I don’t know Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I never have. And until God answers our desperate prayers and I meet him in heaven, I likely never will. But C.S. Lewis once said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” Two years ago, I heard my Father say to me, “Pray for him,” so I made the decision to obey that calling. I have been praying for Jahar daily for almost two years now – and when you pray for someone daily for that long – you come to love them, whether they deserve it or not.
For two years, I have prayed for the outcome of this trial. I begged God for a life sentence so Jahar would have the time he needed to get to know Jesus…to fall in love with him…to serve Him…and to lead people to Him. But I always added a qualifying statement that I wanted His will to be done, whatever that was. I wanted the sentence to be whatever Jahar needed to come to Him – even if that was death.
I had so much hope for a life sentence throughout the trial. Hope because Boston is overwhelmingly against the death penalty. Hope because he had the most amazing lawyers he could have ever asked for. Hope because some of the victims, including the Richard family, openly declared their desire for a life sentence. Hope because I thought maybe they would spare him the death penalty because of his age and the influence of his brother and family.
I was almost certain there wouldn’t be a verdict until next week, and I was attempting to focus on work when I received the message that a verdict had been reached and would be announced at 3:00. I was hoping I could have the time to be alone and process whatever the verdict was when it came – but I was alone at work and the sole person keeping the office open, so I didn’t have the choice to leave. Even though I knew I shouldn’t, I closed the door to my office. I got down on my knees and began to pray as I read the jury’s decisions. As the responses to certain aggravating and mitigating factors were read – there were some that surprised and even shocked me…that they believed that Jahar purposefully targeted Martin Richard because of his youth…that they believed Jahar himself murdered Officer Sean Collier…that only 3 jurors agreed that he acted under the influence of Tamerlan and that Tamerlan planned and led the attack…that only 3 jurors agreed that he would not have committed this attack if it weren’t for Tamerlan…that only 1 juror agreed that Jahar was deprived of stability and guidance because of his mother’s emotional volatility and religious extremism…that no one believed Sister Helen’s testimony of his remorse…that 11 of the jurors thought Jahar would still commit acts of violence in federal prison. As I read these things, the lump in my throat grew, and I knew it didn’t look good…but I tried to hold on to hope. And then the sentence came, and for a brief moment in time, my world stopped turning. In huge letters…DEATH for Tsarnaev on some counts. For a moment I felt nothing – I just stared in silence. And then I fell to my floor and began to sob. That lasted all of 30 seconds before someone rang the doorbell and I was jolted back into the reality that I was at work. I had to get up and answer the door, pretending that nothing was wrong. I wished I could leave, because I certainly couldn’t focus on work. All I could do was pray, and think, and talk to the dear brothers and sisters I have met on this journey who are also praying for Jahar.
There were so many emotions swirling in my head and in my heart. Anger…as a death penalty abolitionist, I was angry that we haven’t moved past this revenge mentality as a society. Disappointment and frustration…that the sentence was not what I and so many others had hoped for. Despair…that his time to come to faith in Christ may now be cut extremely short. Heartbreak…to think of the young man I have come to call my brother, out of my belief that he will be one day, being strapped to that table and killed.
When I woke up this morning, I had the fleeting thought that it was all just a nightmare – but then I saw all of the headlines again. I felt as if I was carrying around a 1,000 pound weight in my heart.
But as time is moving on, God is slowly working at changing my perspective. He is reminding me of what I prayed day in and day out for two years: “Give him what he needs to come to You Father. If the death penalty is what he needs to wake him up and open his eyes, then give him the death penalty.” Maybe, just maybe, facing death so imminently is what it will take for Jahar to become uneasy with his lack of assurance of salvation and to cry out to God, “Who are you?”
Although I’m not sure if it’s true, I recently read that a court transcript stated that if Jahar received a death sentence, Sister Helen would be able to continue to work with him. Jahar has been under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) since the summer of 2013 – unable to communicate with anyone but his immediate family and his attorneys. The SAMs even clearly state that Jahar cannot have access to the prison chaplain – not that he likely would have wanted it at this point. For all this time, we have been desperately praying for God to somehow place a Christian in Jahar’s life, despite all odds – whether it be a nurse, doctor, lawyer, or guard. Somehow, by some miracle, Sister Helen was an answer to that prayer. The fact that he was open, receptive, and respectful to her regarding her faith, even when he disagreed, was another victory. If a death sentence means that Sister Helen can continue to work with Jahar – that may just be part of God’s plan to lead him home. And maybe there are reasons for this that I just can’t see or understand now, and maybe won’t ever see or understand on this side of heaven – but I know that He is working everything together to lead Jahar home. And I trust him.
A few weeks ago at church, my pastor delivered a message entitled, “What to Know Under Impossible Odds.” I grabbed a pen and paper because I knew this was going to be good. The one point that struck me the most was that God loves to stack the deck against us. My pastor shared the story of Gideon’s army in Judges 7. As Gideon prepared to fight the 135,000 Midianites with his inadequate army of 32,000 – God told him that his army was too big and that he should send all those who were afraid home, which left him with only 10,000 men. That was still too many men for God, and he called Gideon to bring his men to the water and test them there. At the water, God reduced Gideon’s army to 300 men. Then he gave Gideon a very strange battle plan of blowing trumpets and throwing pitchers. Through all of this craziness, Gideon trusted God. When the Midianites heard all the noise from the trumpets and breaking pitchers and saw the light of the torches, they thought they were being attacked by a much larger army. In the confusion, the Lord turned the Midianites against each other, and Gideon’s army of 300 was victorious. God wanted the odds to be so terrible that the victory was clearly His own. God loves to stack the deck against us to show us who He is…to demonstrate that victory is not our own but comes only through His strength and power.
The deck is certainly stacked against Jahar: a dysfunctional family; being deeply entrenched in radical Islam; Special Administrative Measures preventing communication with the outside world; the almost inevitable effects of solitary confinement including depression, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts; lack of interaction with other inmates or spiritual advisors; and now the death penalty. Keep stacking the deck Father, so that when he comes to you seeking adoption into Your family despite every circumstance that was making it seemingly impossible – the glory will belong to You and You alone.