Shane Claiborne is the author of “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
It’s the first time I’ve counted down the days to a friend’s execution. Unless there is a miracle from God or compassion from the state’s governor, Tennessee will kill Don Johnson by lethal injection on May 16.
I have a model of a lighthouse in my office that Don made for me, a sign of the friendship we’ve built in my visits over the past five years to Unit 2 at Riverbend Correctional Facility, Tennessee’s death row.
Over the years we’ve laughed together. We’ve prayed together. Told each other jokes. We’ve sung songs like “Amazing Grace” and he’s taught me the true meaning of the words, “How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
Don had one of the most horrific childhoods of anyone I’ve ever met. He was abused, bullied, abandoned, institutionalized. The abuse he endured, he transmitted, culminating in the death of his wife. Unlike many on death row who I believe are innocent of the crimes for which they face execution, Don’s guilt was never in question for me. But neither was his redemption.
What’s most remarkable about Don is not what he did that landed him on death row; it’s what God has done with him since. His story is a grace story, a redemption story. It’s a Jesus story.
That story began in the Shelby County, Tenn., jail, while Don was awaiting trial. He heard another inmate talking about the healing power of Jesus. As Don was convicted and taken to death row, he heard more redemption stories. Soon he dedicated his life to Jesus. He was baptized on death row.
Years later, he is an ordained elder of his church. Of his 25 million-member denomination, he’s the only elder on death row. Riverbend’s Unit 2 is his parish, and many inside the prison and out can testify of how his faith has shaped them, including correctional officers and staff.
But the most stunning, and credible, witness of all is his daughter, Cynthia Vaughn.
After losing her mom at the age of 7, she became a champion for the death penalty, especially when it came to the execution of her dad. She wanted him dead. She hated him. The death penalty seemed like justice, at first.
Cynthia eventually found that her hatred was not hurting him, but it was killing her. She found herself in a prison of her own anger and resentment, confined, in her words, “to my own internal house of hell.” The justice she sought turned out to be revenge.
I first met Cynthia when we both spoke at an event in Nashville. It was the first time she would talk about her change of heart, how she found a way out of her internal hell. I had recently released a book titled “Executing Grace,” on the death penalty, restorative justice and the power of forgiveness. Cynthia had come to embody everything I wrote about – the power of grace to heal the wounds of both the offended and the offenders.
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Source: Religion News Service