God loves the world so much that instead of death, we are given eternal life by believing in Jesus. Think back to the time you felt most loved by God. Perhaps it was during a period of great personal need, and possibly through the love of another human being. As Christians, we are called to share this love from God. In fact, Jesus commanded us—not politely requested us—to love our neighbors.
While our neighbor does include the nice family across the street, we are also called to love the people we prefer not to think about, the people we might even fear. The tough, scarred, and broken man or woman sentenced to death for their crimes is also our neighbor.
The United States houses the largest number of prisoners in the world, as well as the highest prisoner ratio, 655 per 100,000 people.1 While the death penalty in the U.S. is most used in cases of murder, there are other capital crimes involved sometimes.2 Around the world, you can be executed for trafficking drugs, fraudulently disrupting the country’s economic system, undermining the constitutional system, and offending or abandoning the country’s religion. In Middle Eastern countries, some women on death row have been sentenced to stoning for the crime of adultery.3
Did you know that 43 execution dates have been scheduled for 2020 in the U.S. alone?4 Because they have committed a crime, do we assume a convict’s life has less meaning than a nonoffender? Are we all right with it because we believe they deserve it?
In his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” Martin Luther King, Jr., suggests we look beyond the sin. “In order to love the enemy neighbor, we must recognize that the negative deed of the enemy does not represent all that the individual is. His evil deed does not represent his whole being.”5
Indeed, we are not the sum of our sins. Yet we certainly can despise those who sin differently. In the same way, our own good deeds do not represent all that we are, as much as we’d like them to. Martin Luther King takes self-righteous egos to task when he says, “If we look at ourselves hard enough, and if we look at all men hard enough, we see a strange dichotomy, a disturbing schizophrenia. We are divided against ourselves, split up so to speak. There is something within all of us which causes us to cry out with Ovid the Latin poet, ‘I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.’”6 Just like us, criminals on death row make multiple choices. But death is the consequence of some of their choices.
Execution during Jesus’ time was horrific. But even as He was dying, Jesus provided spiritual comfort to a convicted criminal. No theological exchange was necessary; no intellectual Bible exposition took place. The thief saw only Jesus. And Jesus saw through him: past his evil deeds, straight to the core. Unable to say anything beyond “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), the thief bared his soul. Jesus heard all the unspoken desires of his spirit and responded with a guarantee of hope.
Good deeds don’t represent all that we are, much as we’d like them to.
By following Christ’s example, we are to share God’s love and the promise of eternal life with even the worst, most mean-spirited people. In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean became a pen pal to a death-row inmate. His name was Patrick Sonnier, a resident of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, America’s largest maximum-security prison.7
Prejean began visiting him, providing him with something he didn’t have—a compassionate relationship with another human being. In an interview with Faith and Leadership, Prejean talked about being true brothers and sisters. That’s the type of thing Jesus is about. Compassion brings people together. Relationship is everything.8
When Sonnier finally went to his death, Prejean was there to witness it. Before he died, he turned to the father of one of his victims and said he was sorry, then he turned to Prejean and told her he loved her. “I love you too,” she responded.9 It was a response Martin Luther King echoed: “When Jesus says, ‘Love the enemy,’ He’s saying love the enemy because there is something about love that can transform, that can change, that can arouse the conscience of the enemy.”10
After Sonnier’s death, Prejean resolved to spend her life fighting state-sanctioned executions.11 Her book Dead Man Walking became a critically acclaimed movie. Since then, she has provided spiritual comfort to death-row inmates and accompanied six of them to their executions. “In my faithfulness to them and in visiting them, they know my love and care for them, and that I believe in their dignity,” she said.12 Love doesn’t just transform the person being loved; it also changes the person providing that love. Prejean’s worldview shifted: “I’ve been with these six human beings in the last hours of their life, and I saw what courage was. I saw what faith in God is, turning your life over to God. I’ve seen remorse. I’ve seen sorrow. Sometimes I reflect on that. What is it like to do something irreparable and you can’t get it back? That has to be a terrible suffering.”13
When Jesus comes again, will He ask, “When I was in prison, did you visit Me?” It’s easy to have sympathy for the poor, the orphans, the widows, because they all seem defenseless and innocent in their suffering. But what about helping people who have committed murder? With the death penalty, it’s not about innocent life, but a guilty life. Yet Jesus asks us to visit them. It’s not enough just to pray for them or to donate money to prison ministry. “The best gift we ever give each other is our presence,” says Prejean. “And we all long for that—people’s undivided attention to be present to us.”14
In the beginning God gave Adam and Eve one law, and they violated it. In the aftermath of that choice, the entire human race was placed on death row. But God left His first human creations with a promise, and the wages of sin were paid in Jesus’ death. Now, because of Him, we can die to sin and thus have life.
Contrast the thief on the cross with another Bible story—that of the rich young ruler. When asked to give up everything to follow Jesus, the rich young man chose to walk away. Our first death on earth is inevitable. The second death is a choice. For those on death row unaware of this choice, death comes without love, hope, or a future. We may not be able to save the life of a human condemned to die here on earth, but we can offer them the same hope Jesus offers us. According to Romans 8:38, God’s love in Christ Jesus transcends both death and life.
Jesus died a criminal’s death, and in so doing gave the whole world a chance to choose life eternal. The work is done. All that remains is for us to reveal the gospel to those who think they have no hope and no choice.
Cheryl Howson writes from Hosur, India.