Tennessee Death Row Inmates Invite Governor to Pray with Them

Can Governor Haslam interrupt the patterns of death in Tennessee — and find alternatives to the logic of killing?

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

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. I even heard one politician defend his position by 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, that of Nikolaus Johnson. Thankfully, the execution was stayed. The governor still spoke to the group, and he was asked publicly 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 to hear 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 other governors have —  that no human being should have that much power over life and death.

The author speaking with Governor Halsam.
The author speaking with Governor Haslam.

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, some friends from the conference and I 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 the day before. 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 last 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 Tennessee 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.”

Lead image via Shutterstock.

Shane Claiborne
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  • Sharon Fratepietro

    What a powerful piece this is. I think it would be impossible for most governors to meet and pray with men on death row while knowing those lives could be saved with the stroke of a governor’s pen. This country officially kills people in our names, but does it anonymously by using surrogates: The executioners in prisons who are nameless, and the drones that are our killer robots. What a great country!

  • 2014itstime

    I am very interested in following this story and how the Governor will respond in the future. I appreciate your bringing this issue to the Christian community. As Governor Haslam ponders the “What would Jesus do” thought, I hope all of us will do the same. Like most of us, I am not afforded the power bestowed upon Governor Haslam, but I can very well bring issues like this to the forefront an do as the prisoners on death row requested; ask that those who are in power, would “pray with me”. That’s powerful!!!