Adventist Church Leaders Ask for Mercy, Prayers for Death Row Adventist


(Spectrumbot) #1

Worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders have asked for mercy for an Adventist on death row in Tennessee. Leaders are asking for church members to pray for Donnie Edward Johnson, scheduled to be executed on Thursday, May 16, 2019.

Johnson is on death row for the 1984 murder of his wife, Connie Johnson. Johnson, 68, who suffocated his wife, has served 33 years on death row in a maximum-security prison near Nashville, within 10 miles of the Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church where Johnson has been an ordained elder for more than a decade.

In a letter hand-delivered to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee on May 13, Seventh-day Adventist Church President Ted N.C. Wilson writes, “I am told that [Mr. Johnson] has brought other prisoners to Christ, leading them to make a full surrender to God, and that this is having a positive influence throughout the prison and beyond.”

Wilson asks Lee to “prayerfully consider granting mercy to Mr. Johnson by sparing his life so he may continue providing this important spiritual ministry.”

Daniel R. Jackson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America also sent a letter to Lee on May 13. Jackson, acknowledging the “vile crime” for which Johnson has been sentenced, writes that Johnson “turned his life around and now serves as a Christian mentor to his fellow prisoners. . . . The multiple lives he helped transform via his prison ministry are only a glimpse into the many potential lives he can touch and help transform.”

According to a May 9, 2019, Tennessean report by Holly Meyer, the letters are part of a series of appeals from church members and religious leaders who recognize Johnson’s apparent remorse and transformation. This group includes the Episcopal bishops of middle and east Tennessee.

Meyer reports that Johnson, who was raised Christian, “found religion” in 1985. Five years later, two incarcerated Adventists, one who was paroled in 2007 and another who recently “made parole,” introduced him to their faith.

According to the Tennessean article, Johnson holds Bible studies inside prison and started a radio program called "What the Bible Says.” He works with about a dozen people who comprise Riverside Chapel church’s prison ministry team.

In a Tennessean video interview (by Larry McCormack, as part of the USA Today Network) published with the May 9 article, Furman Fordham II, Riverside Chapel pastor, says that he has seen Johnson serve and minister on the inside of the prison.

“In general, it is a little difficult for me as a Christian to ignore what I believe Jesus’ counsel is in John 8,” said Fordham. “Not suggesting at all that we should ignore a crime, or that we should have no consequences, but I do think there is a place for forgiveness and grace. And Don’s situation, as I understand it, is one that I think perfectly fits right in there.”

Wilson letter to Gov. Lee (PDF, 73KB) Jackson letter to Gov. Lee (PDF, 50KB)

Read the two letters in their entirety below:

May 13, 2019

The Honorable Bill Lee

Governor of Tennessee

Dear Governor Lee,

I am writing you in regard to Donnie ("Don") Edward Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed by the state of Tennessee on Thursday, May 16, 2019.

As the Governor of Tennessee, the most profound power and perhaps the most difficult responsibility God has given you is deciding whether a person is to live or die. While the legal system has spoken, finding Mr. Johnson guilty and sentencing him to death, I am appealing to you to consider life.

Over the many years since 1984, Mr. Johnson has experienced a miraculous transformation of mind, heart, and character that only God can accomplish. He has gone from being a hard-hearted criminal to a man who cares for others and seeks to share the hope he has found in his Savior, Jesus Christ, with those who do not yet know Him.

In the course of Mr. Johnson's spiritual journey, he has become a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, a protestant Christian denomination with more than 21 million members and a presence in more than 200 countries. As Seventh-day Adventists, we uphold the Bible as the Word of God, and accept Jesus Christ as our only Savior. We teach that we are to be good citizens, obeying the laws of the land, and to honor and pray for our government leaders. We believe we are called to follow in Christ's footsteps, meeting people's needs physically, socially, and most important, spiritually. As we understand, Mr. Johnson's transformation has included his embracing of these Christian values and he is currently serving others in the spiritual leadership capacity of elder. I am told that he has brought other prisoners to Christ, leading them to make a full surrender to God, and that this is having a positive influence throughout the prison and beyond.

Sir, I would request that you prayerfully consider granting mercy to Mr. Johnson by sparing his life so he may continue providing this important spiritual ministry that only he in his unique capacity can do. His death would have no redeeming or deterrent value, and we believe he would better serve the community by leading his fellow prisoners to God.

Thank you for considering this request. Please be assured that I will be praying for you as you weigh this incredibly important decision. As the Bible says, "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8, NKJV).

