Women, the Death Penalty, and Jesus

Women, the Death Penalty, and Jesus February 27, 2015

Copyright: Robert J. Daveant / Shutterstock
Copyright: Robert J. Daveant / Shutterstock

Only 15 women have been executed in the U.S. since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. For two death penalty cases involving women to make the news in the same week is unprecedented – but it’s happening.

One is Jodi Arias, convicted of killing her ex-boyfriend in 2008, whose sentencing trial is this week. She could face the death penalty in Arizona.

The other is a lesser-known case in Georgia — Kelly Gissendaner, convicted in a 1997 Atlanta murder plot that targeted her husband. Though sentenced to death, it is clear that with a little better legal coaching, Ms. Gissendaner could have plea-bargained for her life. That’s exactly what her husband’s true killer, Gregory Owens, did. And now he’s safely behind bars as she counts down the hours to her death. It just doesn’t feel like your life should depend on how well you play the legal cards, but it sure seems to.

Kelly Gissendaner was supposed to die Wednesday night, February 25 — but there was an interruption.

I wish we could say it was the Georgia Parole Board, or another abolitionist Governor, or a revolution of people of conscience who stopped the execution – but it was snow. Her execution got a weather delay. Now she has 4 more days to live, scheduled to die on Monday, weather permitting. I can’t imagine what it’s like to know you are about to die — and then to get a snow day, only to face it all again.

While Jodi Arias is the headliner this week, Ms. Gissendaner caught many people’s attention for a few reasons. Her last meal was strikingly human – Burger King, cornbread and buttermilk, popcorn, salad with Paul Newman dressing, and lemonade. And beyond her final cravings, those who love her spoke of her faith, character, and her repentant heart. Her children lamented the trauma of losing yet another parent. But the all-male pardons board chose death.

The last one woman executed in GA, and the only other one in GA’s history, was Lena Baker — an African-American maid sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury in 1944, despite her claims of self-defense and obvious abuse. Sixty years later, in a rare move, GA’s parole board posthumously pardoned her, finding “grievous error”. Hindsight is 20/20 – unfortunately death is irreversible. It feels entirely possible that we will look back on the execution of Kelly Gissendaner with the same remorse 60 years from now.

In light of the fact that 85% of executions are happening in the Bible belt — there’s one more story of woman vs. death worth remembering. It’s a story from the Gospels.

A woman “caught in adultery” has been humiliated and dragged before the town, ready to be killed. It was a capital crime. Her execution was legal. But just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean its right.

Her execution is also interrupted… not by snow, but by Jesus. He tells all the men with stones in their hands ready to kill the woman: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Perhaps, he’d say today in GA, “Let the one who is without sin, put the needle in her arm.” And of course he reminds those men long ago, and all of us today, that if we have looked at someone with lust in our eyes, we are adulterers. If we have called our neighbor a fool, we are murderers.

In the Gospel story, the stones start to drop, and the men scatter, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. The only one who is left with any right to throw a stone has absolutely no desire. We can see that the closer we are to God the less we want to throw stones at another person.

The message is clear. No one is above reproach. And no one is beyond redemption. That’s the Gospel truth. It was Jesus who said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17).

Much of the Bible was written by people who were given a second chance. Even murderers – like Moses. David. Saul. The Bible would be much shorter without grace.  That’s why it’s “good” news.

It’s hard to imagine Jesus saying anything else to Kelly Gissendaner, or Jodi Arias, except those words he said to the woman in the Gospel: I love you. You are forgiven. Go and sin no more.

Maybe the next execution in GA will not be interrupted by snow…. But by Christians.

Shane Claiborne 2_optShane Claiborne is an activist and best-selling author, founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia and popular speaker. Find him at www.redletterchristians.org.


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