Mendenhall Lecture Focuses on “The Criminal Injustice System”

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Photo Courtesy of Aamir Suhail.

On the nights of Feb. 5 and 6, Gobin Church displayed that hurt and hope can coexist in a space, and that the coexistence of these two is powerful. The pews were filled with people of all different races, cultures, ethnicities, backgrounds, and religions all taking in the same sound – the sound of justice, the sound of pain, and the sound of hope. 

Jonathan Martin, a DePauw University chaplain for the Center of Spiritual Life, described this sound as a “rumble of an organ, a spiritual sound, that the ideas can’t be disconnected from this sound.” The two-night Mendenhall Lecture Series, “The Criminal Injustice System: On Death, Faith, and Black History” was an experience for all that were open to receiving it. 

The Mendenhall Lecture has taken place at DePauw University since 1913. It is an endowed lecture occurring annually that aims to discuss the intersection of Christianity and society/societal issues. Typically, the Mendenhall lecture is presented in an academic format, but Jonathan Martin approached the Prindle Institute for Ethics with an idea of molding this year's event into a two-night experience designed to engage the whole body, mind, and soul.  

The decision to mold this event around the idea of the death penalty in relation to spirituality occurred because the dialogue surrounding Christianity and the death penalty has always been appalling to Jonathan. 

Martin said, “As a person of faith myself, I’ll be honest, it shocks me that people who profess Christian faith in America are exponentially more likely to support the death penalty than anyone else in the population. It felt like something worth talking about.” 

Shane Claiborne, Rev. Otis Moss III, Antoinette Jones, and Cece Jones-Davis were the speakers that Chaplain Jonathan Martin brought to the event because of his connections with them throughout his work and his deep love and admiration for them as people. Jonathan points out the commitment and deep desire of these individuals to help their communities and families through activism and the intersectionality of their activism and their faith. 

Claiborne was the opening speaker on the first night of the lecture and spoke about the toxicity of faith systems’ connections with justice, capital punishment, and mass incarceration. This then led into Dr. Moss’ discussion where Jonathan expressed Moss’ talk as “one of prophetic resistance that he embodies himself.”

What was unique about Moss’ talk was that Moss knew that Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a sermon on what Paul would say to the American Church, which was what he chose to emulate in his own speech. However, he did not make the connection that the sermon about Paul’s speech to the American Church was the very sermon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at Gobin Church on September 5, 1960. This connection not only spoke life into the future, but spoke life into the past because of Gobin’s history with Dr. King. 

The following night was powerful, emotional, and grounding with the panel discussion highlighting Dr. Cece Jones-Davis and Antoinette Jones’ work regarding the Justice for Julius campaign. Dr. Cece Jones-Davis is a prominent figure in the creation of the Justice for Julius movement, a movement focused on exonerating Julius Jones, a man who sat on death row for 23 years for a crime he did not commit. 

Julius is currently still sentenced to life without parole, even after he was saved just hours before his execution in November 2021. Antoinette Jones is the sister of Julius Jones who has fiercely fought and advocated for her brother and is still fighting for justice for him and her family. Jonathan discusses that these women grounded us and that they were able to put a particular story to these big ideas. Their story was powerful because it was so human and authentic, and it brought all of the remarks of the two nights together and inspired the audience to stand up for what is right and what is just.

The energy of the room was an energy that was intentionally created, and that energy contributed to the way that the audience received the speakers. Jonathan remarked that “there is something about the communal experience that happens in Black church spaces that is really unique and particular and seems worth drawing attention to all the more during Black History Month”. He discussed that he wanted to create this feeling within the event to remind people that there is hope, and he wanted to be intentional about the creation of this feeling. By starting and ending in song together, he felt like “the whole was greater than its parts.” 

Every individual, religious or not, was singing and worshipping, and expressing themselves in the ways they felt called to do so. This atmosphere and the power of the speaker’s words left an imprint on the audiences’ hearts, as Jonathan discusses that he has yet to receive negative remarks upon the event. He expected there to be some pushback because of the polarizing topic, but that pushback was not present.

Martin said, “There's something so special like here we are all these folks that have very different cultural-religious socio-political settings and it's like we're being swept up in the same thing - what an amazing experience to have and know its still possible to be united to come together in these ways that transcend some of the other cultural barriers.” 

Leaving this event, it was evident that something extraordinary occurred, but the feelings of “what now” remain. Jonathan discussed the implementation of a weekly chapel experience at DePauw University in an attempt to satisfy the hunger for “that spirituality.” He describes “that spirituality” as “spirituality that matters in the real world, spirituality that is about justice, spirituality that is about living out your beliefs in a way that is really about humility, self-sacrifice, and loving ones neighbor as opposed to moralism and any other forms of triumphant theology.” 

The Center for Spiritual Life is also reflecting upon how to engage the DePauw community in these critical topics to expand beyond the “DePauw Bubble” into our city, community, state, and nation to better serve others in thoughtful and loving ways. 

For more information, contact Chaplain Jonathan Martin (jonathanmartin@depauw.edu) or the DePauw University Center for Spiritual Life (spirituallife@depauw.edu).