Death Row Inmates Invite Tennessee Governor to Pray with Them

This past Thursday, the men on Tennessee’s death row, four of whom have scheduled execution dates in the near future, invited Governor Haslam, the man who signs the death warrants to join them for prayer.

The backdrop for the story is that Tennessee has more executions scheduled in a year than the state has killed in the past 50 years. Last week as Christians around the world remembered Good Friday, the day Jesus was executed, legislators in the Bible belt state passed a bill to reinstate the electric chair (which would make it the only state to require death by electrocution). The only thing that could be more troubling would be if Tennessee decided to start crucifying people again. I even heard one politician defend his position saying, “It is God’s job to judge them, but our job to get them to Him.”

Meanwhile, this week Governor Haslam was set to speak to a gathering of influential Christian leaders in Nashville at precisely the time of the first scheduled execution in five years, Nikolaus Johnson. Thankfully, the execution was stayed. The governor still spoke to the group, and was asked publically how he reconciles the death penalty with his faith, especially given the fact that less than 5% of Americans think Jesus would support execution. It was refreshing that he didn’t have a good answer. It made you think he might not sign the warrants, that he might come to the conclusion of other governors have —  that no human being should have that much power over life and death.

Shortly after his talk, I bumped into the governor. Stumbling for words, I recalled a story where Mother Teresa talked with a governor facing a similar string of executions as Haslam. With her characteristic cocktail of boldness and humility, Mother Teresa commissioned the governor with these simple words: “Do what Jesus would have you do.” That governor halted executions. So before I knew it, those were the words rolling off my lips. I’m no Mother Teresa, but I hope this governor does the same thing her governor friend did.

After the meet-up with the governor, we took a trip to meet the men on death row, at Tennessee’s maximum-security prison, Riverbend. I sat down next to a man I recognized from the news, Nikolaus Johnson – the man who had been scheduled to die earlier in the week. Joined by a few friends from the conference, we met with Nikolaus and the men on death row, four of whom have dates scheduled for their deaths. We told them about our brief encounter with the governor an hour earlier. Then, I asked them what they would say if they had a few minutes with the governor. We all sat on the edge of our seats, anticipating the possible responses – perhaps a few choice words. One of the guys said, “We’d invite him to join us for our prayer meeting on Friday – to come pray with us, worship with us, and get to know us…” Enthusiastic nods around the room, and grunts of affirmation came out of the men. I sat stunned. Men scheduled to die inviting the man who signed the death warrants to come pray with them. It would be like Jesus inviting Pontius Pilate over for dinner.

I thought back to Holy Week, and it occurred to me that Jesus did exactly that. He broke bread with Judas, knowing that he would betray him with a kiss, sell him out for a few pieces of silver, and be tormented to the point of suicide.

The men on death row are not Jesus – they are children of God who have good and evil at war inside of them, just like we all do. And the Governor is not Judas – in fact, word on the street is he wants to be more like Jesus. I have huge hopes that he will interrupt the patterns of death in Tennessee and find alternatives to the logic of killing to show that killing is wrong.

Governor Haslam now has an open invitation to visit the men on death row. I hope he will “do what Jesus would have him do.” I hope the same for the 68 legislators in TN who voted for the electric chair. I hope the same for the men on death row. I hope the same for myself. That we might “Do what Jesus would have us do.”

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121 responses to “Death Row Inmates Invite Tennessee Governor to Pray with Them”

  1. Even aside from the issue of whether or not the death penalty is morally wrong and abhorrent, I simply can’t fathom why anyone would want to return to the electric chair. Utterly barbaric. I watched a documentary (National Geographic’s “The Science of Evil”) which investigated the nature of evil, and it told the story of a preacher (Pastor Charles L. Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church of Maiden, NC) who met, prayed with, and ultimately baptized Jeffrey Dahmer was totally ostracized by his congregation, the people fleeing in droves to different churches, and my heart broke with his. Very brave man, I applaud him. What WOULD Jesus do? And how often are the good, the visionary, castigated by the home crowd….

  2. That same documentary (National Geographic’s “The Science of Evil”) in which I learned of Pastor Charles L. Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church of Maiden, NC, and his efforts with Jeffrey Dahmer, also very effectively posed the perspective that often times “evil” isn’t just the cut and dry murderers, rapists, dictators etc., but the very jailers who then torture their prisoners. It did a great job of showing how ordinary people can start down that slippery slope under certain circumstances. So, how are these people not evil for wanting to electrocute a human being in an electric chair when there are other less torturous ways to “get it down” (again, forgetting for the moment the issue of whether or not it should be done at all)?

  3. My spirit is moved by this article. As a resident of Tennessee, I sit in horror, knowing that my legislators have brought back the electric chair and continue to glory in state-sponsored revenge killing. As a follower of Jesus, I hope that Governor Haslam feels his spirit move when he thinks on that invitation.

  4. These men know how love with the love of Christ. Thank you for sharing their story. It has changed things. Changed me.

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