“Amazing Grace….That Saved a Wretch Like Me!”

A long time ago I came to terms with the fact that people aren’t always going to agree with everything I say. For that matter, people aren’t always going to agree with everything I do either (but that’s a different subject). There are things that break my heart and I believe, even if you disagree with what I’m going to say, if you intentionally think about the situation it will break your heart too. 

Tennessee Department of Correction inmate Don Johnson has been on death row for 35 years and was executed on May 16, 2019. Don was convicted of suffocating his wife at a Memphis camping center he managed in 1984. Don did not allow his guilt to be a question. He readily admitted to the murder. 

Psychological evaluations of Don discovered that he had one of the most horrific childhoods the psychiatrists had come across. He was abused, bullied, abandoned, and institutionalized. The abuse he endured, he transmitted, culminated in the death of his wife. 

My heart breaks for the family of Don’s wife and for their daughter Cynthia! This story did not end with this heart break, in fact, in 35 years God so transformed Don’s life by His grace that it was no longer the same. In the 35 years since his crime Don’s life became a Jesus story and a testimony of the grace of God. 

While Don was in Shelby County Jail (Tenn.) he heard another inmate testifying about the healing power of Jesus. As Don was convicted and taken to death row, he heard more stories about how God had changed people’s lives. Shortly thereafter Don dedicated his life to Jesus and was baptized on death row. 

Years later he was ordained an elder in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. He was the only elder on death row. Riverbend Unit 2 was his parish, and many on the inside and outside of the prison can testify of how his faith has shaped them as people, this includes correctional officers and staff. But the most incredible witness of how God can transform any situation by His grace is the witness of his daughter, Cynthia Vaughn. 

Cynthia lost her mom at the age of 7 and became a champion for the death penalty, especially when it came to pertain to her father. Cynthia wanted him dead, she hated him, and to her the death penalty seemed like justice. Like many victims of horrible atrocities, Cynthia eventually found that her hatred was not hurting him, but it was killing her. She was in a prison of her own anger, resentment, and in her words “in my own internal house of hell.” So after 30 years of not speaking to her father Cynthia broke the silence and reached out to her father. Throughout the five years they had together they were working hard to heal the wounds of their shared past. Cynthia forgave her father, not so he could sleep at night but so that she could have peace. 

The more Cynthia got to know her father, as the new man he had become, the more she desired to fight to save his life. Cynthia is not only fighting for alternatives to the death penalty for her father, but for everyone else too. She sees the power of restorative justice and how it has transformed her dad. 

As Christians we must consider, “What would Jesus do?” And then we must do it! Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). In the Gospels, Jesus interrupted an execution of a woman guilty of a capital crime by saying, “Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7). The Bible is filled with murderers who are given a second chance (Moses, David, and Saul of Tarsus). The United Methodist Church puts it this way, “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings.” 

Activist, speaker, and author of the book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, Shane Claiborne says, “When we kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong, we legitimize the very evil we hope to rid the world of, the evil that sent Jesus to the cross.” No one is beyond redemption!! 

Don Johnson asked that his special last meal before his execution (May 16th) be donated to the homeless. His public defender said, “Mr. Johnson realizes that his $20 allotment will not feed many homeless people. But his request is that those who have supported him to provide a meal to a homeless person as well.”   

My heart is broken that a man that God had so changed by His grace was executed on May 16th. Even as the tragedy of death was upon him Don’s faith in Jesus shined brightly for all to see. 

Among his final words were: “I commend my life into your hands. Thy will be done. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.” As he was being executed he prayed for forgiveness for those who were executing him saying, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” And he asked for forgiveness from all who he has hurt. 

Then he sang hymns for two minutes. Don praised God until there was no breath left in him. 

As he breathed his last breaths, he sang these words: 

“No more crying there, we are going to see the king. 

No more dying there, we are going to see the king.” 

And he died. 





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