'Why on earth do we have the death penalty in this country?' demanded Dean C. David Williams of the Cathedral of Newark in a sermon closing the Seventh National Prison Ministry Conference in Indianapolis June 9. 'Would those in power today have demanded that Jesus pass a lie detector test and give a DNA sample before they would help him?' the former Rikers Island chaplain asked.
Williams and other speakers urged the 70 lay and clergy prison ministers attending the conference to challenge the Episcopal Church, political and corporate leaders, to take the lead in criminal justice reform.
Most politicians have been baptized, Williams said, about half of America's presidents were Episcopalian, and 'countless' members of Congress belong to the Episcopal Church.
'Has everyone in this world gone insane?' he asked, weaving into his sermon those who watched the tormenting, trial and execution of an innocent Jesus 2,000 years ago. 'If you execute my king,' Williams said, 'it must be over my objections and sometimes over my dead body...We have abrogated our responsibility for what is right and wrong to the courts. Billions of government dollars are spent on the containment of two million people.'
Williams said, 'Would our leaders today have voted for the death penalty because Chief Justice Pilate condemned him to death? And what did Jesus say on the cross? 'Forgive them for they know not what they do.' The irony of ironies: the innocent calls for forgiveness for his accusers.'
'We are a nation obsessed with punishment,' he added. 'The politics of expedience literally built the largest prison system in the world, larger than China and Russia together.'
The 'quality of justice' for African American males is different than that for white males, depending on the color of their skin and their money, Williams pointed out. 'The man who steals a carton of toilet paper gets a five-year sentence. The corporate executive who steals billions gets a slap on the wrist … Our correctional system is a system of injustice.'
'It is too late to save Jesus,' Williams added, 'but maybe we can stop it from happening to someone else. Let us make an oath. From now on we will fight for true justice and true freedom until all God's people are free. Then and only then will the church be a true advocate for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.'
The conference, 'Restoring God's Kingdom,' held June 6-9 at Christ Church Cathedral, focused on restorative justice and the restoration of spiritual health for those who minister to prisoners officers, victims, families and the community.