The following speech was given at an anti-death penalty rally in Tallahassee, FL co-sponsored by Pax Christi Florida on October 24.
Hi, I’m Johnny Zokovitch, and I bring you greetings and solidarity from the home office of Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement, in Washington, D.C. I’m a Floridian myself and I’m really happy to be here with you today.
There is a story from my tradition, one which probably many of you are familiar with. It is from the gospel of John and it is often referred to as the one place in the Bible where Jesus gives a definitive teaching on the death penalty. It’s the story of a woman who is caught in adultery, a capital offense of the time. The men in the story, “the good religious people of the time,” question Jesus as to what should be done with this “criminal,” citing death by stoning as the legal punishment required.
Jesus’ initial response intensifies the suspense of the confrontation. He doesn’t immediately respond to his questioners, instead he bends down and he begins to write in the dirt with his finger. All the while his opponents continue to press him for his answer. It is a subject of much debate what it was that Jesus was writing in the dirt. Some pose that he was just scribbling, maybe buying time as he pondered his way out of the trap. Others suggest that maybe he was making a list, writing out one by one the sins of the people present, the crimes that these self-assumed “innocent” accusers were in fact guilty of.
Eventually, he gives his response: Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone. The answer is meant to shift the perspective of his audience. He moves their focus from the one accused & instead turns their gaze back in on themselves. He does this because the act of stoning this woman is less about what she has done & more about who these people have chosen to be. The practice of state-sponsored execution in our society doesn’t tell us about the guilt of those deemed worthy of execution; rather, the existence of the death penalty is an indictment of who we are as a society. It is a mirror which reflects back to us our own barbarism, our own blood thirst, our own hunger for revenge, our indifference to the sanctity of human life, & our failure to evolve into a truly civilized people. Perhaps this is the very message that Jesus was writing in the dirt.
We know the statistics. We know that the death penalty is racist. We know that it is costly and that it does not now nor has it ever functioned as a deterrent. We know that innocent people in our nation are sentenced to die and that innocent people have in fact been executed. We know that we have other means to keep our fellow citizens safe and we know that the death penalty is neither necessary nor effective.
The way I see it, getting rid of the death penalty is a simple matter of evolution. Societies which still employ the death penalty are, to put it succinctly, on the wrong side of history. The state of Florida is on the wrong side of history. Capital punishment will be abolished. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but one day, the death penalty will be gone—even in Florida. We’ll keep working to hurry that day along, to keep the evolution of our society moving forward. Yes my friends, that day is coming. Soon and very soon. We’re here today because we can hear that clock ticking. Let’s do away with the death penalty once and for all, and let’s do it now.