When the Church Does Right, and the State Goes Wrong

A condemned man’s last request puts our nation’s constitutional commitments to the test.

There is absolutely no question that John Henry Ramirez did a truly evil, horrible thing. In 2004, he attacked and stabbed to death a man named Pablo Castro. Ramirez beat him and stabbed him 29 times, leaving him dead in the street—all for the $1.25 in his pocket. Castro had nine children. 

I wanted to start this piece by remembering Ramirez’s crime and Castro’s death because death penalty debates all too often lose sight of the victim of the crime. In focusing on the state’s procedural flaws or its unfair systems, we can neglect the terrible thing that happened and the shattered families who live with the pain of horrific loss. 

There is also no question that not even murderers are beyond the reach of the grace of God. After all, Christians worship a savior who forgave his own executioners as they unjustly put him to death and cast lots for his garments. “Father forgive them,” He said, “for they know not what they do.” 

According to ancient church traditions, the criminal on the cross who asked Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” was no mere “thief” as we understand that term today. Instead he was likely a man with blood on his hands, crying out to God in his very last moments. 

And what was Jesus’s response? “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The story of John Henry Ramirez begins with depravity and evil but then changes into a story that illustrates what the church does right, and the state does wrong. It’s the story of a pastor and a church who reached out to a condemned man and welcomed him into their ranks. But it’s also the story of a state that is deliberately withholding meaningful spiritual comfort from him at the moment of his death—for no compelling reason at all.

Let’s start with the best of the church. Ruth Graham writes a compelling account in the New York Times. Ramirez met two sisters from Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, (he now refers to the women as his “godmothers”), and they introduced him to their pastor, a man named Dana Moore. 

Moore has been visiting Ramirez for more than four years. As Graham notes in her report, he drives 300 miles northeast to visit Ramirez. Ramirez has even become a member of Second Baptist Church.

I don’t know much about Pastor Moore, honestly. He’s not a celebrity with a huge online following. He’s in the spotlight now because of his relationship with Ramirez, but I have absolutely no idea about his political opinions about anything. What I do know is that he’s read these words in Matthew 25, among the most famous verses in the Bible:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers you did it to me.

Prison ministry has its own immense challenges, and here’s one: Graham reports that “the two men have never touched; their entire relationship has been conducted through Plexiglas.” But in his final moments, Ramirez wants that to change. He wants Moore next to him in the execution chamber, praying aloud and touching him where it’s safe to touch, perhaps on his shoulder, or even on his foot. 

If you’re not part of an Evangelical church—or haven’t grown up in religious traditions where pastors or spiritual leaders place their hands on you as they pray—it’s difficult to truly describe the meaning and the connection of that moment. In my own church, one of the best ways of distinguishing between “normal” prayer and the truly serious moments in life is whether we’re gathered together, with our hands on the shoulders of a person in distress. 

Pastors pray like that countless times, with people struggling for breath in hospital rooms, with couples in anguish over a struggling marriage, with businessmen who are watching their life’s work crumble away. It’s so much a part of ministry that its absence would seem a signal of indifference and distance.

So the only thing truly extraordinary about Ramirez’s request—and Moore’s desire to comfort Ramirez—is its location, an execution chamber in the state of Texas.

And that brings us to the failures of the state. My own feelings about the death penalty are complicated. If you’re curious about the long version of my thoughts, you can hear me discuss them at some length in a dialogue with The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig and the New York Times’ Jane Coaston on Jane’s outstanding podcast called “The Argument.”

The short version of my position is this—I do not believe that the Bible prohibits the state from imposing the death penalty, and I do believe that the death penalty can be a just punishment for the most heinous of crimes. But I have profound problems with the implementation of the death penalty in this country. The process has been so broken for so long—featuring remarkable inequities in its imposition across both race and class lines—that it is fundamentally, systemically unjust.

And part of that injustice isn’t just the way in which we decide who is executed, it’s the way in which we treat the condemned men and women, including at the ultimate moment of death. 

In February 2019, a Muslim man named Domineque Ray faced execution for a truly heinous crime—the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl—and one of his last requests was simple. Could his imam join him in the execution chamber? The state of Alabama said no. 

The state prohibited “outside” spiritual advisers from entering the chamber, and since the imam wasn’t a prison employee he had to watch the execution from behind a glass wall. Only a Christian cleric could enter the chamber. Five justices—including every single GOP nominee—voted to permit the execution to go forward, on the grounds that Ray filed his petition too late for relief. 

