of the local police department and a few passersby daring to take a walk in the freezing temperatures, we observed silence for the grief that is the culture of death in our nation. We resolved to take one full day to pray for a nation that could one day imagine restorative, rather than retributive, justice.
Distracting myself from the increasingly numb sensation in my legs, I spent part of my hour thinking about the fact that Jesus himself had intervened to stop the execution of a woman caught in adultery. When the public called for her to be stoned to death for her offense as prescribed by law, Jesus spoke the now well-known line, “Let him without sin cast the first stone.”
Saint Ignatius taught that to truly be changed by the Scriptures, we must apply our imaginations to them. In this story, I can almost physically feel the embarrassment and fear that the woman bore. I wonder if she was fully clothed or exposed to the world; whether her wrists were tied together by her accusers, or whether she had followed them willingly, head hanging in shame. I can imagine the hatred and vitriol that consumed her accusers, perhaps because her moral failure made them feel more pious. In my head they are almost salivating at the prospect of self-righteously executing punishment.
In my mind’s eye, I can see Jesus intervening with the quiet authority that shut people up without them understanding quite why. I picture his kind eyes of love and compassion, knowing that the woman is so much more than her worst choice; seeing her for the full, complicated, broken human being that she is. “Go and sin no more.”
Jesus’ response to capital punishment is a belief in the human spirit; a belief that forgiveness carries power; a belief that people can change; a belief that no one is beyond repair in an environment of restoration. Jesus had the eyes of a mystic, seeing that every soul longs for God and every soul deserves to have as long as possible to find the God they seek.
And where was the man in the story — the one with whom the woman was supposedly caught in adultery? What of him? Similar questions could be asked today. Where on death row are the ones with social capital? The less vulnerable? The wealthy ones who have friends in high places or can afford good lawyers? Sister Helen Prejean has worked with inmates on death row for 40 years and attests that she has never met anyone there with money or resources. “Capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment,” she says.
After my hour of vigil came to a close and I was relieved by a fresher, warmer body, I started the 10-minute walk back to my house. As I walked, I thought about Jesus’ clarity against the act of taking someone’s life as retribution for their crime. It is time our country followed suit. There is currently talk of the federal death penalty being abolished under the new U.S. administration — which should be a huge cause for celebration among Christians — but it would still be legal in 28 states. What’s more, my own state of Iowa is actually considering bringing it back after abolishing it in 1965, signaling a tragic backpedaling on progress.
Despite knowing the height of the mountain left to climb, I noticed an undeniable peace in my spirit as I thawed myself out in a warm bath upon arriving home. What was this feeling, and why was it here? Shouldn’t I feel only heaviness and grief about the inmates who were headed to their doom in the next week?
I recalled the words of social activist A.J. Muste who was once asked by a reporter if he really thought his simple candlelight protest of the Vietnam War would really change national policy. “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country,” Muste explained. “I do this so the country won’t change me.”It seems the act of taking a simple public stand to conscientiously object to the status quo left its mark on me, sealing off my soul from total despair and relinquishing it to God alone.Click To Tweet
While I do believe that peaceful demonstrations can help form public opinion and therefore —eventually — policy, I knew our tiny little protest was not going to abolish the death penalty in and of itself. Indeed, Lisa Montgomery, Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs were still executed the following week as scheduled. I shed tears for them; yet that sense of peace has not left. It seems the act of taking a simple public stand to conscientiously object to the status quo left its mark on me, sealing off my soul from total despair and relinquishing it to God alone.
Perhaps all Christians should be activists; perhaps this is what James meant when he said that pure and undefiled religion is to “keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Perhaps what changes us will also one day change the world.
Shannon K. Evans is the author of “Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World.” Her writing has been featured in America and Saint Anthony Messenger magazines, as well as online at Ruminate, Verily, Huffington Post, Grotto Network and others. Shannon, her husband and their five children make their home in central Iowa.