(NOTE: This sermon was prepared for CCDA’s “Locked in Solidarity” Week, which is February 9th through 16th. If you want a pdf of this sermon and study guide and prayer, click here.)
Six years ago, during a time of prayer and meditation, I heard the voice of God clearly say, “Go to death row.” I had been involved in prison ministry, both in my home state and in Honduras, but I did not know where death row was in Tennessee. Much less, how to get involved.
A few weeks before I heard God’s voice, an article in our local newspaper said the State of Tennessee was scheduled to execute eleven inmates over the next year or so. At that time there were seventy-eight men, and one woman, on death row in the State. That’s almost 15% of the total population of men and women on death row scheduled to be killed in a matter of months! My spirit was grieved by this even though, at that time, I would not have considered myself an abolitionist. Knowing I heard God speak I did some research, made some phone calls, and by the summer of 2014 made my first visit to Unit Two at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution; the home death row. My life would never be the same.
Since that time, eight of my friends have been executed, several have died of natural causes, and even more have had their sentences commuted to life with or without parole. Now, six years later, there are fifty-two men and one woman condemned to die by my home State. I am now an active abolitionist, doing everything I can to stop the violence.
I grew up in a conservative denomination. I started preaching when I was fifteen and started pastoring when I was twenty-three. I have now been a pastor for more than thirty years. Today, I believe the totality of Scripture, and especially the words of Jesus, teaches against capital punishment. For me, it is a pro-life issue.
What brought me to this conclusion?
Proximity to the condemned has brought me the farthest. My evolving understanding of Biblical justice has further convinced me. Looking into the eyes of my friends, hearing their stories, and seeing the image of God in each of them has impacted me. God’s desire that no one parish and all be redeemed has also encouraged me. So, if you were to ask me why I am a capital punishment abolitionist or, what my theology of abolition is, I would say, “Because of proximity, justice, Imago Dei, and Redemption.
- The importance of proximity.
God’s plan to reconcile the world to Himself was for His Son to take on human flesh and become one of us. We call this the Incarnation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God’s plan was first revealed in Genesis 3:15 when God said to the tempter, “And I will put enmity between you and woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” The Angel said to Joseph, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23). Concerning Jesus, the early church sang, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
Through Jesus Christ, God moved into our neighborhood and lived in close proximity to us so He could live with us, know us, and redeem us. Likewise, He has now called us to go into prisons with His love, grace and mercy; and that includes death row. Jesus said He came “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18). In His parable of the sheep and goats He said, “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36). Jesus’ last conversation, before He was executed, was with two fellow death row inmates (Luke 23:39-43). The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3). When people ask me why I go to death-row, I tell them I go because that is where Jesus is. From the beginning, to the middle, and to the very end of His ministry, Jesus placed priority on living in proximity with prisoners, including those condemned to die. We can do no less.
Every day I wear a cross necklace an inmate on death row made me. He’s a seventy-year old man who has been incarcerated more than fifty of those seventy years. This man loves Jesus and he loves me. Jesus loves him and I love him as well. My life has been blessed because of his friendship. His life has value, meaning, and purpose. The cross he made me is big and often gets in my way during the day. When it does, I am reminded of my friend and I am reminded to pray for all prisoners. I am a capital punishment abolitionist because I am fighting for my friends’ lives.
- The nature of God’s justice.
Our God is a holy, loving, merciful and just God. It is because of the nature and character of God that I am a capital punishment abolitionist. The justice of God cannot be separated from the holiness of God, the love of God, and the mercy of God. Thus, taken as a whole, God’s justice is restorative justice. The Hebrew word most often translated “justice” is mishpat. The simplest meaning of mishpat is to treat people fairly and equitably. This is the basic idea behind our understandings of distributive justice and retributive justice. You see this meaning of justice in Old Testament verses that talk about treating the rich and poor equally in the market place and in the courts of law. One example of distributive justice would be Leviticus 19:15, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” An example of retributive justice is Psalm 105:7, “He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth.”