Justice Kagan—and the other three justices, all Democratic nominees—dissented, and Kagan’s words ring true:

[T]he State has offered no evidence to show that its wholesale prohibition on outside spiritual advisers is necessary to achieve that goal. Why couldn’t Ray’s imam receive whatever training in execution protocol the Christian chaplain received? The State has no answer. Why wouldn’t it be sufficient for the imam to pledge, under penalty of contempt, that he will not interfere with the State’s ability to perform the execution? The State doesn’t say. The only evidence the State has offered is a conclusory affidavit stating that its policy “is the least restrictive means of furthering” its interest in safety and security. That is not enough to support a denominational preference.

Since that time the court has revisited the issue of spiritual support in the execution chamber, and its jurisprudence has improved, considerably. The very next month, the court stayed the execution of a man named Patrick Murphy. Seven justices ruled that the motion to stay the execution was filed on a timely basis and that the state of Texas must permit Murphy’s Buddhist spiritual adviser into the execution chamber.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Kavanaugh said the standard was “equal-treatment,” and that Texas had two choices, everyone or no one. It could permit all prisoners to have a spiritual adviser in the execution chamber regardless of their religion, or it could require that all spiritual advisers stay out of the room and watch behind glass.

Texas initially chose to pursue equal treatment in the worst way possible, by banishing all spiritual advisers from the chamber. It has since reversed course and lets them in, but they must remain silent, and they cannot touch the condemned man. Moore wants to pray aloud. He wants to touch Ramirez, even if it’s just on his foot.

Texas says no, and the court just might let it say no. I read Monday’s oral argument in the case, and I found it profoundly frustrating. As often happens in Supreme Court arguments, debates about hypotheticals overwhelmed the discussion of the actual facts. Here the facts are so simple. A man wants to kneel and pray and touch the foot of his friend. Does that present a reasonable risk to the execution procedure? 

Could there be requests that would present a risk (depending on precisely what a spiritual adviser proposes to do)? Certainly. Were more dangerous requests part of this case? Certainly not. 

Modern debates about religious freedom so often pit powerful political constituencies against each other that we forget that our Constitution’s free exercise clause is ultimately rooted not in a preference for one political coalition against another (indeed, the clause protects atheist and believer alike) but rather in the intrinsic worth of the human person, created in the image of God.

And that worth persists and endures through our misdeeds. Ramirez knows what he did. Ruth Graham writes that “Mr. Ramirez takes responsibility for the crime,” which he calls a ‘heinous murder.’” Nor does he blame his tough childhood. “There’s a lot of people that live like that and even worse,” he told Graham “and they didn’t end up on death row ... they didn’t end up becoming murderers.”

The glorious miracle of God’s grace is that it defies and overcomes our deeds. When Dana Moore gets into a car and drives hundreds of miles to meet a condemned man, he is an instrument of that grace. This is the church at its best, when a pastor lives out the parable of the lost sheep. He’s a shepherd who quite literally leaves his flock behind each day that he drives out to Livingston Texas, to meet the one behind bars, waiting to die. 

But if Texas does not relent, and if the court does not intervene, we will see the state fail its foundational obligations. The issue is not whether Ramirez deserves the comfort he denied the victim of his own terrible crimes. But one of the cardinal beauties of our system of government rests in a single word from the Declaration of Independence—“unalienable.” The human rights safeguarded by our system of government aren’t “earned,” they simply “are.” They’re a manifestation of a human being’s inherent dignity.

Pastor Moore recognizes that dignity, and like countless pastors over the sweep of countless years, he simply wants a dying man to know--to feel--that he is not alone. And now it’s up to the state to fulfill its role, to recognize the centrality of faith to the human experience and protect its most simple expression at a most crucial moment. 

One more thing …

The new Good Faith podcast trailer is in the world. Please listen (it’s only a minute), subscribe, and (if you’re so moved!) go ahead and give us a wonderful anticipatory rating. It will help folks find the pod when it’s finally released. The first episode is coming very soon. It’s less than a week away.

One last thing …

This is a wonderful song by an artist I’ve not long followed. It’s beautiful, and the opening words seem appropriate to the moment:

In unexpected places in unpredicted ways

you will bring your salvation 

to people who need grace.