(RNS) — Julius Darius Jones is alive!
Just hours before Jones’ scheduled execution on Thursday (Nov. 18), Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt commuted Julius’ death sentence, bringing the machinery of death to a halt.
Prayer had something to do with it.
Stitt, an active member of Woodlake Church in Tulsa, announced his decision to spare Julius’ life, saying, “After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”
I believe in the power of prayer. I’m glad the governor is a man of prayer.
Jones is also a man of prayer. He is also surrounded by prayer, beginning with Mama Jones and Antoinette, his sister. Hundreds of pastors, such as the Rev. Keith Jossell and the Rev. Cece Jones, have been hosting virtual prayer vigils for weeks as the execution date loomed. Some of the most influential clergy in the country have voiced their support for Julius and have called for abolition of the death penalty.
I can’t help but think that the prayers of millions of people all over the world this week had an impact on the fact that Julius is still alive today. Images went viral of folks on their knees in the Capitol building in Oklahoma City, praying for a miracle of mercy, then of the hands raised in the streets singing “Amazing Grace” when that miracle came.
The irony cannot be missed. Christians all over the world were praying that a Christian governor would not execute a fellow Christian brother who is almost assuredly innocent.
There is an old Pogo cartoon that says, “We’ve met the enemy… it’s us.” For Christians that is the case when it comes to the death penalty. Christians have traditionally been the biggest supporters of the death penalty in America, despite worshipping an executed and risen savior.
If Christians alone agreed to stop executing people, it would end the death penalty overnight. Ninety percent of executions happen in the Bible belt, which could be called the death belt in America. If Christian governors, judges and legislators decided to be pro-life on this issue, there would be no more executions in America. The death penalty has survived not in spite of us, but because of us. It is time to change that.
The states that held on to slavery the longest are the same states that are holding on to the death penalty. Where lynchings were happening 100 years ago is precisely where executions are happening today. The same state that almost killed Julius Jones this week was responsible for the destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street in 1921.
One of the officers used a racial slur while arresting Julius. During jury selection, prosecutors struck all but one Black potential juror. One of the jurors referred to Julius with the n-word and said he should be taken out back and shot.
Four hundred years of slavery and racism still inhabits our criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to the death penalty. Black defendants are more than 17 times more likely to be executed for capital crimes when the victim is white. What determines who gets executed in America is not the atrocity of the crime but arbitrary matters such as the race of the victim and the resources of the defendant.
Our broken justice system feels at times as if it’s geared to embolden white supremacy. A day after Jones’ sentence for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit, Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal in Wisconsin will almost certainly be received as a license for vigilante justice and a shield for white supremacy. Americans who already feel invincible because of laws like Stand Your Ground will take heart.
Even if racism were not at play, we are human. We’ve shown over and over that we get it wrong. There are now multiple signed affidavits from people who know who committed the crime Jones was convicted of. You can’t bring someone back from the dead.
Sr. Helen Prejean puts it plainly: “The profound moral question about those we condemn to death is not, “Do they deserve to die?” but “Do we deserve to kill?”
As much as we want to sterilize it, we have a system that kills, even though none of us wants to think of ourself as a killer. But the opposite is true: When a democracy kills we all carry the weight of it. We all have blood on our hands unless we are an active part of the resistance.
Today we can rejoice that there is not a funeral being planned for Julius Jones, but we still have work to do. The governor did not free Julius; he gave him life without parole. We need to fight to see an innocent man set free. There are five more men awaiting death in Oklahoma and dozens across the country. We will be fighting for the full abolition of the death penalty.
So today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we organize.
And every day we pray. We pray because we know there is a God who cares about life and mercy and forgiveness. My prayer is that we would do what the prophet Micah says: Let us “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”