Marcus Ray Johnson requested a six-pack for his last meal before his execution last Thursday. With others from Jubilee, I had held vigil that evening in witness to God’s unfathomable mercy and in opposition to capital punishment. Our community always gathers with a few others in nearby Athens when the state of Georgia puts someone to death. We pray for the one who was murdered and the family, for the one being executed and the family, for the executioners, for the complex injustices of the system. We lament meeting violence with violence and remind ourselves of Jesus’ response to ‘An eye for an eye…’ in Matthew 8. “But I say to you,” he said, and listed manifold ways, beginning with ‘turn the other cheek,’ to live out the love of God.
My initial reaction to the last supper request of beer was, “Man, we’re trying to love you here, trying to make things better, and this doesn’t really help.” Another person responded very differently, feeling that the request humanized Johnson. Similarly, someone else thought the request reasonable for a dying man who hadn’t had had a beer in 20 years and was seeking a small comfort. A fourth observer knew for a fact that the request was Johnson’s sarcastic, disgusted response to the system. We all thought the media coverage bizarre to highlight the beer request and not mention the fact that he died proclaiming his innocence.
When I first came to Jubilee, I was against capital punishment but felt little passion for this cause on the long list of injustices in the world. As I experienced the passionate commitment here and the dedicated ministry to prisoners, I’ve come to recognize that I was mired in cultural ideas of justice that contradict what I believe about God. Now, I have given up wanting details, weighing the evidence, judging guilt or innocence. That is for God alone.
During a vigil last year, a young man scowled as he walked past our posters and banners, then turned and said, with anger in his voice, “Yeah, what’d this guy do?” One of us, calmly and without flinching replied, “Killed a police officer.” The radical nature of God’s mercy dawned upon me in a new way as I realized that, even while I shared the young man’s outrage, God’s love was greater and stronger than all of it. Than the murder, than the guilt, than the sorrow, than human sinfulness. “Thou shalt not kill” and “love one another” are how I live out my faith in a God always loving, forgiving, reconciling and redeeming.