Cook: Tennessee and the god of human violence

Cook: Tennessee and the god of human violence

May 19th, 2019 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

FILE - This undated file image released by the Tennessee Department of Correction shows death row inmate Don Johnson. Pressure from religious leaders for Tennessee’s governor to grant mercy to the death row inmate mounted on Monday, May 13, 2019, as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal that could have delayed his upcoming execution. Johnson's petition for clemency has centered on his religious conversion and Christian ministry to other prisoners. He is scheduled to be executed Thursday, May 16 for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie Johnson. (Tennessee Department of Corrections via AP, File)

FILE - This undated file image released by...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Would Gov. Bill Lee execute King David, too?

Or Moses?

Would he send St. Paul to the death chambers? Sign the execution orders that would pump his body full of poison until his heart stopped beating?

After all, these three men — Moses, Paul, David — killed other men.

Why not kill them in return?

Just like Donnie Edward Johnson.

Thursday night, our state government recorded another notch in its death penalty belt: at 8:37 p.m., Johnson, on death row for the 1984 murder of his wife, died from lethal injection.

Johnson was the 136th citizen to die from Tennessee's death penalty system since 1916.

Yes, he's guilty of murder.

But he's also redeemed and transformed. Johnson was not the man he used to be. Begging for a stay of execution, preacher upon preacher testified on his behalf. On death row, he became a church elder, an inspiration and light to other inmates in Tennessee's criminal justice darkness.

Gov. Lee remained unmoved.

Earlier this week, he refused clemency.

He refused mercy.

"After a prayerful and deliberate consideration of Don Johnson's request for clemency, and after a thorough review of the case, I am upholding the sentence of the State of Tennessee and will not be intervening," Lee said Tuesday.

Prayerful consideration?

To which god does Bill Lee pray?

Which unforgiving, blood-thirsty god told Bill Lee to kill Johnson, a redeemed brother in Christ?

Nobody's calling for him to go free; yes, he deserves his prison sentence.

Yet, as Thomas Merton once said, God is never glorified through human violence.

Do not kill.

Lay down your arms.

Love your enemies.

Forgive those who mistreat you.

Walk humbly.

Love mercy.

Those are the words of God.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

What about Christ himself? Sentenced to die on the Roman death row, Christ was scheduled for execution; would Tennessee officials have intervened then?

I had quiet hopes that Lee would be the conservative governor able to end the death penalty system here. I thought his faith was different.

After all, the system is financially broken. A 2004 Tennessee Comptroller's report found death penalty trials cost approximately 48% more than life-without-parole trials.

Abolishing the death penalty system would save millions of state dollars.

Plus, death row is arbitrary and biased.

"A cruel lottery," writes lawyers H.E. Miller Jr. and Bradley A. MacLean in a 2018 Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy.

Death sentences are not handed out consistently or fairly, but rather seem to fall inordinately upon the necks of poorer, minority defendants.

As the saying goes: There are no rich men on death row.

"More Tennessee death sentences have been overturned in the courts — 106 — than have been sustained, and many of the sustained cases are still under post-conviction appeal," Miller and MacLean wrote.

It's a system broken in the worst ways. If we care about human life in Tennessee, wouldn't we want to ensure the most precise and perfect form of capital punishment?

And if the system constantly breaks down — innocent people exonerated, cases overturned — then shouldn't its abolition be immediate?

It's also racist, with an overpopulation of African-Americans on death row.

Death row is not some modern invention; it has roots in lynching and white terrorism.

"More than eight in ten American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South, and more than eight in ten of the more than 1400 executions carried out in this country since 1976 have been in the South," writes Equal Justice Initiative.

It's also sacrilegious. The death penalty substitutes man for God, putting life or death into the hands of fallible men and women.

"Vengeance is mine," says God.

Not in Tennessee, where Lee erased and overruled the transforming, saving work of God by refusing to see Johnson as the man he became instead of the criminal from 35 years ago.

"I commend my life into your hands," Johnson said in his last moments, according to the Tennessean. "Thy will be done. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen."

The Christian cross was the original death chamber. If you retold the Gospel story in today's world, Jesus, strapped to a gurney, would die by lethal injection.

The Christian symbol would not be a cross, but a gurney. Or an electric chair. Or a needle full of phenobarbital.

Christian theology says that Christ lives within believers. Jewish theology proclaims the presence of God in all places, especially among the suffering.

Thursday night, as the state of Tennessee executed Donnie Edward Johnson, they executed God, too.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at

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