Executioners, Song, Silence

SYDNEY — Just after midnight a few days ago, a small crowd gathered in a jungle clearing on Nuksakambangan, a prison island in Indonesia.

It was an awful, terrifying moment. And so powerful it seemed strangely holy.

A row of eight men, tied to wooden crosses, with arms outstretched and feet bound, faced a firing squad. The men wore white shirts. A black cross was taped on the chests of the condemned to show where their hearts were.

All eight refused blindfolds, choosing instead to look their executioners in the eye. As they waited for the gunfire, the men — from Australia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil and Ghana; all convicted of offenses related to drug smuggling — sang hymns. A pastor who was present, Karina de Vega, said that even though they were not all Christians, they sang like a choir: “It was breathtaking.”

Two Australians, Andrew Chan, 31, and Myuran Sukumaran, 34, led the group. Former ringleaders of what became known as the “Bali Nine” drug operation, the pair had undergone a transformation in the decade they had spent in jail. Mr. Chan had been ordained a minister, while Mr. Sukumaran had become an accomplished artist.

The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, and the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, had pleaded for stays of execution, in vain. And, over the final weeks, Australians had been galvanized into unexpected protests.

As the members of the firing squad cocked their rifles, the strains of “Amazing Grace” were heard in the darkness. The drug smugglers were singing a hymn written by a former slave ship captain, John Newton, also a wretch who wanted to be saved.

Then the bullets came.

And an amazing thing happened: Australia, a proudly secular, cynical country, stopped. Even those who did not weep were silent; a curious stillness infected the country the day after the shooting. Two of them were ours, and they had been shot dead.

In the hours before the executions, thousands held candles at vigils, lay sleepless in their beds or woke early, fumbling for the news on their phones.

The appeals for clemency had been a tortuous, protracted process, and we grew accustomed to the faces of the condemned on our screens and newspaper pages. Now their lives were snuffed out and many felt anguished and distressed.

According to a recent poll, almost half of Australians are atheists: 48 percent of respondents said they had never believed in a “classical creator God” or no longer did; and 60 percent think the Bible is a book of myths.

Yet the story of redemption in an Indonesia jail persuaded my country to rethink its attitude toward the death penalty. Mr. Abbott called the executions “cruel and unnecessary,” pointing to the fact that the men were “fully rehabilitated.” After the executions, he announced that Australia would withdraw its ambassador to Indonesia.

Australia is officially opposed to the death penalty — the last person to be executed was hanged in 1967 — but polls have shown us to be conflicted and inconsistent on the question. We don’t favor it here, but Australian public opinion is more sympathetic toward it in other countries or if it is used against terrorists (like those responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians). A recent poll found that 52 percent agreed that fellow Australians who had been convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death in another country should be executed.

Yet almost the same number (53 percent) objected to the executions of Mr. Chan and Mr. Sukumaran. The two also drew support from both sides of Parliament and across the media.

Perhaps it was because the former traffickers had genuinely reformed. They had become figureheads within the prison, helping inmates and leading church services. It was also reported that Mr. Chan and Mr. Sukumaran had risked their own safety to protect women’s quarters when a riot broke out in 2012.

Mr. Chan converted to Christianity during a stint in solitary confinement when he realized his death sentence was likely to be carried out. To ensure that his prison ministry would continue, Mr. Chan trained others to be leaders. “Jesus set me free,” he said.

Sincerity is judged exactingly in Australia; we have crude words for those who try to pull the wool over our eyes, for fraudsters or pretenders. We are also deeply suspicious of piety. But we believed these men as they cried for another chance. (A poll taken after the executions found 71 percent of Australians thought the death penalty should not be used against drug traffickers, and just over half thought Australia should take a more aggressive stance on the subject globally.)

And this is why their long trek to a brutal death became somehow sacred. It made many of us reconsider the possibility of change, the potency of mercy and the terrible finality of taking another’s life. In the run-up to the executions, Simon Smart, the director of the Center for Public Christianity, asked: “Why do we long for redemption stories? Where do we find hope in the midst of struggle and disappointment? The short, beautifully tragic lives of these young men seemed to point to something of an answer. Were they on to something as they sang their way to their graves?”

On top of those questions, more are now being asked: Should we make stronger efforts globally to lobby against the death penalty? How should we respond to the fact that Indonesian officials continue to ask for clemency for their own citizens on death row in other countries — slam them as hypocrites or fight with them? If Mr. Chan and Mr. Sukumaran forgave their persecutors, can we?

The Rev. Christie Buckingham was with the men before they died. Their last hour, the pastor said, was one of their finest: “giving comfort to all around them, including the guards who had become fond of them.”

If there are any moments that should compel a country to pause and think, this was one.