Unsettling Advent 2023, Day 1 - Word&Way

Unsettling Advent 2023, Day 1

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13)

Whenever the state of Missouri executes someone, a group of advocates hold a vigil that day outside the governor’s office in the Capitol. We bear witness against the death penalty to the passing lawmakers and elementary children on field trips. It happens so frequently — five over the past year — that a community of sorts has developed. I’ve made friends while holding a poster and leaning against a limestone wall. Yet, when we part, we say things like, “Good to see you, but hope to not see you again anytime soon!”

Twice in the past year executions occurred when the governor had decided to deck the halls. The state executed Kevin Johnson on the third day of Advent in 2022 (and Mississippi executed someone on the 18th day of Advent). Then Missouri kicked off 2023 by executing Amber McLaughlin on the 10th day of Christmas (since the 12 days start on Christmas). There we were urging the governor not to preside over another death while the same governor had his office decorated to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty holds a vigil outside of Gov. Mike Parson’s office in the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri, ahead of the execution of Amber McLaughlin on Jan. 3, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

My governor is not alone. The U.S. is wrapping up its busiest year for capital punishment since 2018. The number particularly jumped in Florida as Gov. Ron DeSantis tries to look tough while seeking evangelical support for his presidential campaign. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden hasn’t fulfilled his campaign promise to end the federal death penalty. And even while some politicians push to kill people, more than 190 wrongly-convicted individuals have been released from death row over the last four decades. A man initially scheduled to be executed in Ohio this week has instead been released from prison after his sentence was vacated due to prosecutorial misconduct nearly three decades ago.

So as I stood between a Christmas wreath and the governor’s office a year ago, I thought about the incongruity of the moment. I also thought about that character we often leave out of our nativity sets and Christmas pageants. It’s not just that Herod ordered the execution of babies and toddlers after he heard the news of a newborn king. He also executed many others, including one of his wives and three of his sons.

Yet, even Herod pretended he wanted to worship Jesus. If he were a governor today, I suspect he would even put up a wreath and some twinkling lights as he ordered the executions in Bethlehem.

Brian Kaylor is president and editor-in-chief of Word&Way.


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