Many American Christians Would Call for the Execution of St. Paul #KellyonMyMind

Kelly Gissendaner image

Photo Credit: http://www.kellyonmymind.com/

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

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.

jurgan moltmann

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.

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And here’s one telling about how her children forgave the conspirator to murder their father:

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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.

Paul

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.

Just Rewards?

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.

0102801-11AB Graduation ceremony at Arrendale State Prison

Ann Borden, Emory Photo Video. Kelly Gissendaner is a graduate of the Certificate in Theological Studies. Graduation at Lee Arrendale State Prison, Alto, GA, 2011.

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* 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.

  • JacquelineK

    The reason Gissendaner got the death penalty and her boyfriend did not is that Gissendaner conceived and planned the murder and subsequent cover-up in detail, convinced her boyfriend to do it, picked him up and dropped him off at her home to commit the murder and then went off to establish an alibi for herself, met the boyfriend after the murder (bringing needed supplies, such as gasoline), picked him up after torching the evidence (including her late husband’s body), publicly played the grieving widow for weeks while the body lay undiscovered, and tried to set up a scenario she hoped prosecutors would fall for (that of her late husband picking up a hitchhiker).

    She was not finished; she then threw her boyfriend under the bus by claiming he threatened to kill her children if she did not go along with the plan; pled innocent when her confession, lame that it was, was thrown out; and refused to cop a plea, hoping for an acquittal. Her depraved indifference was so great as to constitute sociopathy, for which there is no cure, not even getting right with Jesus. For the record, I oppose the death penalty, but because of the real danger of executing the innocent, a category that does not include Gissendaner.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      No one is saying that what she did was good or right. No one is defending her actions from 1997. They are wrong, evil, and bad. Even so, that wasn’t the point of this article. The point is that all people are image bearers of God and that followers of Jesus have no precedent for affirming the death penalty.

      • Ben C

        How about Genesis 9:5-6? That seems to be good precedent. If you say that being an image bearer of God precludes the death penalty (which actually contradicts Gen. 9:5-6), then what was God doing putting Nadab and Abihu to death (Lev. 10), Uzzah who touched the ark (2 Sam. 6), or Ananias and Sapphira for lying (Acts 5)? If you say that God alone has the prerogative to take life, then why does God command it of Noah in Genesis 9, and again command it of the Israelites in conquering Canaan (Deut. 20:16-18) and then again of Saul and the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:2-3)? Why doesn’t Jesus rebuke the criminal on the cross next to him who admitted that he was being justly killed by the Romans for his crimes (Lk. 23:39-43), and why does Paul teach that the state specifically functions as God’s representative in carrying a sword (“machaira,” an instrument routinely used for executions) to enact just punishment? The Bible is clear that God not only has the prerogative to give life and take life, but that he often uses people and governments to execute the wicked in carrying out his divine justice.

        • Micah68

          Who killed Ananias and Sapphira?

          • Ben C

            God did. That is obvious from the text (and from what I wrote).

          • http://www.theimperfectpastor.com/ Caleb Miller

            in no way does the text say that, and the text itself is highly suspect. It reads more like propaganda/mission bolstering than actual events.

        • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

          “I killed them because God told me to,” an apologist’s defense of legalized homicide?

          • Ben C

            First, capital punishment is not homicide. Homicide is the “deliberate and unlawful killing of one person by another,” i.e., murder. But the state does not murder when it puts to death criminals who are guilty of capital crimes. These death sentences are warranted. Second, I never said my apologetic was “kill them because God told me to.” That’s ridiculous. All I was saying is that there is good precedent for the death penalty in Scripture, both because God commands it in Gen. 9:5-6, because God himself executes the wicked, and because both the OT and the NT teach that God has instituted governments to punish the wicked, which includes putting to death those who are deserving of death (Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). This has nothing to do with individuals “hearing” God tell them to execute someone; that’s a straw man.

    • Theodore A. Jones

      Sir wasn’t Jesus Christ murdered? And you like Gissendaner attempt to use his murder for a direct benefit and are not guilty?

    • DavidRauschenbach

      Jesus can cure anything

      • JacquelineK

        Really? And just how many missing arms, legs, or even fingers have been verified regrown after loss? So what makes you think that sociopaths, who are notorious manipulators, suddenly grow a conscience where there was none, and then lose their ability to fool people? Remember that she got another person to commit murder for her, using sex and lies. Just like Charles Manson…

        • DavidRauschenbach

          They can’t do that by themselves, but with God, all things are possible.

          • liberalinlove

            Yes possible, but we don’t have to assume it has happened. Life in prison would have been the alternative solution albeit a costly one for society. Sociopaths and Psychopaths don’t feel remorse, but can act like they do for their own agenda.

            It is frustrating when pastoral counseling disregard brain biology. An example would be to tell a

            Schizophrenic that they only need to trust in God and don’t need their medicine. They then go on to kill someone. Who would be to blame? The pastor, the person who stopped taking their drugs or Jesus?

          • DavidRauschenbach

            In the example you mentioned, the fault would lay with the pastor. As for the cost of life in prison as opposed to imposing the death penalty, studies have indicated that imposing the death penalty is more expensive than life in prison.

