Beheadings are in the news. So is romance. They converge on Valentine’s Day, named for a priest who was beheaded in Rome on February 14, 270.
According to one story (there are several), Emperor Claudius II did not want lovesick soldiers distracted from their duties. Empire first! He issued an edit banning marriage for his conscripts.
Valentine defied the ban, heard hushed vows, laid his holy hands on sweethearts’ heads, performed secret wedding ceremonies, and proclaimed love natural and good.
Discovered, the rebel priest was arrested and sent to prison. He continued to be a thorn in the Emperor’s side by alleviating the suffering of other inmates and healing his jailor’s daughter. Enough was enough. The Emperor ordered Valentine beaten and beheaded.
Eventually, the Roman Empire adapted Christianity and became the Holy Roman Empire. In 496, February 14th was officially declared Saint Valentine’s Day, assimilating the raucous Lupercalia (“Wolf Festival”) celebrated that day … but that’s another story.
THEN AND NOW (IN A NUTSHELL)
We recoil from images of recent beheadings and immolations by ISIL. But President Obama, in his February 5th address at the National Prayer Breakfast, reminded us that, like today’s Muslims, Christians, too, have seen their faith perverted when atrocities were committed in their name.
He was right. Humans everywhere have used inventive and gruesome ways to kill each other — from then to now, in the Old World and New, under the guise of Church, State, or other.
In medieval France, a laborer was paid 48 frances for boiling a “heretic” in oil; in England, boiling the condemned was worth a shilling. In Shakespeare’s day, the severed heads of traitors were displayed at the entrance to London Bridge.
Public killings, legal and extralegal, are crowd-pleasers. From hanging young pickpockets in Merrie Olde England to public stonings of “blasphemers” in 21st century Pakistan and “adulterers” in Nigeria, from hanging Quakers in Boston Commons to lynching black men in the American South — crowds gathered to jeer and cheer.
Times change. Venezuela was the first nation to end capital punishment. Most other Central and South American countries followed suit in the 1800s. It took Europe longer, but, since 1994, the Council of Europe has made abolition of the death penalty a condition of membership. South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1995 under Nelson Mandela’s leadership.
Renounced as costly, barbaric, error-prone, and obsolete by most modern nations, the U.S. remains the lone Western democracy in the lineup of the top five nations to condone government-sponsored executions, taking its place beside China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq.
100 IDEAS FOR ANTI-DEATH PENALTY ACTIVISTS
In chapter 5 of my book Death Defying: Dismantling the Execution Machinery in 21st Century U.S.A. (see below), I compiled over 100 examples of nonviolent action used in the fight against capital punishment, including: boycotts, fasting, mock executions, motorcades, petitions, picketing, pilgrimages, singing, sit-ins, speak-outs, street theater, vigils…. and lots more. Our creative ideas and actions can inspire further actions.
In the U.S., where executions have gone from public to hidden, high-tech, sterile, bureaucratic affairs, activists worry that executions are out of sight and out of mind. Here are four actions that were intended to challenge the capital punishment business-as-usual routine.
> Banner Project: In the early 20th century, the NAACP led an anti-lynching campaign. Each time news was received that a person had been lynched, they hung a banner outside the NAACP’s NYC office that read, A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY. Decades later, when Rev. Dr. Constance M. Baugh read about this, she was inspired to institute a similar practice at Brooklyn’s Church of Gethsemane (Presbyterian Church USA) to keep the community mindful of capital punishment and, on appropriate days, hung a banner from a 2nd-story window: ONE MORE PERSON WAS EXECUTED TODAY.
> For Whom the Bell Tolls: Sister Dorothy Briggs (1923-2006) began a national ecumenical campaign urging places of worship to toll their bells for two minutes on the evening of an execution anywhere in the U.S.
> Not In My Name: On evenings when an execution was scheduled somewhere in the nation, members of the pacifist-anarchist Living Theatre gathered at Times Square to perform Not In My Name, a street theater play about ending the death penalty’s cycle of violence and revenge. Judith Malina cofounded The Living Theatre with Julian Beck (1925-1985). She and members of the troupe performed the 15-minute protest play at the publication party for my anti-death penalty book in 2003! (In Luba Lukova’s brilliant poster, one person is shown breaking the cycle — an image of hope.)
> International Death Penalty Abolition Day — March 1st is a time to remember the victims of violent crime, their survivors, and those killed by state sanctioned violence and their survivors. Many activists use March 1st as a day for action and education about alternatives to the death penalty. It marks the anniversary of the day in 1847 when Michigan became the first English-speaking territory in the world to officially abolish capital punishment.
TO GO DEEPER
“U.S. Death Penalty Facts” Amnesty International USA
Death Defying: Dismantling the Execution Machinery in 21st Century U.S.A. by Pam McAllister, Bloomsbury Academic/ Continuum International Publishing Group, NY, 2003
“Pam McAllister’s Capital Punishment Quiz” — Multiple choice consciousness raiser. Answers provided.
“This Day in History: St. Valentine Beheaded” History Channel
The Church of Gethsemane (created by and for incarcerated persons, ex-prisoners, their families, and people who feel called into partnership with the poor and imprisoned) “Walk With Me” is a short documentary about the unique Church of Gethsemane.
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL video about recent facts and figures (3:30 minutes)