What do you think about on the day you will be executed?
One week ago today, Wm. Glenn Boyd was executed at Holman Prison in Alabama. Glenn had been in prison on death row for nearly 25 years. I was there with him as his “spiritual advisor” (pastor). Long, long ago Glenn had dealt with his guilt for participating in the double murder that landed him on death row. Quite a long time ago he became a Christian. The Glenn I knew was not an angry punk kid with long hair and a mean spirit.
The Glenn I knew had many years to grow up, to learn, to think, and to change. Part of my opposition to the death penalty is my understanding that people do change over time. I do not call this my belief that people can change, but my knowledge that, in fact, it’s quite normal for people to grow and develop and change over time.
What person in their 50’s is the same person now that they were when they were 20? I know that some people get stuck psychologically or spiritually, but growth and development is normal. Add, to the normal process the additional incentive of a death sentence: it focuses the mind. How could it not (except for the criminally insane, and yes, I have met them too, on death row; they are in a category quite apart)?
I wondered, as I was heading up to the prison, what Glenn would want to talk about on his last day of life? I wondered what I would want to talk about if I were in his shoes? The conversations about guilt and forgiveness, his victims, his remorse, had happened long before. Would they resurface, I wondered?
In my life, I’ve come to see that people differ widely in their capacity to be self-reflective (not just prisoners, free-world people too). Some will barely admit that they have ever done anything wrong. They seem almost unable to say, “I was wrong; please forgive me.” They are always about excuses and exceptions, they didn’t mean it; it wasn’t their fault, on and on.
Others are able to admit the bad stuff, the outright lies, the times they lashed out verbally in anger, the times they meant to hurt or insult, the times they caused damage; they will own up to it and even apologize. But for some, going deeper than the surface is still too difficult. They don’t examine their mixed motives, their hidden sins: pride, envy, greed, lust, vengeance, or malice.
Others with well-trained consciences do go down into their hearts and examine themselves more intensely. They look even at the good that they have done and wonder how much of it was motivated by their hope for receiving gratitude, praise, or esteem. Would they have been good if no one was watching? How much should they take credit for, when really the credit goes to how well they were raised, the fact that they had all the advantages, and the truth that doing good didn’t really cost them much?
The deepest level of self-examination, I believe, is to consider the good one could have done, but failed to do; sins of omission. The word of encouragement that stayed inside, the cards that could have brought comfort or encouragement that were never sent, the time in front of the TV, now forever gone, the money that stayed in the pocket when it was needed badly elsewhere.
What do you think about on the last day of your life?
Glenn was bothered, and sought my counsel, about all the good he could have done, but failed to do. The periods of time when, after months of bible reading he let it go for a while. The prayers he sometimes was too emotionally down to pray. The men in cells next to his that he could have been more encouraging to as they struggled with their faith, their guilt, or their denial. Glenn was concerned about the wrongs he had done by failing to do good when it was in his power to do good, in prison, on death row.