#KellyOnMyMind but Is Manuel On My Mind, Too? Problems of our Death Penalty Activism

#KellyOnMyMind but Is Manuel On My Mind, Too? Problems of our Death Penalty Activism March 10, 2015


A saint’s scheduled execution was widely protested and decried in Georgia. A sinner’s scheduled execution in Texas was largely ignored.

And history repeats itself. 

On Sept. 21, 2011, two men were killed by the state. One man, Troy Davis, was innocent. His execution sparked a massive outcry. The other, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was not at all innocent. No one said a word about his death.

Last week, a massive movement erupted online in an attempt to stop the execution of Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia. Her redemption story grabbed our attention and our devotion. On Wednesday, Manuel Vasquez is scheduled to be killed by the state of Texas, and it seems we couldn’t care less.

Kelly was deemed reformed and worthy. Manuel, apparently, is not.

Manuel, an alleged hitman for the Mexican mafia, was found guilty of brutal, heinous, and excessively violent crimes. He is the first person scheduled for state killing since Kelly was temporarily spared execution last week.

And the difference in Christians’ reactions to both scheduled executions is damning and shameful. Last week, we all had #kellyonmymind, so much so that it started trending and even grabbed the attention of national news outlets. Christians spoke out passionately against her execution. As with Troy Davis, we signed petitions, held vigils, and kept watch at the hour death was scheduled.

But it seems as if Christians weren’t speaking out against the death penalty in general but only against the particular use of it on her as fellow Patheos blogger Erin Wathen noted last week.

The social media silence by Christians this week regarding Manuel’s looming execution speaks volumes about who we really value.

Personally, I am thankful Kelly was spared, even temporarily. It was heartening to see so many Christians speak out against her execution. But it also reveals the problem with death penalty activism and the problem with Christians in general. We were talking about the morality and exceptionalism of individuals, not the immorality of the death penalty itself. We were talking about individual injustices, not the systemic ones that make people of color targets for harsher prison sentences. It is troubling that it takes a person like Kelly or Troy Davis to provoke us into speaking up at all, but in both cases, I’m no longer convinced the outcry was because people believed the death penalty was wrong or immoral, but because they believed it was wrong in those particular cases.

Any movement that relies on moral exemplars more than moral principle is little more than spectacle. If we attempt to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice only when we find a worthy moral exemplar, then our nonviolent version of justice is just as capricious and fickle as the violent, retributive kind the state employs. We are implicitly justifying the majority of state killings in this country not just with our silence but with our flash-in-the-pan advocacy of worthy individuals.

And so history repeats itself. A moral exemplar in Georgia is deemed worthy to be saved while we sit silently as an unworthy sinner goes to his execution in Texas.

Manuel Vasquez will die Wednesday night at 6 p.m.

I doubt there will be a massive outcry by clergy and other Christians for Texas to spare him.

I doubt there will be famous theologians speaking out passionately in his defense.

I doubt there will be hashtag movements that trend.

I doubt there will be very many people who have Manuel on their minds come Wednesday night when he dies.

So until we can say killing people is wrong regardless of whether people are guilty of their crimes, state executions will continue.

Until we can say killing people is wrong regardless of whether they are remorseful or reformed, state executions will not be abolished.

Until we can say #ManuelOnMyMind with the same ferocity with which we said #KellyOnMyMind, the state will keep on killing. Killing in our names and on our behalf.


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  • Alise

    This was part of my hesitancy to be vocal about Kelley’s execution. Not because I didn’t believe that she should be spared, but because it seemed largely because she was “one of us” and therefore worthy of saving, and the lack of caring about other death row inmates felt hard to reconcile.

    Here’s to the day when we understand that all life truly IS precious.

    • I see the good in #KellyonMyMind as a movement. I participated in it because one life really does matter. But, like you say, it was hard to reconcile with the silence. There was celebration that her execution was stayed, but no one said much about the other Georgia death row inmate whose execution was stayed for the same reasons as hers…

  • Carrol Wilson

    I agree that #kellyonmymind is a moving force for me because I am acquainted with her. However, I have always been against the death penalty! ALWAYS! Send the petitions my way to abolish the death penalty in the US. I will gladly and happily protest and sign it!

    • #KellyOnMyMind is a beautiful movement, don’t get me wrong. I just hope the momentum from that can be more than a moment as it was with Troy Davis.

  • singingsoprano

    The only reason I am opposed to the death penalty is because of the innocent wrongly convicted. I do believe life is precious. I also believe there are things we can do that justify our loss of life.

  • Mike Margerum

    I visit in prison. Prisoners do change. Not all of them obviously but many do. But do we select only the ones that have changed to save. I hope note.

  • John

    I really wish the lie that Troy Davis was innocent would quit being spread. He used the same gun to attack another man some time before he murdered the police officer, and was convicted of that attack- no one, I repeat, no one denies this. Then he killed the police officer and as the police were coming in the door, his mother was washing the police officer’s blood and DNA off Davis’ clothes. Why does no one mention this? Because of a technicality in the search warrant it was an illegal search and the clothes were inadmissible. That’s a technicality we should all agree to live with since it is the rule of law, but NO ONE should assume that poor Troy Davis was innocent. He wasn’t. Plus, after years of working on the eye witnesses, years and years of hassling them, they finally got them to recant their testimony. Yet, not one stood in court and was cross-examined like the law requires. So, the recanting is as inadmissible as the bloody clothes. Stop spreading the lies.

  • Recently Rocks

    You are not going to turn the tide on the death penalty by putting someone like Manuel, in a state like Texas, up as your poster child for abolishing the death penalty. It’s not that I think his death is any less wrong, or her life is more valuable because she’s “reformed.” It’s that when you’re trying to win a war you have to pick the right battles. And I do think the tide is starting to change on the issue.

  • R Vogel

    The interesting thing is, I think I could make a pretty good case that a Christian should be more concerned with the execution of Manuel Vasquez than Kelly, especially if they are anything less than a universalist with regard to salvation. She made her conversion, she can march into death with no reservation. He is on the cusp of losing his eternal soul.

  • Joana Isabel Coll Truyol

    What it is so true is that Death Penalty is about all something that has to do with racism….I feel rather upset for it