However, often times, when the Old Testament speaks of God’s justice it is followed closely by the word “righteousness” and/or “mercy.” It is this relationship between justice, righteousness, and mercy that convinces me God’s justice is primarily restorative. Below are a few examples:
- Psalm 33:5 – “The LORD loves righteousness and justice, the earth is full of his unfailing love.”
- Psalm 89:14 – “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne, love and faithfulness go before you.”
- Amos 5:24 – “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
- Zechariah 7:9 – “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’”
While God’s justice most definitely includes fairness and equality, it goes far beyond that. Intrinsic in God’s justice is the desire to make things right; to reconcile all things to Himself. Thus, all of God’s justice, be it distributive or retributive, is, at its heart, restorative. A great mystery of God is even God’s punitive justice is somehow meant to be restorative.
A favorite verse for proponents of capital punishment is Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man.” They like to point out that this is part of the Noahic Covenant, and separate from the Law of Moses. Even if that is true (space does not allow a full treatment of this) nowhere was death meant to be an absolute law; meaning it must take place at all times, in all places, under all circumstances. I say this because in the preceding book of Exodus, Moses kills a man and God does not demand he pay with his life. God cannot violate an absolute law. Thus, the bigger picture behind Genesis 9:6 is justice, not the need for additional killings. The question becomes, if there is another way for justice to be fulfilled without the taking of another life, that is what God’s people should fight for. Capital punishment, even in the best of circumstances, is not carried out in a just manner. There are too many variables that go into who gets death and who doesn’t get death when the same crime is committed. The arbitrary nature of our capital justice system has caused me to conclude, even if one thinks capital-punishment is just, it is impossible for us to do it justly so we should not do it all. Especially when there is another way for justice to be done. A better way for justice to be done.
I am convinced that better way is restorative justice. Restorative justice more accurately reflects the nature of God and protects the image of God in every person. Restorative justice is seen in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount where He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ (distributive, retributive, and punitive justice). But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42). This is restorative justice! This is the heart of God! Then Jesus adds, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you; Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Once again, restorative justice.
Donnie was a friend of mine. He was executed last year by the State of Tennessee for the murder of his wife. The Donnie I knew loved to read and teach the Bible. For a while, he even taught the Bible on the radio from his prison cell. He was an Elder in his local Seventh Day Adventist Church. None of that excuses his crime, but it does show the grace and mercy of God. At the time of his crime his step daughter, Susan, was seven years old. By her own admission she grew up with a lot of anger towards her step-dad. Who could blame her? As a young-adult, Susan decided to reach out to her step-dad. She wanted him to know how angry and hurt she was. She did not have the desire to reconcile with him. But something miraculous happened. After expressing her anger toward her step-father, she decided the best way to heal was through forgiveness and reconciliation. I will never forget the day Donnie showed me a letter she had written to him, expressing how much she loved him. Susan became his biggest advocate, asking the State to show him mercy. In an editorial Susan wrote in our local newspaper, she said, “After being trapped in the death penalty process for most of my life and finally receiving some peace, I now face more trauma and loss. Over these past few years, Don has become one of my last connections to my mother, and his execution will not feel like justice to me. It will feel like losing my mother all over again. I want to save his life.”
That’s restorative justice! That is the heart of Jesus. Susan’s request for mercy was denied. As her step-father, and my friend, was being killed, he sang, “Soon and very soon, we’re going to see the king…” God is a restorative, reconciling God, and God has called us to be the same way. I am a capital punishment abolitionist because of the nature of God’s justice.
- The Imago Dei in all of us.
