The Cross We Bear: Capital Punishment and the “Worthiness” Narrative of Christianity

The Cross We Bear: Capital Punishment and the “Worthiness” Narrative of Christianity March 3, 2015
Kelly Giessendaner

Christians love a conversion story. American Christians especially.

Kelli Gissendaner’s is a good one. Faith leaders and Christians from across the country have raised an outcry to stay her execution, because of the dramatic transformation she has experienced while behind bars. During her prison stay, she has studied theology; made friends with well-known theologian Jurgen Moltmann; and ministered to fellow inmates, sharing the gospel and her own faith story generously.

The pleas go something like this: Since she has come to faith; since she has transformed her life; because she now knows the saving power of Christ; she does not “deserve” to die.

Are we not finding this troublesome?

Don’t get me wrong, I signed the petition. I, like many others, am glad that her execution is, for now at least, postponed (on a technicality, for the second time). But I signed the petition because I am against the death penalty, in general. I am against the state having the power to kill anyone—be they the most hardened, unapologetic criminal; or the one who found Jesus on death row. To use her religious experience as the protection against state-sanctioned murder implies that all those other convicted criminals DO, in fact, deserve to die–because they have not articulated their reform within the parameters of the Christian narrative.

The language of salvation and worthiness is concerning. Elizabeth Gish, a Pastor and professor at Western Kentucky University, says “It raises complicated ethical, religious, and judicial questions about what counts as worthy for life. I don’t have the answers, but even the questions sometimes feel excruciating.”

The questions are excruciating. The work of judgment is excruciating.

Kelli’s story, on the one hand, is a stark reminder that we are all capable of terrible things; that the darkest desires of our hearts can play out in real time if we utter them aloud into the wrong void, entrust them to the wrong ear. We are all vulnerable to the impulses of violence. We are all desperately in need of love and mercy and compassion.

It is also a—can I say hopeful?—testimony that even those who commit terrible crimes can be changed in the light of that mercy and compassion.

 We should not spare someone’s life because they know Jesus. We should spare all life, because WE know Jesus.

We know Jesus: who lived fully and well, and was executed by government agency because he did not say the right things about who God is.

We know Jesus: who died willingly at that government’s hands, so that he could show his followers how wrong it is to kill.

We know Jesus: who died and was resurrected, and calls us to embody that resurrection daily.

We practice resurrection, because we believe in the power of God to transform life… And the truth is, you cannot worship God and Ceasar at the same time (Jesus said). You cannot believe that both have the same powers of judgment, the same authority to grant life and take it away.

Resurrection is mysterious… It is not entirely of this world, this physical body. But it is not entirely other and elsewhere, either. It must be at least partly “of this world.”  If we hope for an Easter of any kind, we have to first dive into the ashes of our own brokenness… and confess that we cannot possibly decide who lives or dies.

Of course I know that people on death row have done terrible, unthinkable things. Of course if I knew all of their stories, I would want some of them dead. That’s why I am not the boss of these things. I am human and prone to violence.

I’m all for saving Kelli. But if we want to save her for ‘cause,’ how about staying the execution because she didn’t ACTUALLY kill anybody? Because the man who did carry out this horrible crime somehow found a better lawyer and is up for parole in a few years…

And I’m all for Christians getting outraged; beat those drums, march that march, sign those things and wave those posters around. But it’s time we got fired up about all of it; all the killing. The electricity, the cloudy syringes, the gas chambers (thanks for that brand new/resurrected nightmare, Oklahoma)… The holy wars fought in our name. The unarmed black youth shot down in the street.  The women and children turned away from our borders and sent back to the violent chaos of Central America.  Every one is a torture chamber, and a cross of mortal judgment that we all bear together.

We serve a savior who died at the hands of the state. We’ve seen the misery that is born when people think they’re God. We’ve seen what happens when the government goes into the business of salvation.

In all the mystery of death and new life there is no place for human judgment. There is no room to celebrate the ‘conversion’ of one while rejecting the potential for the same in another. We are for mercy. Not because they might know Jesus. But because we do.




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  • Excellent Erin. Exactly the questions we need to be asking.

  • Jane Arney

    Many of the tweets I’ve seen express the view that the unrepentant, unreformed killer should be saved from capital punishment just as much as Kelly, and that state murder is wrong on all counts.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      I hope you are right, Jane.

  • Cha Posz

    Yes to everything you’ve written here.

