Death Penalty

Seven Last Words. Seven Executions.

This post originally appeared at Red Letter Christians on April 1, 2016

 

Last night the state of Georgia executed the kid who they let live under a bridge. Joshua Bishop was a person who never had a fair shake at life. He lived with violence. His mother was abusive; she was addicted to alcohol and drugs. Josh didn’t want to leave her because he didn’t want her to be alone. Sometimes she made him sleep under their trailer. He spent his part of his childhood living under a bridge near a grocery store to get away from the abuse. He was in and out of foster care and children’s homes. When Josh was 19, he was high on cocaine and booze and made the horrible decision to take another person’s life – something he quickly regretted. But tonight – the state of Georgia – in a sober and calculated decision took his life with no regret, somehow believing that this would even the score.

The story is too familiar. Abuse. Trauma. Violence begets violence begets violence. Not to mention arbitrary punishment – the accomplice strikes a deal and one pays with death while one gets life in prison. This is the story we are hearing over and over again in Georgia, where six people have been killed by the state since a temporary moratorium on the death penalty was lifted last September. In each case, the story is too familiar – racism, arbitrary sentencing, a parole board who could not give a damn about how the person has changed since that one awful day. Even when the victim’s family members plead for the one on death row to be spared, the good Christians of our state plow ahead as if their most important task is killing their own citizens.

Tonight, as I prayed during the Open Door vigil at the Capitol, I could not help but sit with the irony. We went to church on Sunday to celebrate a Christ who was executed and who triumphed over death, but then four days later we execute again as if this is our moral duty.

Last week, Kayla Gissendaner – the daughter of Kelly Gissendaner who was executed by the State of Georgia in October – sat in my Restorative Justice class at McAfee School of Theology and said that her mom hoped that her execution would be the last. Five executions and six months later, my seminary students are still pondering the question – did Jesus hope his execution would be the last? Is he grieved each day that we not only keep killing, but that we use scripture to justify killing in his name?

I go to a church where we remembered Good Friday with the “seven last words” of Jesus, and celebrated Easter with the “seven first words” of Jesus’ resurrection. So as I sit with Josh Bishop’s execution, I cannot help but reflect on the “seven last people” who were executed in our state.

Warren Hill was killed by the state of Georgia on January 27, 2015, despite being intellectually disabled. While the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that is it unconstitutional to execute a person with intellectual disabilities, they allowed states to define intellectual disability, and Georgia has the most difficult standard of proof. Despite having an IQ of 70, and despite seven state and independent psychologists confirming his disability, Warren Hill was killed in my name.

Kelly Gissendaner is the case that was closest to my heart. As an organizer with the #KellyOnMyMind collective, I fought hard for Kelly’s clemency. She was not the “trigger person,” and her time in prison changed her. She was a graduate of the prison theology program and pen pals with famous theologian, Jürgen Moltmann. She won more than 50 people to Christ in prison and stopped fellow prisoners from committing suicide. Kelly met every possible criteria for clemency – she was transformed, she showed remorse, she didn’t actually commit the crime, her children (also children of the victim) pleaded for her life. But the state didn’t care. Kelly is dead.

Marcus Ray Johnson was killed by the state in November of 2015. The investigator on his case is a close friend. She knew Ray was innocent and grieved his death. No DNA linked him to the crime. All evidence was circumstantial. But Ray, despite claims of innocence, was killed by a state who could not wait 90 days for new DNA testing.

Brian Terrell was executed a month later and also had a strong innocence claim. There was no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony that was used to convict him. In fact, foot prints at the crime scene left a shoe impression smaller than Brian’s feet. No fingerprints at the scene matched Brian’s, but two matched another person – his uncle. Brian always maintained his innocence, even rejecting a generous plea deal, saying he did not commit this murder. But in the end, despite claims of innocence, Brian was killed by the state of Georgia.

Brandon Jones was killed this past February – two weeks before his 73rd birthday. Like so many on death row, Jones experienced abuse as a child. His first conviction was overturned by a federal court after finding that jurors consulted a Bible during deliberations. In a second trial, he was sentenced again to death, despite misgivings of one juror. Brandon never lived to see is 73rd birthday. He was killed by the state.

Travis Hittson, also killed in February, was a Navy veteran who fell in with the wrong crowd. Like Gissendaner and Bishop, Hittson had a co-conspirator who is serving life, not death. During the vigil at Jackson for Hittson, I met his friends and family members who described him as an impressionable kid who, while drunk, was convinced to kill someone because he thought they would kill him and his family.