Respectfully,

Ted N.C. Wilson

President, Seventh-day Adventist Church

May 13, 2019

Governor Bill Lee

1st Floor State Capitol

Nashville, TN 37243

Dear Governor Lee:

On behalf of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America, I would like to appeal to you to consider a stay of execution for one of our church members, Donnie Johnson, who is scheduled to be executed on May 16. Mr. Johnson remorsefully admits he committed a horrible crime when he murdered his wife, but since that time he has turned his life around and now serves as a Christian mentor to his fellow prisoners. As a Christian, I am sure that you believe in the transforming power of Jesus, and the change in Mr. Johnson's life certainly is a miraculous example of that power. We agree that vile crimes, such as murder, carry a heavy penalty, but in the case of Mr. Johnson, carrying out his execution would only make this situation worse. The multiple lives he helped transform via his prison ministry are only a glimpse into the many potential lives he can touch and help transform. I kindly plead with you to consider issuing a stay of execution of behalf of Mr. Donnie Johnson.

Sincerely,

Daniel R. Jackson

President, North American Division of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church

This article originally appeared on the North American Division website.

Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9617

(Phillip Brantley) #2

I’m sorry, but I am on the other side. He committed a murder that is exceptionally horrific. Life in prison without parole is too lenient a punishment for what this man did. Mercy has already been extended; he has been permitted to live for thirty-five years since this grisly murder. He deserves to be executed.


(Patrick Travis) #3

Is this the SDA church trying to impose their religious understanding on the state vs. separation and the biblical right of the state to bear the sword against evil? Donnie Johnson’s grace can be hoped for in the next life as the Righteous God who sees all things and motives and responses to Christ decides.


(jeremy) #4

this is such a difficult question…certainly the OT seems to indicate that a murderer has forfeited the right to life as far as god is concerned, which presumably would be the case despite a demonstrated track record of repentance and transformation…on the other hand, and as pastor fordham points out, jesus said to an adulterer that he didn’t condemn her even though adultery, like murder, was a capital crime under moses…it’s not clear whether this woman was the instigator of the adultery in question, or whether she was set up, or in some way a victim of power inequity…in general, probably all women of that time were victims of some sort…

if donnie really is bringing people to christ, and if these people go on to be saved eternally, what can be more important…perhaps these converts wouldn’t be happening if donnie were executed by the state…in addition, he was only 35 at the time of the murder, and possibly hadn’t learned to understand or control himself…at 68, he may only now understand the value of life…

i think the real question to consider here is whether a transformed murderer should receive a right withheld from a recalcitrant murderer…there is the real issue of justice in either case, and whether justice, as a social value, matters, and whether it is dangerously denatured when it isn’t strictly applied…

part of me feels that it probably isn’t good optics for our church to be pressing for mercy just because donny is a member, and an ordained elder…unless we are known for intervening in all death row cases, which we aren’t, this intervention seems a bit self-serving…but having said all of this, i’m on the side of TW and our church…certainly the murder was a horrible mistake - although we don’t really know the circumstances - but in this case, there appears to be strong evidence that it wouldn’t reoccur…it is a fact that donny has spent nearly half of his life in prison…it isn’t as if a stay of execution would mean he’d be getting off scott free.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #5

Elder Jackson makes the better case. Ted Wilson always has a promotional. Life in prison with out the possibility of parole is a serious penalty. Yet his conversion does not release his crime in the eyes of the state., His standing before God is totally based on his faith in The Grace of the Cross.

I have served on the jury of a capital case in which I voted for the death penalty.The jury was hung. The power of the judge was limited to life without the possibility of parole.In which case the judge ruled Life without parole plus 35 years for the robbery.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #6

Is there anything to learn from the thief on the Cross that accepted Jesus as the Messiah? Jesus did not intervene in the legal process of the day. Jesus allowed the execution to proceed but with Assurance of redemption. I think that Elder Jackson makes the better case, although I think it is in vain. I recall a missionary to Japan that was held prisoner until repatriated. he returned to Japan after the war and ministered to condemned prisoners… One accepted Christ. on the day of execution the missionary walked the convert to the foot of the gallows. They embraced and the missionary said. Good night, I will see you in the morning.


(Carlo Schroeder) #7

Moses made a mistake, and he had to take responsibility for that action. When we hear speak about a God of order, it also speaks about a God of responsibility. So let the law be executed, not because we are cruel or cold hearted, rather because we have a hope in God and life eternal.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #9

What would the GC do if the condemned had been converted to Presbyterian or Baptist or Roman Catholic?


#10

Yes.

My dad had a book about him in his bookcase.

I fully support the pro-life view (as well as pro-choice). This prisoner could convert hundreds more in his lifetime.

He is living with his past and enjoying the full forgiveness of Christ. Why wouldn’t we appeal for his life? Who best to relate to his fellow inmates drowning in guilt and shame?


(Kim Green) #12

I agree, harrpa, living in prison is no picnic and he apparently is changing the lives of fellow inmates for the better by his Christian example. Appealing for a person to live who can fully relate to the others as he does is a good thing. His death will create a void that may not be filled and that will be a pity.