  • Executions save lives. Let’s go with the greater happiness of fewer homicides.

    The foes of capital punishment have denied for years that putting murderers to death has a deterrent effect on other potential killers. That has always flown in the face of common sense and history — after all, wherever murder is made punishable by death, murder rates generally decline. But it also flies in the face of a lengthening shelf of research that confirms the death penalty’s deterrent effect.

    A recent study at the University of Colorado, for instance, finds “a statistically significant relationship between executions, pardons, and homicide. Specifically, each additional execution reduces homicides by five to six.” A paper by three Emory University economists concludes: “Our results suggest that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect. . . . In particular, each execution results, on average, in 18 fewer murders — with a margin of error of plus or minus 10.”

    Comparable results have been reached by scholars at the University of Houston, SUNY Buffalo, Clemson, and the Federal Communications Commission. All these studies have been published within the past three years. And all of them underscore an inescapable bottom line: The execution of murderers protects innocent life.

    Execution saves innocents
    The Boston Globe

    • Mark

      I’ll see your UC study and EU economists, and raise you , the New York Times , and Dartmouth University,%20current%20edit.htm . The Darmouth report mentions former U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall’s 1972 quote, “In light of the massive amount of evidence before us, I see no alternative but to conclude that capital punishment cannot be justified on the basis of its deterrent effect,” and later concludes, “Marshall’s view is today supported by an overwhelming majority among America’s leading criminologists, who believe that capital punishment does not contribute to lower rates of homicide.”

      Life without parole keeps the killer from repeating, and sends the message that killing is wrong – wrong for the felon and wrong for the state.

    • Ole White Woman from GA

      There may be a correlation between capital punishment deaths and murders but it definitely is not a causational effect. Interview those on death row. Most will tell you that the penalty for their actions never entered their minds and if it did, it was not their plan to get caught. Generally crime rates across the board have been on the decline. The reason for this is that many police departments have changed their definition of what a murder or homicide is to insure better statics for their communities. The most common change would be when a person has been missing for a number of months and then the body is discovered; but because the body is so decomposed the coroner issues a finding of homicide but cannot determine the specific cause of death (ie stabbing, blunt force trauma, strangulation etc). Law enforcement then decides to classify it as a death by suspicious means but not a homicide. Their reasoning is that finding a responsible party for the death would be next to impossible and it could be an accidental death. Five years ago, this would have been a homicide on any set of books, but now each case is reviewed and reclassified in accordance with department protocols. They have a tendency to want to make sure that all homicide cases are solved – makes them look better to the voting public or new business wanting to locate into the area. It reflect positively on their efficiency ratings which can mean raises or bonus. This has become common practice in larger metro areas. My point is that I cannot accept these studies until I see the underlying data. Did they include states which either do not have capital punishment or have suspended capital punishment for say greater than 5 years. Did they compare the murder rates with countries who do not have capital punishment at all – say Canada and England? Those countries of course to not have common ownership of guns so their murders per captia may just be significantly less than ours for that reason alone.

      The United States is one of about 5 countries who have capital punishment -the others are China, North Korea, Iran, Yemen and the US. This is fine company we are keeping. And the US has the highest incarceration rate of all countries in the world even those who maintain political prisoners. And the cost is about double to maintain an death row inmate per year than to maintain a regular inmate. Prisons have now become outsourced to the business community in many areas. Since their purpose is to make a profit, keeping an maintaining their facilities at full capacity keeps them smiling all the way to the bank. And rehabilitation has gone by the wayside and its not a part of our prison systems which result in higher percentages of repeat offenders. In some states we have built more prisons than we have built schools or hospitals combined. The population of those who are incarcerated is about 3% of the total population of the country. That is about 3 people out of every 100 are in jail today. Why is that? Is that our only answer to what we deem as misbehavior? We need to look at what and why we are incarcerating people. We need to see if we are not just acting like some robotic society where prison is the answer to everything. The death penalty is the most unequally applied sentence of the court system. I do not believe the state can justify taking a life except a state revenge. Is it not punishment enough that a human is removed from society and his freedom of association, movement, communication and expression are severely limited. Must we really take their life, and what purpose does it serve except as retribution. It may give some momentary comfort to the families of the victims, but I doubt that comfort is very long lasting or satisfying. The state is committing a murder in my name…and I do not agree in that in any way shape or form.

