Last night hit our country hard. Millions of people followed, with interest, the case of Kelly Gissendaner. Sadly she was executed late yesterday evening after countless pleas from people around the world, including the Pope, to spare her life. The retribution machine won.
Kelly is a woman, who in 1997, conspired with her then boyfriend to murder her husband. The killer-boyfriend received life in prison (the actual hands who did the killing) and Kelly received the death penalty as the conspirator. Apparently the idea is just as bad as the act – or in this case, judged as worse. She conspired about murder, the murder was carried out, and she received the death penalty.
In death row, it is well documented (here, here, here, and especially here) that Kelly went through a radical personal transformation. Regretting all she had done, she came to know a God of forgiveness and mercy as she set her gaze on Jesus Christ. This led to many things, including joining a virtual seminary program:
In 2011, Gissendaner graduated from the Certificate for Theological Studies program at Lee Arrendale State Prison, a yearlong academic program started in 2009. The program is sponsored in part by Candler School of Theology and was founded by Candler’s Associate Professor of Christian Ethics Elizabeth M. Bounds and alumna Susan Bishop.
“This is a good illustration of an extraordinarily talented woman who sank into a very dark place and did some really horrible things. But it is just as poignant an illustration of God’s redemptive work in the world,” Love said.
Indeed the change in her life was evident. One of her professors and friends called her a true example of a “new creation.” She even became pen-pals with famed theologian Jurgan Moltmann. He visited her in prison when he was on a visiting lectureship in the United States. By all accounts, Kelly had truly changed.
If it isn’t enough to hear from seminary professors and Christian leaders, perhaps the fact that her own children and several inmates have also born witness to the beautiful image bearer of God she had become will help. This video from Amnesty International tells powerful stories about her loving presence in prison.
And here’s one telling about how her children forgave the conspirator to murder their father:
All of this tells us that Kelly Gissendaner was transformed by God’s love. She was a positive presence in the dark world of the prison system. She became an apostle (in the loose sense of a “sent one”) to incarcerated women and she had in her backstory the desire to see her husband killed.
Interestingly, the key figure in the early Christian story, after the resurrection of Jesus, is another Apostle (in a more technical sense): Paul. St. Paul has a similar backstory to Kelly. The Acts of the Apostles* shares a telling narrative in the following way:
At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” Then he died. Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder. (Acts of the Apostles 7.57 – 8.1, CEB)
Saul, who would become known as Paul, continued to spew “out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts of the Apostles 9.1). After adopting the way of Jesus as in continuity with his Judean Phariseeism (note: Paul never rejected his Torah following ways, but simply added Jesus as the incarnation of Israel’s God to his perspective.), he would reflect on his own violent past by saying:
You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors. But God had set me apart from birth and called me through his grace. He was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach about him to the Gentiles. I didn’t immediately consult with any human being… They only heard a report about me: “The man who used to harass us now preaches the faith that he once tried to destroy.” So they were glorifying God because of me. (Galatians 1.13-16, 23-24, CEB)
Paul, a conspirator for the destruction of innocent human lives, a man with zealous murder in his background, was transformed by the renewing love of God as revealed in his calling into the Jesus movement. This fact has been celebrated in the church for 2,000 years! Thank God for the way that Paul was changed from a murderer to an Apostle (“sent one”) to the outsiders of Judean faith: the gentiles (which simply means, the “nations”).
Kelly and Paul
In no way do I want to create a one-for-one correlation between St. Paul and Kelly Gissendaner. Paul’s violence was religiously motivated (always evil in light of Christ) and Kelly’s was motivated by other things. But, the fact is that they do have one thing in common: they both conspired to commit unthinkable murders and they both found the light of God which changed them into dramatically loving people. Certainly they were embedded within a highly different context with very different “rules.” Even so, at the end of the day we must admit that murder is the destruction of innocent life. Both of them share a guilty verdict.
We should, if we are Christians, weep over all victims from both narratives. Nothing about life-change minimizes the unjust evil of murder committed against the emerging Jesus movement in the first century or a husband and father in the 20th century. But transformation should at least cause us to question our assumptions about the near unilateral support of popular evangelicalism and the death penalty. Even many Roman Catholics support the death penalty, when it is against church teaching and the very words of the Pope. Something tied to a Western/American worldview has crept into the way we think about Christian ethics: retribution.
No one in the American church has ever said that Paul should have received his just reward: execution. He would later be executed, but not for the murder of early Jewish Christians, but for preaching an alternative worldview in confrontation of the Roman Imperial machine.
