by Emma Johnston
“One of the most effective means of disengaging the church from the work of justice is making injustice a philosophical concept” – Soong Chan Rah.
Over the past three years, I was a full time seminarian at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. From the very first class, my faith was challenged. One of the most beautiful things of the seminary environment is that your faith is questioned, broken down, and then built up through deeper learning and understanding of Scripture and its interactions with other texts, and the ministry that we are engaging in during our internships.
In September of 2015, my small group and I endeavored to learn more about systemic issues in our world. Our focus was the death penalty and for them, and for me, it was a chance to challenge our beliefs and to engage in a conversation that is often not had on college campuses. We watched the movie Dead Man Walking, and some of the young women still felt like capital punishment was a viable option, whereas some were challenged to reflect more on the justice system that our country champions but on both sides, there was compassion and a willingness to listen and question themselves.
The Death Penalty
Forty-four years ago, Furman v Georgia ruled that capital punishment was arbitrary, and all of those on death row were commuted to life sentences. Forty years ago, Gregg v Georgia new laws were upheld and the death penalty was reinstated. For the past twenty-three years, a group of activists, death row exonerees and murder victim family members gather for the four days between the two Supreme Court cases (June 29th – July 2nd) to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.
This past week, I was finally able to embody and live out the justice and compassion that I believe I am called to as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. For so long, I have spoken about and wanted to participate in action that would share the Gospel through my actions. For the first time ever, I participated in the fast and vigil to abolish the death penalty. I fasted for 90 hours and held vigil on the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). I cried as I heard stories of young children, moms and dads who were murdered. I cried as I heard the stories of those who were wrongfully convicted of the murders, and how they fought to prove their innocence.
Love in Action
I believe that the best way I can share the love, grace and hope of God is through action. I spent a night sleeping on the sidewalk beside SCOTUS and was able to talk to passersby late at night and early in the morning. I was able to share with them why I’m driven to take action against the death penalty. As the Church, we are called to share the Gospel wherever we go, whatever we do. This past week, I was able to do just that. I was able to share that no matter what a person has done, they do not deserve death, but life.
This may have been my first direct action, this may have been my foot in the door, but it certainly will not be the last time. Being in the midst of such hope gave me the strength to continue my fast, being in the midst of true forgiveness like that was one of the most powerful things I have been a part of and I am thankful for the opportunity to have been there.
We are not meant to disengage, we are called to engage. We are called to do more. We are called to walk the extra mile, to give the clothes off of our backs, to offer that dollar. Not everyone is called to advocate on the steps of the Supreme Court, but everyone is called to take care of the least, the lonely, and the lost, and I hope that you find a way in which you can live our your call to compassion and justice.
Emma holds a Masters in Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary and is currently the Summer Intern at the Faith in Public Life. Emma is a candidate for ministry on the deacon track.