          • liberalinlove

            Is that because of the appeal process? We have so many wrongly convicted prisoners on death row or in prison. The system is skewed to the best defender and not towards evidence. Sad~
            The comment really is about whether there can be repentance or not and who gets punished based on justice rather than revenge.
            I grew up in a home of Christians who believed only in moral choice and moral depravity and punishment rather than mercy and not in the many reasons why something might happen such as domestic violence, mental health issues, etc.

          • DavidRauschenbach

            In response to your question, it is mostly because of the the appeal process, which is mostly mandated by law.
            The home you grew up in was very unchristlike in that they lost sight of the mercy that was shown them when they accepted Christ.

          • liberalinlove

            There is so much new information today on brain function. I’m nearly 60 and you know psychology was a tool of the devil when I was growing up. Just like generations before that could not believe in germs but sought mystical reasons for illness, our country moves forward with new information. But we often drag the church kicking and screaming with us.
            My dad was opposed to scientists. He was a minister, who trusted in the “word of god” alone! So inspecting fruit is essential when deciding on truth.

    • liberalinlove

      I thought her lawyer told her to not settle for life and go to trial? If she had accepted the original deal she would have been alive.

      • JacquelineK

        I searched for this on Google and could not find any info either way. But sociopaths seem to universally regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, especially cops, lawyers, jurors, and judges. They often take the stand in their own defense, and typically adopt a religious schtick.

        There was a sickening case in Colorado where a man out on parole raped and murdered a pregnant woman, then murdered her two young children. They had overwhelming evidence, including an unimpeachable witness who actually knew him, so it was neither a false ID nor just trace evidence. (The witness saw him use a pass key to enter the apartment minutes before the downstairs neighbor heard the murders, and he dropped something at the scene, too.) His entire argument was that the evidence did not matter at all, only the fact that he got saved by Jesus in prison a few months previously. In fact, he was let out early to go to a seminary. And the jury bought it, ignoring all the evidence — he was acquitted.

        • liberalinlove

          I am opposed to the death penalty for other reasons. However if she did indeed have a transformation of heart and really knew Jesus, I believe she is enjoying her time with him now!

          I agree on your other comments!

    • Loved Perfectly/Not Afraid

      So leave her in prison doing the good she has been doing. Killing her served no purpose.

      • JacquelineK

        Most people here, myself included, would be fine with that, since all but a few on this forum oppose the death penalty for varying reasons. What I object to is going all gaga over a sociopath just because she claimed to be saved in prison. She may be wearing a Christian costume, but that does not make her good or worthwhile, just a good actress. Given the *most frequently* condemned sin in the Bible is hypocrisy, you would think Christians would occasionally acknowledge its existence.

  • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

    One of the more disturbing aspects expressed here and elsewhere is this sentiment that a religious life is more worth saving than a nonreligious one. So Gissendaner converted to Christianity. How is that evidence that she’s ‘redeemed, changed, become a better person?’ Christians are capable of terrible, terrible things. But toss out a few words about redemption and hand her a theology degree and suddenly Gissendaner is suddenly a beacon of how people change and why they’re worth saving.

    I oppose the death penalty unequivocally, not just on a moral level, but because I do not trust any government with the power of life and death and the death penalty in America targets the poor and people of colour disproportionately. So we agree on a basic level. However, I cannot help but think that if Gissendaner didn’t play for you team, if she was a non-Christian who was just very sorry for what she had done, you wouldn’t be nearly as vocal or concerned about her life. It wouldn’t play well into your redemption narrative.

    • Kenja Purkey

      I agree. As a Christian who is opposed to the death penalty, I agree that we must appeal to save those who have no remorse and have not found Christianity and turned their lives around just as vigorously as those who have remorse and do change their lives. It is not for us to judge who to save and who not to save. A human life has value just by being a human life.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

        I’ll quote this here for you as it was the punchline of my article… “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.”

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Here’s a quote from my article. You need to recognize that I was speaking to a christian audience: “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.”

    • JacquelineK

      This is something I can agree with wholeheartedly, and you are right that it is a bad idea to allow any government this power, as they are fundamentally amoral. I was cut down in my prime and live my life confined to bed, when a simple drug, legal if I move north, could restore me to nearly vertical. And I live in the state that expresses the greatest enthusiasm for the death penalty. I barely agree that it has the moral authority to kill a rabid dog, much less a human.

      My point is that I simply don’t believe in magic, that she somehow grew a conscience after a magical Jesus incantation/spirit possession. She is still the same manipulative, evil person she always was, just working the gullible rubes, just as she did with her boyfriend. I do oppose the death penalty in general, but don’t regard her as a poster child for its repeal. The poor slob born with ten strikes against him, who was arrested with little evidence and given an overworked, incompetent public defender, and who did not have the smarts enough to play to the religious masses (who love a good reform story so much that they make it up when it is missing) — that is the real poster child for ending the death penalty. Unfortunately, they are not as good at image manipulation as sociopaths, and we don’t usually find out about their innocence through DNA until after they have spent decades in prison — or are dead.