Rome crucified Jesus. Jesus exposed the folly of crucifixion by destroying the last enemy, death, but walking out of a tomb on that first Easter morning. Paul’s gospel directly upset the gospel of the Empire. If tradition is correct, this led to his death in the early 60s CE.
Even so, Paul’s past does beg the question: How would Christians today reason about Paul’s fate? Does life-change free him from the need to be killed: a life for a life? Although this is hypothetical, it seems that when a person on death row is transformed by the love of God, the typical response from many American Christians goes something like this:
That person murdered so and so. They deserve to die. Since the days of Noah, such people are supposed to be killed to protect the innocent. And great! That person, if their conversion is sincere, will die and go to heaven. But they must face the consequences for what they have done. God would see it fit to have them executed. We shouldn’t speak out against that.
But, what if execution of any kind is always wrong? The hypothetical “just reward” for Paul should be the same, at least from our perspective, as it is for anyone who has been transformed after evildoing. Kelly and Paul deserve the same. Yet, so do the other people on death row. So do all perpetrators who never feel remorse. They all deserve the same fate: dignity. Not a free pass, but the recognition that they never become less than human, thus are never forced to forfeit their humanity in death.
Retribution Isn’t Christian
We live in society obsessed with retribution. When a woman deserved to die due to the law of the land, Jesus stopped it by helping the men with stones realize that they had no right to throw them (John 8). In our system, metaphorical stones are thrown as if they are going to some how make society safer and bring healing to the victim’s loved ones. Both of these assumptions are false, and have been demonstrated as false for years now. Yet, retribution continues to get the final word. And many Christians applaud this as “justice.”
The trajectory of Scripture points us toward an alternative vision: restorative justice.** Things that have been fractured can be mended, at least in part. Every human life is precious according to this vision. Mercy trumps retribution 77 times over (Matthew 18). Love and innate human dignity trump labels and wrongdoings. Restoration, not destruction, is the will of God wherever possible.
Certainly consequences are important. Jails exist and rightfully so. They protect people from other people who choose to do wrong. They perhaps could also do much more to be spaces of rehab, but that is beside our focus for now. The point, however, is that destroying a life to demonstrate that it is wrong to destroy a life is simply giving into the cycle of retribution.
As followers of the way of Jesus, we can be reminded that he chose (amongst other things) to put his own body in the violent wake of the system of retribution: a Roman cross. Not to justify this method of torture and death, but to expose its folly and to absorb the sting of death for all humanity. And lest we forget, to conquer death through resurrection.
If we believe that Kelly, although changed, got her just reward, then perhaps we ought to have wished that upon St. Paul as well. No matter how evil the act, no human deserves to be killed, especially when they are no longer roaming free. No Christian should justify such killing as just. Instead, we should weep over all lives lost and promote a better way forward. Our attitude toward the death of another must change. This isn’t about mere politics, but about the ethics of Jesus.
Kelly did not receive what is “just,” she received vengeance. May her story inspire us to look deep into our hearts to recognize the innate value and dignity that even the worst of humanity deserves. May we become a people who look like Jesus, who offer mercy before judgment, and who carry our own cross as we place our lives in the wake of the retribution cycle of empire.
Until the day of resurrection, rest in peace Kelly, good and faithful servant of Christ.
* I realize that Acts is a dramatic narrative and isn’t “history” in the sense that a modern textbook might be, although I remain unconvinced that it has no historical value. I still believe it to be a reliable source of what basically happened during the early years of the Jesus movement.
** Anticipating the comments a bit, I realize that Romans 13 often is used to “support” the death penalty. A few thoughts. First, nothing about the passage is an endorsement on governmental policy. Paul simply names the system as it was and warns the church at Rome to beware of the consequences. The passage is about the current state of affairs, from Paul’s view, not an endorsement of the death penalty. Second, it doesn’t offer us a way to engage political theory. Paul has zero influence on the government of the Romans. He knows this. But he also knows that they must live in such a way as to not get put on their radar screen for risk of persecution. Third, the “sword” and the “church” in the passage are radically separate groups. The “sword” stuff is not the stuff that the “church” does. Fourth, go back and read Romans 12 and listen to the echoes of the Sermon on the Mount to inform your understanding of chapter 13 a bit. Here’s my take on the passage in light of nonviolence. One need not be a pacifist to name the immorality of the death penalty.