Soulful Resistance on Tennessee’s Death Row

This week, Vanderbilt Divinity School student Andrew Krinks published an article in The Other Journal based on his interviews with prisoners currently on Tennessee’s death row.  Krinks writes:

To be embodied on death row is to be thoroughly delimited—materially, spatially, and relationally—under another’s control, destined for death strapped to a gurney. As a result, men here have few options but to center their subjectivity beyond the purely material: to be human inside a death machine demands being more than just a body; it demands soulfulness. To understand what it means to be human on Tennessee’s death row, we must look at the material and relational nature of life on death row, the theological frameworks that guide life there, and, finally, the soulful resistance that rehumanizes life in this dehumanizing environment.

Krinks asked the prisoners: “What does this institution want you to know in your body? How does it tell you? How do you hear it?” 

Dan responded first: “They want me to know that they have this body.” After prodding him further to get at how the institution communicates this message, Dan said, “I have to walk through eight locked doors to get from here [open gathering room] to my cell.” Kurt echoed Dan’s response: “They tell you when you can do everything.” And Paul added a similar perspective: “What they tell [my body] is ‘control.’ They tell me how long I can visit with my family and how often.”

And yet, the prisoners also find ways to sustain meaningful relations to others within an institution based on isolation and control:

In terms of their relations with others, it quickly became clear from our interactions that human touch is very important for many of the men on Unit 2. When I entered the room where our first set of interviews would take place, the three men I knew previously and the two who I met for the first time all extended their hands for a handshake that turned into an embrace with the other arm. When I asked them about the extent and nature of physical contact for prisoners on death row, Dan responded, “Not everybody embraces around here, but most of us do. You can’t force it on anyone, but for those who do embrace, it creates communal harmony.” Likewise, Paul said, “Hugs bring about fellowship. It’s more than just coexistence—it’s brotherhood. Our love is unconditional.”

Krinks also asked the prisoners “about the theological concepts that guide their own understandings of the body, the soul, and the relationship between the two.”

On the question of the body, Paul spoke up first, and his answer was met with instantaneous and conclusive agreement: “The body is the temple of God.” On the subject of the soul (or the mind or the spirit),1 my interviewees had significantly more to say. Paul responded, “The spirit is a traveling vehicle—not bound by the laws of man.” Dan said that “The spirit is God breathing the breath of life into you. It’s the living, breathing part of you.”

Krinks’ interviews, and his reflections on these interviews, offer a rare and valuable glimpse into the lives of prisoners on Tennessee’s death row, and a nuanced counter-balance to the mugshots and captions circulated in media reports on the death penalty.

To read Part One of the article, click here.

To read Part Two, click here.


Why does Richard Goode support this initiative?

Richard Goode is Professor of History at Lipscomb University and coordinator of the Lipscomb Initiative for Education (LIFE) program, which offers Lipscomb courses at Nashville area prisons and at Room in the Inn. He is the author, with Will Campbell, of And the Criminals with Him (2012)  and Crashing the Idols (2010).

Dr. Goode writes:

Over the last 35 years we’ve often made the death penalty one of our favorite, polarizing disputes. Candidates for elected office, for example, make capital punishment a campaign pledge, promising to get people what they’re due (retribution and/or revenge). Criminal Justice experts analyze it as a public policy (i.e., whether it effectively deters future offenses). Such polemics can impoverish our communities by masking the real costs of executions. When it comes to capital punishment, we’re not talking about some “issue.” A crime has shattered lives and community relations as they ought to be. No matter how severe and well-intentioned our punitive reprisal, however, we can neither erase the pain and loss, nor do some final just thing to delete the offense.

Community is found in our ongoing response to the offense, rather than on some once-for-all, ultimate payback inflicted on the offender. Insofar as both the victim and the offender are our siblings, our challenge is to live beyond retribution, and love beyond revenge. Our commitment is to restore right relationships after the horrendous offense. Toward that end, we’re not called to settle the score—as if our vengeful might could return life to some prelapsarian state. We’re called to be reconciled—to incarnate the reconciliation that has already restored right relationships.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.


Why Does Emilie Townes Support This Initiative?

Emilie M. Townes is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

She is the author of several books, including the groundbreaking work, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2006).  She is an ordained American Baptist clergywoman, a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the current president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion.

Dr. Townes writes:

I am not a pacifist.  I do not have that kind of emotional stamina but I abhor violence and try to live my life and convictions by respecting others and the creation in which we all have our being. Things like war are a signal that we have failed to respect one another’s humanity and have resorted to a brutal way to solve our differences.  When it comes to taking another life, I cannot find any emotional or religious justification that allows me to support the death penalty—particularly when its administration is so flawed in this country and in the state of Tennessee.  Until we eradicate the racial and economic bias in applying the death penalty and the execution of innocent people, we should not be a nation or a state that use the death penalty as a form of punishment—it is, in fact, a form of injustice.  I take seriously the admonition that “Thou shalt not kill,” and that God desires repentance from us and not vengeance.  Humanity must find a better way to deal with our moral failures.

To view the full list of signatories to our open letter to stop executions in Tennessee, click here.

If you are a student or educator in Tennessee, and you would like to add your signature to this open letter, click here.

If you are not student or educator in Tennessee, but you would like to support the open letter, please sign this petition.