Genesis 1:27 tells us, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.” Every person on earth bears the image of God, the Imago Dei, in them. Regardless of what a person has done or not done, regardless of guilt or innocence, the Imago Dei is still there. You can see the image of God in people by looking into their eyes. The eyes truly are the windows to the soul. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body” (Matthew 6:22). No matter what condition a person is in, look into their eyes and you will see their souls. Matthew tells us, “When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
One of my friends on death row has a severe mental disability. He should have never been sentenced to death. He is in his forties, but in reality, he is a child. When I see him, and when I pray with him, I see the Imago Dei in him and I hear the words of Jesus, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:3-6).
It is because of the Imago Dei that no one should be defined by the worst day of their lives or the worst thing they have done. Pope Francis has said, “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” He further added that capital-punishment is a “serious violation of the right to life”belonging to every person.
In June of 2019, thirty-two men on death row in Tennessee wrote a simple, one-sentence letter, to the Governor. The letter said, “We understand you are a man of faith and we would like to ask you to please come pray with us.”Myself, along with other abolitionists, hand-delivered the letter to the Governor’s office. In addition, literally thousands of copies of the letter have been mailed to the Governor from across the State. To date the Governor has refused their request. Since the letter was first sent, two of the men who signed it have been executed. I wrote an editorial in our local newspaper to bring attention to this request. Here is some of what I said, “(The Governor) refuses to acknowledge a request to go and pray with the men on death row. Many of these men have committed their lives to Jesus. Most are men of faith. All are human beings. None are monsters. These men are more than property of the Tennessee Department of Corrections. They are (the Governor’s) brothers in Christ. They are not asking for mercy. They are not asking for clemency. They are simply asking their brother to come and pray with them. I do not understand(the Governor’s) refusal to honor their request. The very last person Jesus prayed with before He died by state execution was a man condemned to die by state execution. (Governor) please be like Jesus and pray with the men in Unit 2. It would be an honor for me to introduce you to my friends.”
All the men (and women) on all the death rows in our country were created in the image of God. The crime for which they have been accused did not destroy God’s image within them. I am a capital punishment abolitionist because taking the life of another person, by an individual or by the government, is an attack on the Imago Dei.
- The power of redemption.
The Bible says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The Apostle Paul wrote, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Again, the Apostle Paul said, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).
A major problem with the death penalty is that it is final. There is no taking it back. There are no second chances. Through executions, we are saying that some people are so bad they are beyond hope and beyond redemption. That is blasphemy! No one is so far gone God’s grace cannot reach them. No one is so bad God no longer loves them. As long as there is life there is hope through the power of redemption. Psalm 11:9 reads, “He provided redemption for his people…holy and awesome is his name.”
Abu is another friend of mine on death row. He is one of the kindest, most gentle, intelligent men I have ever met. His story of abuse growing up is horrendous. How he ended up on death row is heartbreaking. His story of redemption, however, is wonderful. For a long while, on death-row, Abu was not a Christian. He was a man of faith. He loved and respected Jesus. He simply did not identify himself as a Christian. He chose another path. However, once a week for twenty-five years, a small-group of people from a local church visited him. Their agenda was nothing more than love and friendship. For twenty-five years they practiced what I call the ministry of presence. They were just there…every week…year after year…decade after decade.
As Abu was nearing his sixty-fifth birthday, he asked his friends if he could convert to Christianity and become a member of their church. Of course the answer was yes! And so, on his sixty-fifth birthday the bishop of this church’s denomination, along with several friends (myself included) gathered in the law library of death row to witness Abu’s conversion. On that day he placed in faith in Christ, was baptized, and served communion. After communion, Abu sang a soulful rendition of Amazing Grace. It was one of the most beautiful and sacred services I have ever witnessed.
On more than one occasion, over the years of his incarceration, Abu was within hours of being executed. I am thankful he was not killed. He has been redeemed by the blood of Jesus! He is a dear brother and an even dearer friend. I am a capital punishment abolitionist because as long as there is life there is hope through the power of redemption.
Why am I a capital punishment abolitionist? (1) Because of the importance of proximity. (2) Because of the nature of God’s justice. (3) Because of the Imago Dei in all of us. (4) And because of the power of redemption.