#13

“As the Governor of Tennessee, the most profound power and perhaps the most difficult responsibility God has given you is deciding whether a person is to live or die.“

What a careless and egregious statement by Mr. Wilson. From his position as SDA president he has, in essence, not only condoned, but actively participated in handing to fallible humans an authority that God alone holds.

What an utter embarrassment he continues to be.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #14

I was Dental consultation to the Department of Correction for eight years. My role was to help design dental clinics that were safe and arranged do that inmates could not steal instruments. As such I was inside the prison system. life without the possibility of parole would be no picnic. I had lunch served by inmates. very sparse they would laugh as they handed me my tray…


(Phil van der Klift) #15

When a person has genuinely repented (in the biblical sense of the term meaning to genuinely turn their life around) and reformed, what point does execution actually serve? Execution changes nothing in the person - but perhaps it ‘satisfies’ some desire within us. What desire might that be - and what might be the origin/source of that desire?

Jn 3:16,17 and 2 Pet 3:9 in conjunction with Eze 18:23 propose that genuine and actual reformation that leads to life is God’s preferred outcome for us - as opposed to our typical conception of God’s obligation to impose ‘retributive punishment’ (in so far as the terms retributive and punishment are typically understood).

Could it be that our view of God as having to hand-out ‘retributive punishment’ regardless of repentance and reformation has in fact shaped our view of what justice and righteousness actually is - and vice versa? And could it be that we have actually come to view God in this way because we have essentially formed (perceived) God in our image/likeness? Could it be that, in order to justify and preserve our desire for ‘retribution’, we have in fact developed a view of God who likewise must be ‘retributive’?


(jeremy) #16

the point behind execution, regardless of repentance and reformation on the part of the offender, is justice…justice is set aside when it isn’t applied, which means it might as well not exist…

in god’s dealings with us, remember that christ bore every ounce of justice associated with all sin in and committed by all of humanity for all time…gethsemane and calvary were so staggeringly horrific, we can’t begin to comprehend it…when god treats us mercifully, it isn’t as though he has set justice aside…justice has been applied…someone did suffer untold agony and death for our unasked for condition and willful and not so willful acts…

one of the problems i see in modern adventism, particularly the strain that has largely eliminated egw, is that the standard OT picture of god, portrayed somewhat less graphically in the NT, has been supplanted by a picture that largely eliminates accountability and justice…this is essentially the creation of a god in a most escapist and sentimental image - sort of like a santa claus…i sometimes think this picture may be more dangerous than the standard OT picture, simply because it’s more insidious…people can’t seem to tell when they’ve drunk this particular brand of kool-aid…they think they’re being christlike and loving…


#17

It’s an admiral endeavor to advocate on behalf of human life. However, as an Adventist Pastor it behooves me how adamant we can be when it comes to “one of our own.” What about all the other lives that have been affected by the death penalty? Was there any letters written on behalf of governors, and presidents for the Baptist, Muslim, or Catholic? The Church that I am apart of and love has never been out front on the issues that affect humanity on a daily bases. Just check the record with respects to the Civil rights movement? Some of us were there, but most of us were silent. I believe that this gentlemen’s life should be spared. Nor, have I forgotten about the victims who’ve and continue to be affected by this cruel act of evil. However, don’t underestimate were he is. He’s in Tennessee where most of the person on death row are people of color. Please don’t be ignorant, and think that the systemic system doesn’t play a role in all of this. If, my Church wants to make a stance in the community we need to balance in our approach. We should drafting letters for anyone who’s on death row, not just and Adventist. I believe in redemption whole heartily, however America hasn’t grasped that concept yet. My prayers are with the accused and the victims. May God have mercy.


(George Tichy) #18

Everything we do has consequences. In some States, killing someone is punished with death.

The person’s religious preference or association plays no role in this process. Actually, for me it sounds totally silly seeing the GC President asking for mercy like that. If he did it for people who belong to another denomination too, well, then it would be OK. But just because he is a SDA? Poor choice.


(Phil van der Klift) #19

Hi Jeremy.

Further to your comments…

What form/type of justice is allegedly set aside? It can’t be restorative justice because under restorative justice, when restoration has been achieved, justice has been fulfilled.

Contrary to your assumption that Ellen White is being set aside by the view I have suggested, consider this quote from Desire of Ages pg 761.4:

In the opening of the great controversy, Satan had declared that the law of God could not be obeyed, that justice was inconsistent with mercy, and that, should the law be broken, it would be impossible for the sinner to be pardoned. Every sin must meet its punishment, urged Satan; and if God should remit the punishment of sin, He would not be a God of truth and justice. When men broke the law of God, and defied His will, Satan exulted. It was proved, he declared, that the law could not be obeyed; man could not be forgiven. Because he, after his rebellion, had been banished from heaven, Satan claimed that the human race must be forever shut out from God’s favor. God could not be just, he urged, and yet show mercy to the sinner.

