Jeff Hood is a long-time death penalty activist operating in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. He’s written a number of books, the latest of which is The Execution of God, a creative theological exploration of how God is present on death row. So I wanted to catch up with Jeff about his new book and his thinking about death penalty. He has a very provocative way of talking about God’s presence in the humanity of condemned prisoners.
MG: Hey Jeff, thanks for being willing to talk with me about your new book The Execution of God. It’s a very fascinating theological account of the death penalty. I wanted to start off by asking: how did you get started in your advocacy work against the death penalty?
JH: There in the bondage of killing, I got struck down by a miraculous light. “Jeff! Jeff! Why are you executing me?” The world has never been the same. Quite frankly Brother Morgan, I got saved.
MG: Do you have a particular date for your Damascus road encounter? What were you doing when the blinding light struck you?
JH: The further we travel into the mystery of God the more dates disappear. I remember it was sometime between killing and loving. Light hits seekers of the mystery. While it’s tough to remember where or how or even when, one knows when they’ve been changed. The light never stops.
MG: All right let’s try it this way. When was the first time you went to a death penalty protest?
JH: The devil was down in Georgia. Night grew darker and darker by the minute. Hundreds of police blocked the gates of the prison. I wore a shirt that declared, “I am Troy Davis.” In those moments before his legal murder, I knew I would never be the same. I’ve dedicated my life to abolishing the death penalty ever since.
MG: Walk me through what happens liturgically at a death penalty protest vigil.
JH: One arrives. One prays. One sees the worship of death. One seeks the sacrament of life. One hears the worst. One knows murder. One leaves searching for a resurrection.
MG: Have you seen any progress in the years that you’ve been doing this?
JH: Execution is execution. What’s the difference between one execution and another? One execution is always too many. One execution is always going to teach our kids that executions are right. As long as executions continue, I can’t speak of progress. Execution is execution.
MG: Okay. So are you working on legislative initiatives or is this mostly just prophetic public witness?
JH: In Texas there is no chance of a legislative abolition of the death penalty. The goal has to be to influence hearts and minds to slow down the rate at which the death penalty is used as punishment. Ultimately, I believe that abolition will come from the courts. With that said, I think it is important to point out that Christians are the single greatest impediment to abolition. Ideas of blood as payment for sin drive the thirst for blood here in Texas. There is actually a cross (over the chapel) not too far from Texas’ execution chamber. We must never forget that this foolish bullshit of executions comes from our own asses.
MG: I definitely agree that retributive justice contributes to a toxic culture of death. How do you think is a better way to understand Jesus’ cross?
JH: as an execution.
MG: So that’s your basis for saying that God is the one being executed?
JH: While I believe in the execution of God then… I also believe in God’s presence in the executed now. The incarnation of God is a perpetual event. God is being slain over and over again. The atonement is about presence…God’s presence in the oppressed and marginalized amongst us. Truly, salvation is found in the execution chamber. This book is not just about executions…it is also about pointing toward liberative interpretations of God.
MG: That’s a fascinating statement that salvation is found in the execution chamber. How do you understand that working?
JH: It doesn’t work. It simply is. Just like God is.