What am I asking you to do?
I am asking you to get involved, and take a stand, and fight against the death-penalty. Write your Congressman. Write your Governor. Research capital punishment in your area. Educate yourself on the injustice of this corrupt system. Become an advocate for life. Above all, pray for the laws of this land to change so that capital-punishment is deemed unconstitutional.
One of the first people I met on death-row was Kevin Burns, affectionately known as KB. The very first time we met, he hugged me and said, “I have been praying for you.” A few months later he told me he had been praying for God to send a pastor to death-row. The very first time he saw me he heard God say, “This is the man you have been praying for.” While on death-row, KB’s “job” has been serving as a Chaplain Aide. He makes 50 cents an hour.
KB and I quickly became close friends. Every Friday he and I would walk cell-to-cell and pray with individuals and in small groups. One day, after making our rounds, KB told me how much he loved me and appreciated me and how much all the guys on death row loved me and appreciated me. He said I had become their pastor. I said, “No KB. I am not their pastor. You are their pastor and this is your church.” We both cried, talked a little while longer, and then said our good-byes until the week. On my way home, the Spirit of God spoke to me and said, “If you really believe KB is their pastor, you need to ordain him.” I spoke to the Elders of my church about it, a few months later we licensed him, and a year later we had a special service, once again in the law-library, where we ordained Kevin Burns into the Full Gospel Ministry. A few months later, we helped Rev. KB start his own church on death-row called The Church of Life. Pastor KB is considered one of the pastors of our church and is listed as such in our weekly newsletter. More importantly, at least for me, Rev. Kevin Burns has become my pastor. He is the one I confide in, vent to, cry, and pray with. I consider myself extremely blessed to have had the unique honor and privilege to ordain my own pastor. How cool is that!
In preparation of CCDA’s day called “Locked-in-Solidarity,” I asked Pastor KB to write a prayer from death-row. His prayer is below, printed the way he wrote it with certain words in all capital letters. May we all agree with him in prayer.
A PRAYER FROM DEATH-ROW
O LORD GOD,
even The GOD and FATHER of our LORD and SAVIOR JESUS, The CHRIST.
LORD GOD, You are HOLY and RIGHTEOUS;
GRACIOUS and altogether TRUE.
YOUR Mercies are everlasting, and they are renewed every morning.
O LORD GOD,
unto THEE do I lift up my Soul.
And unto THEE do I cry in despair.
Have mercy on me LORD, I pray, and deliver me.
Deliver me from those who are too Strong for me:
And deliver me from certain death.
YOU said in YOUR WORD, that YOU looked down from the height of YOUR Sanctuary;
From Heaven YOU beheld the earth; To hear the groaning of the prisoners;
To loose those that are appointed to death.
Behold, I am in prison, and they have appointed my soul for death.
But unto YOU, O LORD my GOD, do I make my appeal.
For YOU are that GOD that took me from my Mother’s bosom,
and declared YOUR Love for me, and made YOUR covenant with me,
and told me that YOU will never leave me nor forsake me.
But that YOU will be with me always, even until the end of the World:
And caused me to hope in YOU.
And now, O LORD my GOD, in THEE do I put my Trust.
Let me not be brought to shame.
Neither let any that Trust in YOUR HOLY NAME be brought to shame.
But bring me out of this prison swiftly, I pray;
And deliver me by a strong HAND, O LOVER of my soul.
In the NAME of JESUS, I pray
AMEN, and AMEN!
Pastor Kevin Burns (Chaplain Aide)
Unit 2 B-211
Riverbend Maximum Security Unit
7475 Cockrill Bend Blvd.
Nashville, TN 37209
Please feel free to write Pastor Kevin a letter at the address above. He would love to hear from you.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.
 Not her real name.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.
 From the author’s notes.
 Instead of using the Governor’s name, I have chosen to replace his name with the parenthesis.