Recently, at the Community Church in Woodland Hills, California, a woman sang “Amazing Grace.” She sang slow with sweet, lilting sorrow, letting each dolorous, weighty note saturate the space with sound. She sang right in front of the same pulpit where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once preached, on his birthday, on January 15, 1961.
Invited by Rev. Frank Doty, a progressive and persistent white pastor who refused to take “no” for an answer, Dr. King told the assembled congregation over a half century ago: “Love yourself, if that means rational and healthy interest. You are commanded to do that. That is the length of life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That is the breadth of life.”
From that hallowed ground, before she sang, the woman told the story of John Newton, the slave trafficker and improbable author of “Amazing Grace”; she explained, with care, how, because of Newton’s salvation, the song’s lyrics are a powerful testimony that forgiveness and redemption are always possible. Even for the worst sinners. Even for a slave trader – a man who by his own admission was responsible for murder, torture, and the subjugation of many innocent souls.
“Amazing Grace” is not just as a song, she explained, it’s a philosophy for life; together with the Golden Rule and other aphorisms, it’s a gold standard for how we should treat ourselves and others. It affirms, as Sister Helen Prejean is credited with saying, that “every human being is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” As a moral code or credo, “amazing grace” asserts that no matter a person’s sin, crime, or wrongdoing, that there is goodness inside each one of us – a goodness that should never be killed.
Elucidating the concept of amazing grace in relation to the nation’s next looming execution – the lethal injection of Ronald Phillips, scheduled for July 26 in Ohio – writer Lisa Murtha convincingly argues, “[t]his killer turned prison chaplain shows what’s wrong with the death penalty.” Conceding that Phillips’ crime, the rape and beating death of his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter, Sheila Marie Evans, was “horrendous,” Murtha nonetheless argues that Phillips should be spared.
Among the good reasons Murtha advances for mercy are: the offense occurred “24 years ago when Mr. Phillips was 19 years old”; “Ron Phillips at 43 years old is a very different man from the disturbed young adult who killed Sheila Marie in 1993”; “Killing Ron Phillips will achieve a measure of vengeance, but it will not undo any of the terrible things he did”; “killing him releases him from the burden of thinking every single day about the horrendous crimes”; and, “Today, Ron Phillips is an unofficial chaplain at Ohio’s Chillicothe Correctional Institution. He attends multiple church services each week and has spent time with other inmates discussing the Bible readings and life’s challenges.”
Rhetorically, Murtha asks: “How many more people like Ron Phillips – searching for salvation, open to change – fill our country’s prisons? How many inmates could Mr. Phillips serve and bring closer to God if only he could live among them?” Ultimately, unless Phillips wins an unlikely reprieve in court, it’ll be Ohio Governor, John Kasich – and not a higher power, as it should be in a free and just country – who’ll be the final arbiter of Murtha’s latter question.
Governor Kasich can, and he should, use his unnatural, godly power of clemency to exercise “amazing grace” – as Murtha and a growing cacophony of diverse voices have called for – and spare Phillips. He should exercise “amazing grace” like the dad in Philadelphia who recently forgave his daughter’s killer, inscribing a book of poetry to him. It’s the same “amazing grace” called for by author and activist Shane Claiborne in his book, “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.” And, it’s the same “amazing grace” former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson advocates for in a civilized and modern world (“I carried out the death penalty as governor. I hope others put it to rest.”). Put most simply, and at its base, Governor Kasich should show “amazing grace” like that which the once “lost” former slave trafficker John Newton “found” in God.
Or, alternatively, Kasich can let Phillips’ execution go forward, just like Kelly Gissendaner’s in September of 2015; Gissendaner was the first woman executed in Georgia in seventy years. Like Phillips is set to be, Gissendaner was executed long after her crime, she sought salvation during her incarceration and, she did good works, ministering to other inmates behind bars; emotionally and tearfully, Gissendaner sang “Amazing Grace” as she was being executed – just as others have before her – in the dastardly annals of death penalty history. According to Pastor Carl Ruby of Central Christian Church in Springfield, Ohio, if Kasich allows this to happen to Phillips, he will have “turn[ed] his back on Christ.”
Time will soon tell if Governor Kasich will make the right decision, and grant clemency. What’s certain is, without “amazing grace,” Ronald Phillips’ time will almost surely run out.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq.