On May 16, at 7.37 pm, Donnie Edward Johnson was executed by lethal injection in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in the American state of Tennessee. He was found guilty of killing his wife in 1984. Johnson had become a Seventh-day Adventist Christian while in prison. He was active in sharing his faith, ministered to many of his fellow-inmates and was ordained as an elder by the Nashville SDA church. In his final moments Johnson prayed for forgiveness and sang about his faith in eternal life. And he asked that his final meal be given to a homeless person!
Many Adventists in the USA and elsewhere prayed that governor Bill Lee would halt the execution. Pastor Ted N.C. Wilson, the president of the Adventist worldwide church, and Daniel R. Jackson, the president of SDA Church in North-America, sent a plea for clemency to the governor. The governor, who himself is an active Christian, stated that he had prayerfully considered these pleas, but had decided that justice must be done.
I have always been a fierce opponent of capital punishment and continue to be surprised that so many conservative Christians (Adventists most definitely included) support this brutal form of punishment. I know that in Bible times capital punishment was common and that the biblical record tells us that God quite often commanded it. But we no longer live in those ancient times, when there was no judiciary system, with suitable prison facilities, as we now have them. As a New Testament Christian, I reject capital punishment as inhumane and contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. Criminals must certainly be punished but, for me, capital punishment is no option. Punishment should not be a matter of revenge, as it now so often appears to be. The ultimate purpose is to help a person to ultimately return to society as a better person.
Some twenty years ago I wrote a book that dealt with a number of ethical issues. It was entitled: Matters of Life and Death (Pacific Press Publ. Ass., 2000). It had a chapter about capital punishment in which I gave a number of reasons why I was (and am) against this form of punishment, especially as it is practiced by a number of states in the USA. There is absolutely no evidence that it helps to diminish crime. And there have been too many miscarriages of justice that could no longer be reversed. A major problem with the death penalty in the USA is also that black criminals are much more likely to land on the electric chair or to face lethal injection than white people who have committed the same crimes. And, of course, the American legal system is extremely cruel in keeping a man like Johnson for over thirty years on death row. Why in the world kill a man after such a long period, and after he has long proven that he is no longer the savage killer he once was? What purpose was served by his execution?
My book also dealt with abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering and other related topics. Over all, the book was well received. Of course, I knew that not all readers would agree with me and I expected that my treatment of some of these issues would create considerable discussion. That was indeed the case, but none of them as much as the topic of capital punishment. I was surprised to receive many reactions from fellow Adventists (mainly in the USA) who passionately defended the death penalty. I still find it extremely difficult to understand this.
It was good to see that some of our key leaders tried to prevent the execution of Donnie Johnson. However, I would have preferred to see our church leaders protest against the institution of capital punishment as such—not just once but consistently. Why only protest when the life of a fellow Adventist believer is at stake? Other lives also matter!