With Josh Bishop’s death last night, these seven deaths are more than I can take. If we cannot speak up against the death penalty, then we can no longer claim to be Easter people. If we still kill in the name of Christian morality, then we’ve missed the whole point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. I live in a state where the good Christians on the parole board brought up Jesus on the cross as a proof-text for why Kelly Gissendaner’s life should not be spared. Jesus did not get off the cross, they said. Kelly’s redemption didn’t matter at all.

Seven people. Seven stories. Just a sampling of the 73 people who have been executed in Georgia since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976.

If anyone has any faith left in the death penalty, it is based in the idea that this severe punishment is reserved for the worst of the worst. These people we have killed were not the worst of the worst. They were trauma survivors. They made terrible mistakes. Some were likely innocent. Some were changed by Christ’s love. All were loved and created by God.

In light of these stories, I call on my Governor and fellow person of faith, Nathan Deal, along with our legislators to sit with the dead, to grieve with the living. I ask them to listen to the stories of lawyers and advocates, pastors and faith leaders who are walking alongside those on death row. People who still believe in redemption are crying out – we are better than this!

It is time for a moratorium on executions in light of the arbitrary and unjust nature of capital punishment in our state. But we who are Easter people must remember that the Jesus we follow, who was killed by the state, hoped his execution would be the last.

Death Penalty

#KellyOnMyMind

This post originally appeared at Red Letter Christians on September 25, 2015

 

A call to young evangelicals and other Jesus-loving people, from #KellyOnMyMind

What follows is a confession – a confession of a social justice loving Christian theologian who for too many years didn’t think much about the death penalty. I grew up in evangelical churches who taught me to be pro-life, but were woefully inconsistent. We cared that babies weren’t killed in the womb, but didn’t care as much that poverty might cause them to live on the edge of death once they were born. When it came to prisons, we visited people in hopes they would be saved, but said nothing about the death penalty that was designed to take their lives.

NT Wright argues that when salvation is overly focused on escaping hell, when it neglects the coming of Christ’s kingdom, then it is merely “advice” but not “good news.” In our world today, we don’t need any more advice. We need the in-breaking of God’s Spirit to tear down injustice, to spread mercy, and to speak peace. We need GOOD NEWS.

In Georgia this week, in Oklahoma this week, Kelly Gissendaner and Richard Glossip sit on death row. Their executions will happen within days – unless we act now. Kelly’s story is one of transformation. Richard’s story is one of innocence. Two stories – two challenges – to this thing Americans love too much: the death penalty.

As one of the organizers on the #KellyOnMyMind campaign, I’ve been working with faith leaders all across my state as we’re asking for the Georgia to show mercy and spare Kelly’s life.

I’ll speak about Kelly because I know her story – a transformation story – quite well. She has taken full responsibility for her role in the murder of her husband, completed a certificate in theology, and is a pen pal with theologian Jürgen Moltmann[1]. She helped dozens of women in prison. Women like Misty who was pregnant and trying to kill herself, until Kelly intervened by singing to her through an air vent. Kelly is a mother, a Christian, a theology student, and a child of God who is once again about to be killed by my state in my name. Her sentence is unjust and disproportionate. While Kelly is scheduled to die, the man who actually committed the murder will be eligible for parole in 8 years.

Kelly’s first execution warrant was interrupted twice – first by snow in Georgia, then by cloudy drugs. Faith leaders surrounding Kelly (including RLC’s own Shane Claiborne who was active in this campaign) saw this as God’s intervention. As one of the organizers, the Rev. Kim Jackson said, the Holy Spirit comes in the form of a cloud. Now, we are in a second death watch with a third execution date scheduled for Tuesday, September 29th. We need an interruption. We need GOOD NEWS.

In my work on this campaign with faith leaders in Georgia, I’ve been heartened by the amazing number of pastors and people of faith who have used their voices to demand that clemency be given and Kelly’s sentence be commuted to life in prison without parole. But I’ve also been disheartened by my conversations with some evangelical faith leaders who lament Kelly’s situation and do not think she should die, but are unwilling to speak publicly for fear they’ll be on the wrong side of death penalty politics. And we all know, when politics interferes with the gospel, it’s the politics that need to change – not the gospel. Moral courage is needed to help the GOOD NEWS of the gospel break through and transform us. Neither Kelly, nor Richard, nor anyone else on death row needs to die. This can stop now – if people of faith will just speak up.

