A couple months ago, I was browsing books at Concordia Publishing House after a board meeting, and I picked up The Executioner’s Redemption, by Rev. Timothy R. Carter (CPH, 2016).
One of my fellow board members, a pastor, was nearby. “Your husband would really like that.”
I bought the book, but not for my husband.
Now that I’ve read it, I know why pastors—and anyone else who has visited a prison—would find the book useful. Rev. Carter, a Texas executioner turned Lutheran pastor, has an amazing story to tell.
Read it if you’ve worked with inmates, their families, or victims of crimes.
Read it if you’ve watched movies or TV shows set in a prison (e.g., The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking) and wondered, “How can people work there?”
Read it if you’ve heard stories about people like the Carr brothers, who are currently awaiting execution in Kansas (a state that, incidentally, hasn’t executed anyone since 1965). It’s easy to be revolted by their actions, to wish for vengeance, and to think that they’re outside of God’s mercy.
Carter understands the impulse. He harbored similar thoughts himself in the early days of his prison career. He took a job as a prison guard in Huntsville, Texas, during college, and he quickly came to see himself as “an agent of God’s wrath.” He recalls:
I could once bench press twice my weight. I was quick, agile, muscular, and had little difficulty standing my ground and proving I was one not to be reckoned with. I enjoyed fighting prisoners. Compassion and lenience were left behind, replaced by a keen attentiveness to winning the war against inmates. Mentally and emotionally I became hard as a rock, and my heart became equally calloused and insensitive. (p. 8)
Carter describes himself in those early days as foul-mouthed, rough, self-righteous, and judgmental—easy to understand, in light of his circumstances. But he wasn’t happy with that. His attitude changed over the course of his career, and that’s the story at the heart of the book.
So what changed him?
In a word: Christ.
Carter grew up Catholic but was disconnected from the church. He started reading the Bible as a young man after a conversation with a coworker. Later, he found his way into the Lutheran church after a conversation with George Beto, a criminal justice expert and ordained Lutheran minister.
He recalls asking Beto how he, as a Christian, navigated prison management.
He respectfully, yet firmly answered by reciting one Scripture verse. It was Matthew 10:16: “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise [or shrewd] as serpents and innocent [or gentle] as doves.” He then explained that I had it half right. He said that I was very good at being as wise as a serpent, but I appeared to be a complete failure at being as innocent (or gentle) as a dove. (pp. 20-21)
In short, you need both Law and Gospel, and the help of God. Carter got the message.
In the remainder of the book, Carter describes the lessons he learned in prison, focusing particularly on his work as a member of “the death squad” at the Walls Unit, where all executions in Texas take place. (It’s a busy unit; for stats on Texas executions, see this article.)
Most of us, thankfully, will never see anyone strapped to a death gurney, awaiting lethal injection. Carter saw it over 150 times, which gave him plenty of opportunities to think about the inmates, their families, the families of victims, protesters, and God.
All of those lessons made an impact on him. They’ll likely make an impact on you, too.
P.S. Here’s one other reason to check out the book: flip animation! (Remember flip books?) Give the pages a flip, and you’ll see Carter symbolically go from compassionless tough guy to caring servant of Christ. Kudos to the illustrator.