  • George Flanagan

    Remember Carla Faye Tucker? Executed at Huntsville Prison (Texas), and she apparently actually killed someone. She was executed 14 years after her conviction. During that time, she became a Christian and was transformed. Some significant clergy of that time pleaded for her life to be spared. She was praising Jesus all the way to the end. And I responded then much the same way Erin is responding today.

    • Josh

      Pat Robertson was among them, calling for her pardon. I remember. The tribalism of Robertson/Ben Corey is pretty sad, but at least in Ben’s case it spilled out into the Way of Jesus as it always does with Ben. Tribalism does have its place at various stages of spiritual development… so long as it’s a pedagogic springboard to Love of those not in our tribe.

  • Beezlebob72

    Regardless of what one thinks of capital punishment, the idea that person should get a reduction in their sentences because they became religious is BS.

    You did the crime, you do the time.

  • R Vogel

    Well said. The mass appeal to tribalism here is appalling. I will be impressed when I see an outpouring of Christians for a case when the perpetrator is not of their tribe. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s trial started today, let’s see if he gets the same dispensation.

    • Josh

      I wrote a poem one time that said “when I look at (Dzhokhar) all I see is G-d.”

      That’s still true. Probably because he reminds me of so many young men I grew up with. Any one of them, I’d wager, under the right circumstances, would have killed for god.

      People underestimate the power of bad religion to distort and destroy Good people. The cry to belong is so dramatic at his age and in fundamentalist religious subcultures. Even in the most breathtaking acts of evil there is still a yearning for wholeness, whether it’s Dzhokhar or jihadi John as they dismember their victims. As always, I lay the blame at God/Reality’s feet for creating a Universe where the experience of separation from God is possible.

      Anyways, Dzhokhar needs to stay alive not only for his own sake, but so that there might be some chance of healing for his victims. If he is ever genuinely penitent or remorseful, that could lay the groundwork for forgiveness… which is the only power strong enough to destroy evil in the Sandy Hook Universe.

      • Relativity is the expression of perfect complementarity.

        The perfection of the Whole knowing it’s Self,

        Compounding in infinite regression,


        This other Way.

        • Josh

          Yes. People don’t get that they ARE Dzhokhar/Kelly/everyone else. They especially don’t get that they are the little guy in my avatar (who, as I said in the post that was rudely deleted, is thankfully doing better now).

          You see, Kelly’s photo is a defense against death. She’s portly and smiling. She’s in bright clothing. She’s turned her Life around. So she appears to be farther from death than the little guy in my avatar, which of course is nonsense. Go stand in the middle of a freeway and you’ll discover how close you are to death. If you can’t deal with death, you can’t deal with Life.

          I’m not going to let this photo-deleting episode go, because there is no future for Progressive Christianity if we can’t face up to the World as it is.

          • Josh

            In Kelly’s case she’s one cloudy vial of poison away from death. Just like us. In’t that something! Something as magnificent as us, destroyed by the tiniest imbalance in our chemical composition. Or in Little Buddy’s case, destroyed by not getting something as simple as a bowl of rice on a consistent basis.

            I wonder what it means?

  • I agree with you 110%. I, too, signed the petition. I wondered the same thing, though. Would Christians still be on her side if she had become a devout Muslim in prison?

  • Chaprich

    The death penalty must go. The states are unable or unwilling to impose it in a manner that meets the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. It eliminates the possibility of repentance, restoration, and restitution. Kelli’s faith journey has lead her to bear fruits “worthy of repentance”, and she has in the spirit of “The Shawshank Redemption” been rehabilitated.

  • Josh

    “writes about the sacred thread that runs through pretty much everything.”

    A post that included a photo of my little brother has mysteriously disappeared, so I can only assume the “sacred thread that runs through everything” doesn’t run through him.

    We can post pictures all day of fat-woman murderers so long as they are dressed in a shiny blue graduation robe and support out political agenda. But, make a link with the 20,000 exceptionally scrawny people (that’s just for today) also living on death row for the crime of being born in the “wrong” zip code of the Sandy Hook Universe… whose sentences will not be commuted… and the sacred thread misses them and makes a beeline for our comfort zone.

  • pennyhammack

    Thank you for writing this. I too felt uncomfortable with the reasons given for protesting her death sentence. She could be “faking” her conversion to gain sympathy. She could be genuinely sincere. If the activists had suggested that the death penalty is always wrong, I might have signed but didn’t because, frankly, I couldn’t trust her “conversion” or her movtives.

