In September 2011, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia. Troy’s case had been highly publicized leading up to his execution because of the doubt cast on the rightness of his conviction. There was no physical evidence that he had committed the crime, and witnesses were recanting left and right.
As Troy’s execution date drew closer, protests swept the nation. The phrase “I Am Troy Davis” appeared on signs and placards; the hashtag #toomuchdoubt trended on Twitter; and protestors held pictures of Troy’s face over their own at demonstrations. They showed their solidarity with this man who was, in all likelihood, wrongly condemned.
As disturbing as it was to think that an innocent man had been killed by the state, at the time, I found myself drawn to a different man’s story. Troy was not the only person legally killed by lethal injection that night. On that same evening two and a half years ago, Lawrence Brewer was put to death in Texas.
There was no doubt in Lawrence’s case. Lawrence had committed a horrific hate crime, and his guilt was certain. He even boasted of his deed afterward. By all measures, Lawrence Brewer deserved to die.
According to the law of Moses, the woman we heard about in John chapter 8 deserved to die. She had been “caught in the very act of committing adultery.” Let me just pause and say—now that is awkward.
All joking aside, Jesus never says this woman doesn’t deserve to die. Jesus simply turns the question around on the people. Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.
Sister Helen Prejean is a Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist. If you are familiar with the movie Dead Man Walking, you might know that she is the character portrayed by Susan Sarandon. Sister Helen once echoed Jesus when she said of criminals facing the death penalty, “The profound moral question is not, ‘Do they deserve to die?’ but ‘Do we deserve to kill them?’”
Sister Helen turns the question around just as Jesus did, because the answer to the first question is the same for all of us. Paul’s letter to the Romans says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and, “the wages of sin is death.” We are all sinners, and ever since Adam and Eve stumbled and fell, we have paid for sin with death.
What bothered me about the execution of Troy Davis was not just the fact that he was probably innocent. What bothered me was how quick we as a nation were to identify with the innocent man while gladly dehumanizing and killing a guilty one, Lawrence Brewer.
Sin is real, and it can be found in every one of us. Although very few of us would ever even dream of committing the kind of crime that Lawrence Brewer did, the evil that led him to act is as common to all of us just as the goodness that led his victim’s family to plead for his life.
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says every person is all sinner and all saint. We are Troy Davis, yes; but we are also Lawrence Brewer. To deny this is to wade into dangerous waters. When we distance ourselves from John Wilkes Booth or Lawrence Brewer or the Nazis, we deny an unpleasant but very real piece of what it means to be human, and in doing so we risk being blinded to the darkness that can consume any one of us.
I tell you this not to make you self-deprecating or paranoid, but to share a piece of good news: transformation is possible for everyone. In this season of Easter, we have talked about radical witness and radical transformation. The Gospel tells us that we do not need to die in our sins, but we can be forgiven and go to sin no more.
A minute ago, I quoted Romans 6:23—“The wages of sin is death.” There’s more to that verse—there’s a “but.” “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life.” There it is in the same breath—sin that brings death, and the promise of eternal life. The challenge is to keep our eyes open both to the reality of sin and to the truth of redemption.
Since we’re using the song “Man of Constant Sorrow” tonight, part of my sermon research was to rewatch the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (As it turns out, not all exegetical work takes place in the dusty basement of a seminary library. Sometimes it involves Ben & Jerry's ice cream and my couch.) The film follows the adventures and mishaps of three escaped prisoners: Ulysses Everett McGill, Delmar O’Donnell, and Pete Hogwallop.
Early in their travels, the men come across a gathering at a river. They quickly realize it is a mass baptism. Ulysses is content to ignore the ceremony and pass on by, but Delmar, watching the people go into the water in their white robes to be dunked by the preacher, finds himself overcome. He splashes into the rivers and cuts in line to be baptized.
When he finally wades back to shore, he is exhilarated, and he shouts out to his companions, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed… The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.”
Ulysses is quick to call him out: “I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?”
After a pause, Delmar admits, “Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too.”
The promise of eternal life is a promise of forgiveness and redemption. It is a promise that our sins can be washed away, and we can be made new. It is God who offers that gift.
Capital punishment is a terrible instance of us humans getting in the way of God’s gift and promise of redemption. The United Methodist Church has taken an official stance against the death penalty, and in fact we cite John 8 as one reason for that. The Book of Discipline says this: “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”
Lawrence Brewer deserved to die, yes; but did we deserve to kill him? The wages of sin is death, yes; but when did we become the collection agency? The free gift of God is eternal life; who are we to deny that to anyone? If it is not available to some people, why would it be available to us?
I suggest that if we all dig deep, we can agree that whoever may deserve to die, none of us deserve to kill him or her. I suggest that we are all so much sinner and so much saint that we could say in the same breath, “I am Troy Davis” and, “I am Lawrence Brewer.”
Perhaps Lawrence Brewer would never have changed. Had he not been sentenced to death, he might have lived out his days in prison, unrepentant. The gift of redemption is offered, and it must be accepted in order to take effect. Whether Lawrence would have ever done so, none of us can know—and now, none of us will ever know.
No one is beyond redemption. Jesus declared as much when he stretched his arms out on the cross in an eternal gesture of welcome and forgiveness.
No one is beyond redemption—not John Wilkes Booth, not Delmar O’Donnell, not Lawrence Brewer, not any one of us. Radical transformation is available to everyone within the reach of God’s embrace—and that means all of us sinners and saints.
For it turns out that the real man of sorrow is an innocent man who was executed by the state in 33 AD. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities…and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:3a, 5).
The free gift of God is eternal life for all sinners and saints. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell