A good man, a transformed man, was murdered by the State of Tennessee on May 16th. It has been an exhausting week of sacred struggle alongside dear friends, abolitionists all. What do I say about Don Johnson, one of the men responsible for bringing me into the prison full time, and embarking with me on a journey that would be five years of the most holy, beautiful, terrible, and traumatizing work of my life? What exists behind the walls of a prison? Community, sorrow, love, exile, hope, trauma, grief, laughter, did I mention love? If you cannot see God in the eyes of a prisoner, a condemned person, an exiled person, then you cannot yet see God.
For two days straight we walked to the Capitol and asked to see Governor Lee. We were messengers from the men on death row, and there in our own right as faith leaders. The request from our brothers and comrades on the row was simple: “Before you let Don die, pray with him.” The governor has spoken on multiple occasions about how visiting prisoners changed him, and surely that is why he ultimately refused. The governor feared transformation; Don Johnson embraced it.
If the governor was going to take on the terrible burden of allowing a man to die, which make no mistake is the same as killing him, the men condemned to die after Don know, as we who have been transformed know, you cannot kill your brother after looking him in the eye and understanding that he too is made in the image of God. Imago Dei, Don Johnson. Last night we killed the image of God.
There is no disrespect to victims in saying this. It is simply true that no one is frozen in time bound to their worst moment. Humans are creatures of evolution and transformation, for better or worse. And why would we not rejoice in this, this ability to continually grow and become our higher selves? Because it is inconvenient to the myth of redemptive violence, it destroys the myth of the monster in the cage we must all be protected from, and it lays bare the lie and bitter venom of retributive systems.
There is one other thing you need to know. Each day as we went to the governor’s office, the door was barred to us and guarded by state troopers. Each day we went to plead for the governor to simply pray with Don in person, and to ask for five minutes of the governor’s time, we were refused. But on both days the governor sent out a man named Don Johnson to take our written prayers and hear our petitions as we begged for our friend’s life. Sit with that for a moment.
Standing in the field last night, looking at the lush grass and beautiful hills that I have spent hours gazing upon in deep meditation from the bench in front of the chaplain’s office, I struggled to hold two realities – the reality of a heartbreakingly beautiful evening, under an almost full moon, engaging in the most terrible and beautiful service of my life, versus the ugly wretched reality of a sanitized state murder two buildings away. The freedom of the hills and river offered a stark alternative to the confinement of the cages in their shadow; while the multiple checkpoints stood as reminders of our ever-expanding police state and the militarization of police forces. It is frightening how quickly these militarized checkpoints are becoming normalized. The coercive violent nature of the state was on full display.
I could also write of the grace and love so powerful in that field that I thought surely these prison walls will come down. And I will at another time, but today I need the earth of my garden, and the healing warmth of the sun. And I need silence more than words. But one thing is certain, the fight for abolition – and I mean abolition beyond the abolition of the death penalty – was reignited and set aflame in that sacred field across from the death house last night. The moon, the geese, the hills, and the trees, all bore witness to the vow that we will not sit back in restraint or silence and watch our friends and loved ones die. Don Johnson, Presente!