Every fire will eventually calm down to mere embers.
The past couple of months has seen little in the way of updates here on the website. I had two posts, one about an email and another with commentary framing it, but I sat on them for a couple months before publishing them. In the mean time, I had been doing some substantial travel and research, perusing new texts, talking to experts, and experiencing so much first hand.
When I would try to sit down and write, though, it was always difficult. I am still in grad school, and around spring break and after, this semester started picking up quickly. This is not to make an excuse, but to simply say that life was happening, and still is in many ways. Finding a balance is hard and oh so necessary.
So I thought that I would build a bookshelf for all the new texts that were slowly piling up around every free nook and cranny in our small home. In my head I was saying that if I could use my hands and get all of this organized, then I would be ready to go. So I built a new bookcase in a couple days, and I put everything up on the shelves, and it is already filled nearly to the brim with all the books that previously had no home.
But I still didn’t write.
This past week, though, there was a change. Governor Lee of Tennessee decided to not grant clemency to Don Johnson, and on Thursday evening, May 16, he was put to death by lethal injection. The days leading up to the execution, various faith leaders and friends of Don from all over came to the Capitol to simply ask Gov. Lee one question: will you pray with him before you put him to death?
I was there for the meeting on Wednesday, and we got into the Capitol after much trouble, mainly from state troopers saying we could not take in pieces of paper bigger than 8″x11″. Finally we got in and made it to the Governor’s office to find that, allegedly, no one was in there save one staff person and some state troopers. Not only that, but the area was blocked off, as evidenced in this picture, something that Rev. Jeannie Alexander of No Exceptions Prison Collective said she had not seen before in all the times she has been up there (which is frankly an incalculable amount).
Eventually, the one staff person did come out and collect our papers which had a picture of Don Johnson and the question to Gov. Lee of his going to pray with him. The staff person encouraged us to use the online scheduling portal in the future. Then someone in the group asked him if he was a praying man, to which he responded, “I am, but I can’t do that since I’m on the clock.”
I suppose some people’s theologies are different.
Gov. Lee never prayed with Don Johnson. I think what Rev. Alexander says about it sums it up quite nicely, too, when she notes the following as part of a bigger post:
“The governor has spoken on multiple occasions about how visiting prisoners changed him, and surely that is why he ultimately refused. The governor feared transformation; Don Johnson embraced it.”
When they put Don to death that night, they feared their own transformation. They were scared to look him in the eye and see that he is a human being, not a monster that they have kept away from the public for the good of everyone. As Rev. Alexander said that Wednesday, “There are no monsters in Unit 2,” which is the death row unit at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
Not only was Gov. Lee scared to see a human, though; he was scared to see the image of God. I am of the opinion that the imago dei rests within each and every one of us, and that we are all sharing in divinity together. I think Rev. Alexander was quite right when she said, “Last night we killed the image of God.” Indeed we did, and indeed we do every time this happens.
So Gov. Lee allowed Don Johnson to die. This just two days ago. And as I sit at my table writing this now while seeing the blue skies, white puffy clouds, and the brightness of the sun, I remember that at Montgomery Bell State Park this very moment is gathered American Identity Movement, formerly Identity Europa, a white supremacist group that is having a meeting of some sort at a park they have entirely rented out. I can’t help but remember in Twelve Years a Slave the scene in which Epps forces Northup to whip Patsey, and when Northup stops, Epps takes the whip and whips Patsey himself, and Northup says the following:
“It was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight – the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees – peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere, save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him” (257).
It is a day like that here in Nashville. The warmth of the sun fills me with life and the blue skies offer me promise of hope. But in the midst of this, there exists in our bosoms a counter to this peace, a spirit that desires to upend any chance of progress in favor of supremacist ideals and backwards Christianity.
This juxtaposition and the events of the past few days have offered me clarity. What I have discovered after trying to reignite the fire was that building a bookcase and organizing my texts weren’t going to offer me motivation. I had to get back to the heart of why I am doing this in the first place. It is about people: seeing people, listening to people, and taking their stories to heart and allowing them to transform us so that we can see the beauty and divinity that exists within each person who comes into this world. Once we are transformed, and continue to be transformed, we tell a new narrative, one that does away with supremacist notions and tells of a yet-unseen equality that exists when we recognize each other as fully human and holders of the divine image. As much as I love books, they just don’t offer that picture the same way that actually interacting with people does.
This project was not and is not and will never be just about tools and furniture and buildings. It was and is and always will be about people. And as it turns out, the flint I needed to strike was not to be found in yet another group of books or microfilm or old newspapers; it was to be found in the hearts of people and their stories and their lives.
So consider me reignited. God and everyone else knows there is a whole hell of a lot of work to do, and you can’t burn up all this chaff with just a few embers.