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On Troy Davis: Styles of Witness

On the night Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia, two groups gathered across the street from the prison. One group gathered at a church, listening to minister after minister sermonize and pray. Another group gathered at the roadside, where police officers in riot gear, supported by helicopters above, attempted to keep the road clear so that the personnel charged with carrying out the execution could arrive. In the former group were supporters of the big non-governmental organizations publicizing the execution, including Amnesty International and the NAACP. They urged those on the roadside to retreat, to listen to the preachers and to join in prayer. This, they said, was the Davis families’ desire.

As the final delay of the execution came to an end, Davis’ supporters at the roadside maneuvered around police lines and entered the road. They were quickly, and violently, arrested (video of one of the arrests is here; a first-person narrative is here). Among those arrested were students, community activists, and a staff member of the Quakers’ social justice arm.

Both groups of protesters – the church/NGO group and the roadside activists – saw the other’s efforts as useless. Why pray where you can’t be heard, and why preach to the choir? Why get arrested when the execution will not be disrupted? But both groups were in agreement that politics is not always about efficacy. Sometimes, politics is about witness.

The difference between the two groups was a difference of how they understood witness. For one group, witness was a cry out for the peace of God (or the peace of man: the purportedly peaceful regime of human rights) in the face of the violence of the world crystalized by state-sanctioned murder. For the other group, witness was bodily sacrifice, offering oneself up voluntarily to the state, in a sense thwarting the state’s desire to choose when force is to be exercised – and dramatizing the duplicity of  the state’s claim to only lay its hands on the guilty. For this group, peace is an abstraction that obfuscates the dark realities of the world. Or, more precisely, peace is not the sort of thing that one can invoke with a cry; peace is what bodily witness would look like if it were not always already tainted by human desires and fears.

In the days and weeks – indeed, years – before the execution of Troy Davis, a variety of voices, many purported theological, others secularized, addressed his case. Some argued that Troy Davis was innocent. They pointed to the details of his trial, including witnesses who had changed their testimony. Innocence is a tricky, and a dangerous, rhetorical implement. At the end of the day, we are all guilty. But the point that the Davis case illustrated is that our guilt is always opaque. To pretend that guilt is transparent may be necessary in some circumstances, but in such cases there should always be a spirit of humility.

Left and liberal activists privileged two different arguments, two different rhetorics. Liberal activists spoke of human rights; left activists spoke of Davis as a symbol of systematic injustice. Neither of these seems especially efficacious; both, it seems, are preaching to the choir. Those who believe the death penalty violates human rights are appalled at the human rights abuse; those who believe in the systematic injustice of the US criminal justice system are similarly appalled. Rhetoric persuades, and these, it seems, do not.

Political theology may provide an alternative approach. What if our humanity is not something with inherent worth and dignity but rather is something that exceeds ourselves and our worlds, something for which there is not a word – something for which the only reaction is the humility provoked by awe? What if, as Judith Butler argues, the human is that which marks the failure of representation? Our task is not to jealously guard each human life (to mystify each with dignity and rights), but to challenge those institutions and practices which claim the power to decide what counts as human life. The state-sanctioned killing of Troy Davis certainly must be challenged – but our critical eye should extend to other practices as well, such as those that purport to decide whether the unborn, the elderly, and the handicapped count as human or non-human.

Returning to the two protest gatherings in front of that Jackson, Georgia prison, we may ask: which approach dramatizes the ineffability of the human, dramatizes the paradox that is the human? I think it was the confrontational gathering, where participants made their own innocence opaque by pushing the limits of the law, where participants put their humanity under erasure as they used their bodies to block the road, where the crowd’s solidarity in response to brute police force allowed individuals to see each other as comrades, in communion, inexplicably unique and inexplicably conjoined.

Donations to the bail fund for arrested activists (including friends of the present author) can be made through the American Friends Service Committee here.

Vincent Lloyd is Assistant Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford, 2011) and the editor of Race and Political Theology (Stanford, 2012).

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