  • Josh

    PPS. All I feel is Love for Kelly. I can’t say what I “want” for her- that’s not for me to say- I just know that there is a story we are not hearing, and that is the story of being 48 years old and sentenced to solitary confinement for the rest of your Life (another insane inhumanity inflicted on prisoners). If it were me, after eighteen years, and with another 30-40 ahead of me, I would prefer death- for myself, and so that my children could grieve and move on with their Lives. Life imprisonment is a death sentence. And there are many things in Life worse than death. Whatever else death is, it is an end to suffering for the individual.

    But this choice comes from knowing what it is we’re dying into. Personally speaking, if I were to drop dead right now, I don’t need to have any more experiences to know what I am or to know what I want. Life is not unlimited, for any of us. Neither is Life an iTunes “playlist of experiences” that we curate for ourselves to please our personalities. In the midst of the frustrating state of affairs of making this playlist, experiencing G-d means that, ironically, experience is no longer our God. We don’t have to have more experiences. We don’t have to cling to what we think is Real, because the Real will never be taken from us.

    It is that experience of the Real I pray Kelly touches in her final days and hours. That experience happens all the time near death. So I hear.

  • hydropsyche

    I was in front of the Georgia state capitol building last week protesting Kelly’s impending execution. No one there was saying that the changes that Kelly has made in her life, religious and otherwise, were the reason that Georgia should not kill her. Everyone, including her friends and teachers from prison and the folks from various outreach groups who know her, were saying that Georgia should not kill Kelly because the death penalty is wrong.

    I would say, however, that in Kelly’s case, it is even easier to explain how the death penalty is wrong because killing Kelly would make the world objectively worse. Kelly has saved several of her fellow inmates from suicide and has done extensive outreach to fellow prisoners and to young people through “scared straight” programs. One does not need religion to explain the good that she has done over the past few years. The value of Kelly’s life is no greater than the value of any other life, but the value of Kelly’s life to the world is easily demonstrated.

    Georgiawas supposed to kill another of its citizens today. That execution, like Kelly’s, has been put on hold because of the problem with the poison, but if it had happened, those same people would have been out there protesting because the death penalty is wrong. There may be people making a special-pleading Christians-only case out there, but they are not among the people on the ground here in Georgia.

    • Stacy Bell McQuaide

      I took a small group of my college students to participate in the vigil at GDCP on the evening of March 2. Immediately after we arrived we were engaged in conversation with one of the veteran death penalty protestors who regularly stands vigil at Georgia’s executions [three already since December, 2014]. Her perspective was duly noted. She said it’s not uncommon for six or seven protestors to show up for an execution, in stark contrast to the 100 or so who were present for Kelly that night. She was happy to see us, for sure, but she couldn’t help but note the imbalance in crowd turnout. The author of this piece is asking us to acknowledge that imbalance, and I think we must. It’s a fact that this case has gotten special attention. If it can be a catalyst for broader social change, that will be great! In the meantime, I appreciate Wathen asking us to remember all those who are condemned to die at the hands of the state, redeemed or not.

  • R Vogel

    Manuel Vasquez is set to be executed this evening – the silence is deafening. Where are the blog posts?

  • Richard White

    “She found Christ, so she should not be executed for her crime” – but what if, instead, she had found Allah and had become a devout Muslim or she had become a devout Buddhist or a devout Wiccan? Would those same people protesting her impending execution still be protesting? As someone who opposes the death penalty under all circumstances, I would be – but I fear I would find myself alone.

  • Ole White Woman from GA

    I think you are right…she simply does not deserve to die and it does not matter whether she had a religous conversion or not. People have latched on to this conversion in hopes that those who can make that decision will be swayed by they choose the conversion story. In this woman’s case, she deserves to be punished, but she does not deserve death… For those who do not know the facts of this case – this woman was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder on her husband. She conspired with her then boyfriend who actually committed the murder. The boyfriend gave state’s evidence against the woman in order to get a conviction and was given a reduced sentence. His sentence was 20 to 25 years subject to parole and her sentence was death. A man is dead because of what she did, but she did not do the actual act. She certainly deserves to be in prison and perhaps for most of her life. The man who did the actual act stands to be a free man in 10 years or so. As I said, in this case the punishment is excessive for the crime. And the fact that she found Jesus does not figure in my thinking. But I am all for using whatever to keep this woman out of the death chamber.