James Minton of the Baton Rouge Advocate kindly let me know of a correction. Contrary to the Baptist Press report, Thomas Ward sentenced to death for murdering his father-in-law, not his mother-in-law. Minton's most recent articles on Angola can be found here.
I'm branching off from reviewing David Fitch's The End of Evangelicalism to share a great example of the disconnect that the decision for Christ can cause for evangelicals. A few weeks ago, Mother Jones published an in-depth report on an 18,000-acre prison in Louisiana, called Angola, and its Southern Baptist warden, Burl Cain: "Among born-again Christians, Cain is revered for delivering hundreds of incarcerated sinners to the Lord—running the nation's largest maximum-security prison, as [the Baptist Press] put it 'with an iron fist and an even stronger love for Jesus.'"
The vast land of Angola prison previously consisted of five slave plantations. Although Warden Cain's turnaround of the prison is much-praised by evangelicals (he told his story twice at Wheaton's chapel service while I was there), much like the history of Angola, Cain's prison has an ugly side. Three-quarters of the prisoners are black and still work the land at Angola. An exonerated former inmate describes Cain as a warden with "'a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.' And when the chips are down, Thompson said, 'he drops the Bible.'" Angola also has three inmates who have been in solitary confinement longer than any other prisoner in the U.S--over 36 years.
Warden Cain tells Baptist Press about his first execution, which spurred him to start his "moral rehabilitation" campaign at Angola:
Thomas Ward had been sentenced to die for murdering his mother-in-law. Cain viewed him as little more than a criminal whom society had ruled should die for his crime. "I didn't worry about what he must have been experiencing in the hours before his death. I didn't go to his last meal, and I didn't share Jesus with him."
When it was time for the court's order to be carried out, Ward's face was a mask of fear as the deadly fluids began flowing his veins. "There was a psshpssh from the machine, and then he was gone," Cain recalls. "I felt him go to hell as I held his hand."
"Then the thought came over me: I just killed that man. I said nothing to him about his soul. I didn't give him a chance to get right with God. What does God think of me? I decided that night I would never again put someone to death without telling him about his soul and about Jesus."
Now, there are five chapels in the prison, the largest with 800 seats, and the inmates themselves are the preachers. Mother Jones reports that 2,000 inmates have made a decision for Christ since Cain's arrival. Angola has seen a decline in violent crime, rape, drug use, and assaults on prison staff, although many have pointed out that these rates began dropping prior to Cain's tenure.
Angola is a great illustration of the narrowness of the decision for Christ. Warden Cain, at his first execution, was disturbed that he had not shared his version of the Gospel to which the death-row prisoner could mentally assent. Cain was less disturbed (or not bothered at all) by the fact that our society kills killers to somehow show that killing is wrong.
The focus is on individual conversions, without addressing how the whole Gospel can rehabilitate not only prisoners, but the system that incarcerates so many people, mostly poor and African-American. One out of every 55 Louisiana residents is in prison, the highest incarceration rate in the U.S, and if you count those on probation and parole, the number jumps to 1 out of 26. The death penalty and harsh treatment of prisoners continue, without any regard for the dignity of human life.
But never mind the injustices that remain, because individually, many prisoners have made a decision for Christ. The brokenness of the system that brings these prisoners to Angola in the first place and that perpetuates the cruel treatment once they're at Angola reveals the emptiness of the "decision for Christ" as a Master-Signifer, but nonetheless, evangelicals will continue to praise Cain, produce documentaries, and invite him to speak at conferences and chapels...