A Lesson Before Dying: Sacrifice and Freedom

Cover of "A Lesson Before Dying (Oprah's ...

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Have you ever felt trapped by your situation in life?

Maybe you were a teenager who couldn’t wait to graduate high school and get out from under oppressive parents.

Maybe you were in an abusive or otherwise harmful relationship, and you knew you needed to get out, but didn’t know how.

Maybe an addiction strangled your soul.

Or perhaps you were shackled by the expectations of parents, bosses, or yourself.

In A Lesson Before Dying, author Ernest Gaines traces the story of two men, convicted murderer Jefferson and teacher Grant Wiggins. Both of these men were trapped, one literally and one figuratively. Jefferson was (wrongly?) convicted of robbery and murder, and was on death row. Wiggins taught in the “black” school, and only wanted to escape the town with his girlfriend, but was unable.

For these men, and all others in the black community, the expectations of white-dominated culture added further burdens. The white leaders expected the black residents to be ignorant and weak, even despising the educated men like Wiggins. Wiggins was supposed to say, “Sir,” and he was supposed to not make eye contact. He was supposed to drill his students through a routine merely to satisfy the superintendent.

Jefferson was labeled as no better than a hog by the lawyer who defended him. Sadly, he not only believed this image, but imposed it on himself for most of his prison term.

Additionally, everyone carried the suffocating weight of status quo, the cycle of how things have always been in that community. Who is powerful enough to break free from this cycle, and who is wise enough to change the path forward?

Both Jefferson and Wiggins were confined by people who craved status, possessions, and relationships. Those people had so little, and could only find hope in choking the people and things they needed so much. But the sad truth is that those who abuse others to elevate themselves actually have no power.

In a culture where everyone wanted to feel superior, who would lay down his life as a sacrifice?


Besides feeling trapped, have you also tried to navigate tensions in your life?

Jefferson wrestled with how and why  to live life, while on the path to imminent death. Was he to die as the hog “they” said he was, or would he die as a man?

Wiggins struggled in an educational system where, on one hand, he taught what the students needed for comfort and continuity, and on the other hand, wanted them to break free.

Looking at children playing at recess (chapter 8):

“And I thought to myself, What am I doing? Am I reaching them at all? They are acting exactly as [I saw] the old men did earlier. They are 50 years younger, maybe more, but doing the same thing those old men did who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle? Am I doing anything? . . .

And even his former teacher couldn’t give him hope, saying,

“It’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away – peel – scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years. . . . Nothing changes. . . . Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.”

The Sacrifice

Wiggins was encouraged forced by his aunt to visit Jefferson in jail, so he could help the latter walk to the electric chair as a proud man. Wiggins sacrificed his time, his pride (having to succumb to the sheriff’s expectations, of course), and his emotional energy.

Jefferson was going to die; there was no stopping that. Wiggins helped Jefferson understand that how he spent his final days wasn’t about himself, but about how it could lift up his family and friends. In dying as a man (not a hog), Jefferson could give hope and life to others.

But in the end, it was the prisoner that taught the teacher about manhood and freedom.

Jefferson helped Wiggins realize that even though others (police, family, students) may trap and suffocate you, you can have freedom. But freedom does not come by focusing on yourself; it comes in sacrificing your life (figuratively or literally) for someone else. Anyone can cage and kill a beast; only a free and powerful man can lay down his own life.

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” I John 3:16

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