The circus surrounding the Bali 9 drug traffickers’ death sentences caught the attention of the world in 2015, in the hope that a reprieve would be granted.
Like many Australians, I suppose I too was not interested in a bunch of guilty drug traffickers trying to get out of the graves they had dug for themselves. These weren’t wrongly accused innocents wallowing in a Balinese prison, but by their own admission, guilty as charged.
Yet every time I got on the internet it was hard to ignore stories about them, in particular Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan who had become born-again Christians in prison.
“Yeah, right. Every person backed against the wall suddenly finds God. Set them free and they’re back to their evil ways.” My friend’s cynicism reflected the thoughts of most of us at my local church.
Somehow it’s easier to show compassion for refugees fleeing war-torn countries, starving children, the homeless, but God forbid any criminal trying to invoke compassion in our hearts. It doesn’t matter that they have changed or repented. Once a criminal, forever a criminal.
When I saw the Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop fighting for Sukumaran and Chan as if they were her own sons, I became curious. When I saw the award-winning Australian artist Ben Quilty in tears as he appealed for clemency for them, I decided to take a closer look.
From Kerobokan prison in Bali, Indonesia, report after report poured out about the many lives these young men had impacted. They didn’t just lead church services in prison, they turned the whole prison upside down by rehabilitating prisoners and winning the hearts of prison guards.
Guards who would normally be afraid to speak out against the establishment for fear of reprisals and losing jobs were coming forward to appeal to prison authorities and politicians to spare the lives of Sukumaran and Chan.
Dayspring on high had shone upon the Galilee that was Kerobokan so that it was now divided into two sections – one for those who continued to barter in drugs and live in bondage of crime and addictions and the other section, run by Sukumaran and Chan, that offered new life and hope.
Michael Bachelard reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that during a riot at Kerobokan prison in February, Sukumaran had stood guard outside the armoury all night with a crowbar to stop rioters from reaching the weapons. Sukumaran had said, “I was hoping they wouldn’t succeed because then I’d have to fight them.”
Sukumaran and Chan were nourished by the same hope they held out to others. Both men planned for their future and had faith God would set them free. They embarked on studies in prison, going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in theology for Chan and for Sukumaran, an associate degree in fine art from Curtin University, Sydney, just two months before he was executed.
I don’t know what shocked me more – the fact that the Indonesian government could execute two young men who were so clearly rehabilitated or the snap poll conducted by Roy Morgan that showed 52 per cent of Australians supported the death penalty. Is it so hard to forgive a criminal who has truly repented?
I remember the portrait of Indonesian President Joko Widodo in the news, painted by Sukumaran, through which he appealed to the President for mercy as he had the power to grant clemency. On the portrait, Sukumaran had painted the words, ‘President Joko, People Can Change.’ The President rejected the appeal, thus sealing the fate of the two boys.
When I woke up one morning to the news of their execution, I cried. I thought my church brethren might be more sympathetic, but I was wrong.
“How dare you cry for drug traffickers who got what they deserve? Cry instead for the many lives they have destroyed by putting drugs on the streets,” ranted a Christian brother at church.
Another woman whose daughter had been a drug addict who eventually died from a drug overdose also got offended by my sympathy.
On that day I realised compassion and forgiveness were two different sides of a coin. It is easier to have compassion than to mete out forgiveness. Yet those from whom we have held back that forgiveness are able to offer it more readily.
When Ben Quilty tweeted ‘Boycott Bali’ after their appeal had failed, Sukumaran asked him to revoke it and not punish the Balinese people. When his own cousin lashed out at God when she visited him during the last 48 hours of his life, Sukumaran rebuked her and praised God instead, saying the best time of his life was in prison. If he had not been arrested he would never have found God and his calling to paint and inspire others, he said.
This January I went to see Sukumaran’s paintings at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney. He had dedicated the last 72 hours of his life awaiting execution, to painting day and night.
When I stepped into Sukumaran’s posthumous exhibition called Another Day In Paradise I was no longer reading about this person in the news. I came face to face with Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. Portraits of the nine scheduled for execution on April 29, 2015 greeted visitors at the door. Prison landscape and prison life were all featured.
The name of the exhibition didn’t sound so ironic anymore as they had turned the hell of Kerobokan into a paradise for many. Testimonies continue to pour out of Kerobokan from those who had given up drugs and crime to join the forces that are determined to continue Sukumaran’s art school and Chan’s chapel and ministry in Kerobokan prison.
Some powerful paintings that came out of the 72-hour countdown to execution was the painting of a heart, signed by all nine prisoners facing execution, inscribed with the words in the Indonesian language “Satu hati satu rasa didalam cinta” – (one heart, one feeling in love), an AK-47 rifle used in executions and that famous portrait of President Joko with the appeal for mercy inscribed on it by Sukumaran’s own hand.
I stood for a long time before Sukumaran’s painting of the Indonesian flag with red paint dripping thickly down the canvas like blood. At the back of the painting the nine individuals scheduled to face the firing squad that day had embarked on one of the final acts of their last hours on this earth by signing messages of peace and love at the back of the painting. “Keep Smile”, “God Will Is The Best”, “God bless Indonesia” scattered across the back of the painting in red paint amidst their red finger prints.
As I stood there looking at the painting and reading their inscriptions, I didn’t feel I had to forgive them for anything. They had already made peace with God. Instead I asked them for forgiveness and God to forgive us as Christians for being among the voices that clamoured for retribution when we should have been celebrating restoration and reconciliation. They didn’t ask to be released from prison. They only asked to be spared their lives, even if it meant living out the rest of their lives in prison. It confronts us with the cruelty of the death penalty.
Eye-witness testimony of Reverend Christie Buckingham who was at the scene of the execution:
Andrew Chan, while in custody following his sentence, 2013:
“When I got back to my cell, I said, ‘God, I asked you to set me free, not kill me.’ God spoke to me and said, ‘Andrew, I have set you free from the inside out, I have given you life!’ From that moment on I haven’t stopped worshipping Him. I had never sung before, never led worship, until Jesus set me free.”