TN Death Row Invites Governor to Pray with Them

Governor Haslam Death Penalty

Yesterday the men on Tennessee’s death row, 4 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 TN 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 5 years, Nickolus 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.

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Shane Claiborne speaking with Governor HaslamShortly 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, Nickolus Johnson – the man who had been scheduled to die yesterday.  Joined by a few friends from the conference, we met with Nickolus 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.

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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 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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About the Author

Shane Claiborne

Shane ClaiborneShane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way, a radical faith community in Philadelphia. His most recent book, Executing Grace was released in June.View all posts by Shane Claiborne →

  • Brendon Pennington

    Just as Jesus refused to execute the adulteress who committed a capital crime, I also pray that the governor will extend the same type of grace to these men on death row. Let’s end this culture of violence!

  • otrotierra

    Thank you Shane Claiborne and RedLetterChristians for calling us to follow Jesus, no matter how politically unfashionable it is to do so.

  • Jack Washington

    A great request from the condemned men. This will be a tremendous challenge for the governor, who is expected to be ‘politically correct’, which would be to go along with the legislators who voted for the electric chair. Vindictiveness by the state will not serve any real purpose.

    • dudleysharp

      However, the foundation for the death penalty is justice, as with all legal sanctions.

  • Vince

    This is a great story, I pray the governor will stop executions in Tennessee.

    I was surprised that any state would bring back the electric chair.

    • Sheryl

      Would you feel the same if some grown man took your little 6 or 7 year old girl, raped & tortured her before he killed her? And I truly doubt he would stop & pray with her before he killed her!

      • Vince

        I have no idea how I would feel. But do you think the best time to make that decision is when it happens? When your out of your mind with grief?

        Jesus said that when you are angry at another without cause you have broken the commandment not to murder. So God looks at you just the same as these men. As a murderer. Would you want God to give you your just punishment in hell?

      • Sheryl, my brother and 4 friends were murdered. In the 19 years since then, I have learned that if I treat anyone, even their killer, as less than human, then I have just done what he did to my brother, treating who treated them as less than human. And, I have allowed that killer to take my life as surely as he took my brother’s. God calls us to the hard task of compassion, not just for the lovable, but especially for the most unlovable. A hard task, surely, but worth the effort.

  • former ce

    Death row us evil against the lord the biggest sin to kill jesus christ made the death penalty obsolete we should do likewise

    • Vince

      Agreed, living in TX there are organizations trying to abolish executions here but it is a battle with a lot of resistence.

  • Traci

    Thank you Shane. Thank you for challenging Governor Haslam to be more like Jesus, and thank you for challenging us to be more like Jesus. I love the way you write. “It gets you right here” barely describes it. There is so much passion and compassion, and power in your words. I love that.

  • Megan

    You likened the murderers on death row, people who actually tormented or tortured or otherwise horrifically killed their fellow man, to JESUS?? My sinless, blameless, loving Savior?? Anything else you said fell on very deaf ears in this home. Unbelievable.

    • Sheryl

      I agree with you……they compared those on death row to our sinless Savior? How ridiculous!!

    • (also a Megan)

      Jesus hung out with those compared to the “death row” people. Tax collectors, prostitutes, sailors, fishermen, murderers. Be careful to not quickly come to judgment on the comparison. Jesus came for the sinners, all of us. Their crimson is washed clean white as snow, just as yours is.

      • Joe

        Jesus didn’t just “hang out” with this sort of person – this close to Easter, it should be fresh in our minds that Jesus hung, quite literally, with condemned men. And said to one of them, “today you shall be with me in Paradise.”

    • Jared

      The point of the article is that Jesus would not issue an execution order on these people. I’m sorry you missed it.

    • Seagrl25

      Are you a Christian Megan, because there should be nothing unbelivable in a Christian behaving like Jesus. Whats more beleivable, Christians behaving as the world asking for justice through blood and death.

    • Eric Thurman

      Perhaps if you read the article carefully, you’ll see he avoided exactly that comparison.

  • Sheryl

    The bible also says an eye for an eye. Where was these men’s Christanity when they were committing crimes. If they murdered someone, did they stop & pray with them first? I’ll admit I have a problem if people should be condemned to death or not, but I know I do believe that some crimes are so hideous & horrible, yes, they do deserve to be put to death. If they have truly given their life to God, then they should know where they are going in the afterlife.

    • Adam

      Have you ever felt anger toward someone? Yeah? Then you’ve committed murder in your heart. The table could have easily been turned and you could be in the position these four men find themselves in. It’s only by the grace of God that you aren’t, that everyone commenting on this article isn’t. Sin is sin. So instead of casting stones and recommending these men to the chair, you should be on your knees thanking God for the grace he’s shown you.

    • John

      Matthew 5:38-48. An eye for an eye is over.

    • bluecenterlight

      Matthew 5:38-48
      New International Version (NIV)

      38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

      43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

  • Sheryl

    And please do not put my Lord & Savior, who was totally sinless & blameless, in the same category with murders & convicts on death row!! They are nothing alike!! And if you read your bible, God did put to death the evil doers…… your bibles!!

    • Vince

      He specifically says:

      “The men on death row are not Jesus”

  • bluecenterlight

    When Jesus said “I was in prison and you visited me”. He didn’t say I was an innocent and in prison and you visited me. The point is Jesus commands us to have compassion on everyone. If you have spent any time with prisoners you will understand that some of them come from horrible backgrounds. You treat children worse than most people treat animals and then wonder why they grow up to act like animals. We see the large man with a neck tattoo, Jesus see’s the little boy who suffered horrible things. Christians despising people in prison is the antithesis of being a Christ follower. How quickly we go from despising to calling for blood. Sad.

  • stabber

    Lol and those who think capital punishment is christian these conservatives are picking and choosing bible verses again lol

    • Vince

      Can you make a case for your claim?

    • Just as those who think that abortion is mercy and compatible with christianity are just liberals picking and choosing bible verses again.

      Ours is a culture of death. It is the sure responsibility of every Christian to stand up to that culture and say “no more”. No more abortion. No more capital punishment. No more poverty. No more euthanasia. No more war. No more racism. No more Death.

  • Greg Dill

    I don’t think the death penalty is a black and white, cut and dry issue. I can see a biblical precedent FOR and AGAINST it, both in the Old and New Testaments. Being a Christian I will address the New Testament. Jesus says to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for them, and actually bless them (Matthew 5). On the other hand, in Romans 13, Paul reminds us that it is the governing authorities who wield the sword for purposes of upholding the law of the land.

    I for one am against the death penalty. But, if the law of the land dictates that an eye for an eye is the way they govern, then I respect that even though I may disagree.

    The greater problem lies with the sin that is capable of ensnaring all of us, both those who govern and those of us ordinary citizens.

  • dougmurphy

    I am saddened by reading this as well as the comments. I don’t think this is a biblical view and it is certainly not one that understand the system of incarceration.

  • SamHamilton

    Thanks for doing this Shane.

  • Geoff Little

    These comments are funny because if you go into religion, certainly including Christianity, you will find all the death penalty and death generally – in the name of God, of course – you could ever imagine. Time and time and time again. Just read the history of the Church, including the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, American Slavery, and so on and on. So, if you try to use religion to get out of a religious impulse, it is not going to work.

  • “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.”

    And yet every day in his state, doctors sign the death warrants of 30 people, on average, at the insistence of mothers, fathers, and grandparents.

    The right to life must be absolute and non discriminatory from conception until natural death. War, the death penalty, euthanasia, poverty, abortion, contraception- these are all just ways to play God and deny other people the basic right to life.

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