If Ellen White is correct on this issue, note a couple of points:

  1. Satan alleged that justice was inconsistent with mercy. Is Satan correct in this claim? Is God’s justice actually inconsistent with mercy? Or is it that Satan’s concept of justice and God’s concept of justice are two completely separate concepts? Would God’s concept of justice then be true justice and Satan’s false justice? The idea that justice was contingent upon imposition of punishment is allegedly Satan’s suggestion. That Satan had to suggest it implies that this is not how God operates.

  2. If we look biblically, we see that justice and righteousness are frequently linked concepts within the same verse. This is because they are the same phenomena. Righteousness in Hebrew refers to something being “as it ought to be” - ie ‘right’. Right according to what reference point? According to that which enables the abundant life (Greek: zoe) that God lives and that He created his creation to experience and that He seeks to restore within His creation via Salvation/Redemption (eg Jn 10:10). You will note that passages on justice and injustice typically describe treating people with fairness and equity as opposed to abusing, exploiting and harming them. If abuse, exploitation and harm are expressions of injustice, how is punishment the expression of justice? Biblical justice is the restoration of things back to righteousness via actual restoration. Once restoration has been achieved, God’s form of justice has been fulfilled.

Isaiah 55:8,9 proposes that God’s ways are higher than our ways. And yet, when it comes to issues such a justice being contingent upon imposition of retribution and punishment, we promote these as pertaining to God when in fact they are no different to our human ways under secularism.

And if what I have outlined is true, then what was going on at the cross has nothing to do with God imposing punishment on Jesus instead of us. Rather, the cross was the culmination of the work of the second Adam. What did the first Adam do? He succumbed to temptation to exchange self-renouncing love (Agape) for self-exaltation and in so doing put himself out of harmony with the most foundational ‘law’ of life (see Desire of Ages 19-21). What did the second Adam do? No matter what temptation was thrown at Him - even the temptation of the cruelest death method possible (death on a cross, Isa 53:12; Phil 2:8) - Jesus would not let go of self-renouncing love in favour of self-preservation (Jn 15:13). This is what Paul outlines in Rom 5 and why he contrasts in verse 19 that by (a) the disobedience (departure from lawfulness to lawlessness reflected in the departure from self-renouncing love to self-seeking/preserving) of the first Adam’s inheritance whereby the many were made sinners, with (b) the obedience (continued adherence to the ‘law’ of self-renouncing love no matter what) of the second Adam’s inheritance whereby the many were made righteous (restored back to what ought to be).

In a nutshell, I would propose that God’s higher way of justice is a process of restoration of His Creation back to what it “ought to be” and once was: abundant life (zoe). God’s preference is that each person would willingly collaborate with restoration (Eze 18:23; 2 Pet 3:9, Jn 3:16,17, etc). However, for those who exercise their free choice to go their own way (which is out of harmony with the necessary viability of life because - contrary to Satan’s suggestion in Gen 3:5 - there is no other way that life viably works), God will release them to the natural and inherent trajectory of their choice - perishing via self-destruction. This is termed God’s wrath (Rom 1:18) but rather than being wrath as expressed by imposition of punishment, it is via reluctant release to inherent consequences of lawlessness (Rom 1:24,26,28). It is releasing to self-destruction rather than inflicting imposed punishment that is God’s “strange act” (Isa 28:21) because it is contrary to God’s will/desire for all to come to repentance and avoid perishing/self-destruction (Eze 18:23, 2 Pet 3:9, Jn 3:16,17). This concept of releasing of heretofore restrained natural consequences is also reflected in Rev 7:1.

Consider what life is contingent upon and you will realise there are 2 core ‘components’: (1) living in connection with the Source of life (Acts 17:28) and (2) living in harmony with/‘obedicence to’ the law/s of life (with law being defined as principles that are constant that reliably ‘govern’ cause and effect and which are underpinned by the nature of self-renouncing love or “circuit of beneficence” as per Ellen White in DA p 21). Thus, lawfulness (living in harmony with the law/s of life) enables order which enables life. Hence what does lawlessness result in? Chaos which at all levels including the molecular level promotes self-destruction - perishing. This was the difference between Adam and Eve in Gen 2 living in harmony with the law of life and Gen 3 where they embarked on a course suggested by Satan that put them out of harmony with the law of life. Lawfulness versus lawlessness. That is why sin is conceptually characterised as “lawlessness/transgression of the law” (1 Jn 3:4).

If you can build a comprehensive biblical case for God’s justice as being contingent upon imposition of punishment, I am happy to hear it…