As Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee faced his first execution last week, he said that he was “upholding the sentence of the State of Tennessee and will not be intervening.”
It sounds like an innocent bystander deciding not to push someone out of the way of a moving car. But the fact is, Lee is driving the car that is about to run over them, and he has the power to steer it another direction and save their life.
After all “states” don’t execute people. Governors do. And governors have the power to stop executions. That’s exactly the case in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Wolf has halted executions even though the state still has not abolished the death penalty. It’s the same case in several other states, and most radically in California. Even though California narrowly voted to keep the death penalty alive, and despite having the largest death row of any state in the country, Gov. Gavin Newsom decided to stand up for life. Convinced the death penalty is “immoral,” Newsom halted executions and actually dismantled the entire death chamber so it could never kill again.
Back to Tennessee: Lee talks often about his faith. He has some great spiritual advisers. I genuinely believe that Lee doesn’t want to kill anyone. I doubt that he would have killed Don Johnson on his own — but he was willing to have someone else kill on his behalf.
READ: Will Grace Prevail as Tennessee Execution Looms?
We weren’t meant to kill people. When we do kill, it does something to us. In writing my book Executing Grace, I interviewed a former executioner who told me how he was haunted by the spirits of the men he executed, whose souls visited him at night and sat by his bedside.
Deep down we know that killing is wrong, but somehow we convince ourselves that it’s different when it is done by the “state.” There’s a third-century Christian named Cyprian who saw the irony of it all. He pointed out how odd it is that when an individual kills someone we call it a crime but when the government kills we call it virtuous. Cyprian and the other early Christians consistently stood against all killing, whether it was done by a criminal or by a magistrate.
So we end up creating countless cogs in the machinery of death to carry the burden of responsibility. After all, killing someone is a heavy burden to bear. And many shoulders make the burden a little easier to bear.
We have a system that kills, but nobody wants to be a killer. The burden of death is carefully divided in the hopes that no one gets crushed by its full weight — at least that’s the intention. But on dark nights, perhaps everyone carries the weight, even the governor. After all, at the end of the day there is a dead body, and the governor knows that with a 15-second phone call, he could have saved the life of Don Johnson.
As a man of faith, I hope the governor will recognize the eerie similarities between those who killed Jesus and the position he now finds himself in. Jesus was executed not just by some Roman soldiers, but also by a host of other contributors, none of whom wanted to carry the shame and burden of the execution — Judas who betrayed him, and the Sanhedrin, and Caiaphas, and Herod, and the angry mob … and Pontius Pilate washing the blood from his hands. And so it goes.
We have attorneys who open the door to death.
We have a jury that finds someone guilty.
A judge (or judges) who sentences the convicted prisoner to death.
A governor who nods in approval or signs a warrant.
A clemency board that removes all obstacles.
A warden who oversees the execution.
Prison guards who prepare the person to die.
A “death team” that performs the execution.
A physician who inserts the needle.
And a coroner who pronounces the defendant dead.
We have a system that kills but that has no killers. But at the end of the day, there is a corpse, and the state has no arms or hands but ours. On the death certificate of an executed person, the manner of death is listed as “homicide.” Legal homicide.
That’s why we build these bureaucratic walls. We devise ways to create distance between the killers and the killed; we work hard to ensure that they cannot see each other as human. Guards are part of the machinery of death, “just doing their job.” Inmates are numbers, not names. They are statistics, not people.
When I visited the men on death row last week, I asked them what we could do to convince the governor to stop the executions that are lined up in Tennessee this next year.
The men said, “Invite the governor to come and pray with us.” So simple. But also so profound. Nothing transforms people like proximity, and nothing would move the governor like getting to know the men on death row.
There’s historic proof of this right here in Tennessee in the 1960s — Gov. Frank Clement, the 41st governor of Tennessee.
After overseeing six executions during his first two terms as governor, Clement began to be terribly tormented, especially as he saw the humanity of the men on death row. He met with the victims. But then he also made regular visits to the prison to spend time with the men on death row. On one occasion he even took Billy Graham. As he got to know the men on death row, executing them became unbearable. Eventually, he commuted the sentences of everyone on death row — in 1965!
But what moved him was proximity.
I know that if the governor met these men that I’ve had the privilege of knowing for several years now, he would see the power of God to redeem and heal — and it would be harder for him to kill them.
READ: Christians Are Why the Death Penalty Lives On
The scriptures speak of those we are up against as “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), not flesh and blood. It is not the people themselves but the system of killing that we are fighting as we seek to abolish the death penalty. And people are bound up in the cogs of that system all along the way. Tennessee cannot kill without Gov. Lee. And Tennessee will not be able to kill if Lee decides to be consistently pro-life and stand against death.
It is our duty, our shared responsibility, to become the monkey wrench that stops the wheels of death from turning. The state is us. So let us refuse to kill. Let the doctors uphold their oath to do no harm and refuse to participate in executions. Let the guards and wardens and staff refuse to be accomplices to murder.
The state cannot kill without Gov. Lee. And it cannot kill without us.