Yesterday in DC, Pope Francis invited Americans and all people of faith and moral courage to enter into this conversation about the death penalty as he said:

“Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated… if we want life, let us give life… This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”

Now this sounds more like the GOOD NEWS we need. I first began to really care about the death penalty when Troy Davis was killed four years ago in Georgia, despite compelling claims of innocence. I became involved in Kelly’s campaign when my seminary students at McAfee School of Theology were grieving the possibility of Kelly’s execution. Maybe sometimes we need a way in. Stories have a powerful way of pulling us kicking and screaming into the justice work that must be done.

So I invite you to listen to a story or two. Learn more about Kelly Gissendaner. Learn more about Richard Glossip. On the anniversary of his death, remember the story of Troy Davis. Sit with these stories, follow these campaigns for the next few days. Whatever you do, don’t look away. Instead, consider the children who are waiting for a parent to die. Consider the possibility of redemption, restorative justice, and transformation. Then consider this – if these people can be killed by the state, then how can we not conclude that the death penalty is horribly flawed and must be abolished?

The Christ who called us to visit those in prison and set the captives free is waiting for us to get past the politics of death and join him in the GOOD NEWS of life!

Death Penalty, Mass Incarceration

Jim Crow Again: Lessons for Fighting This Giant (1 Samuel 17)

 

One in thirty-one. That’s how many Americans are in in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole. In the US, our incarceration rate is 10 times higher than that of other countries while our actual crime rate is lower than those same countries. Citing a 600% increase in the prison population since the 1960’s, with no correlating increase in crime, Michelle Alexander has called mass incarceration “the new Jim Crow.” When people of color represent 30% of the U.S. population, but 60% of those incarcerated, we are in league with David, staring at a towering giant, armed with a prayer and a handful of stones.

While the work before us is daunting, people of faith are called to fight giants. The Spirit who we remember in Pentecost, the Spirit who set the world on fire, has trusted us with this work. We are giant slayers, by God’s grace. For this reason, it is fitting that we revisit the story of the first giant slayer, a young boy who tended sheep and fought off bears and lions.

We must remember that when David was gathering those stones, the giant was still standing, still sucking in the air that those on the other side of the valley were desperately trying to breathe. We live in a time when too many giants are still standing. Poverty. Racism. Discrimination. Oppression. Inequality.

I imagine for many of us, the story of David and Goliath has lost its suspense and fear. It has been used in too many Bible School stories and sung in too many cheery children’s songs. The story is so commonplace, so unreal, that it feels more like a fairy tale than a story that tells the truth.

God’s just world is elusive and fleeting, living fully in the holy imagination, never fully established here on earth. While we pray the Lord’s prayer in church, “thy kingdom come” rarely happens “on earth as it is in heaven.” Down here, the giants suck in too much air while those at the margins of the valley cannot breathe. The young shepherd in the valley with five stones in his pocket has much to teach us in our quest.

Making Eye Contact

The thing you should know about giants is this, seeing them is half the battle. The most powerful giants are the ones who are hidden. But once we see them – really see them – once we can call them by name – the stones are ours for the throwing.

Let’s take one injustice – one giant injustice – and use it as an example. I’ve asked my friend Nikki Roberts to join me by sharing her story. When Nikki was 29 she found herself unemployed, evicted, and desperate. She brandished a fake gun in an empty restaurant and demanded money from a cashier. She walked out with $195 dollars, but within hours a SWAT team surrounded her, responding to a call to apprehend a “black female, armed and dangerous.” She surrendered, confessed, and handed over what she had stolen and an additional $180 that she had on her. Nikki was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served 10 years before she was paroled. She is still on probation, and will be until 2024.

While Nikki was in prison, she made eye contact with a giant called mass incarceration. Here is her story in her words…

Being an incarcerated adult hit me hard. I lost my right to have discourse, to have a voice, to think, because I had once made a bad choice to commit a crime. I never understood how prison could help change your thinking or choices by stripping away your rights to those very things.

Being commanded to do basic functions – sit! stand! go! stay! – with the expectancy that you will obey in silence can make you feel like an animal. You are told not to give eye contact to any prison staff. You get reprogrammed to a zero-level of dignity. You follow commands, much like house-training a dog, except there are no treats for good behavior. Having to hold your head down and request permission to speak isn’t as troubling as when you get denied the ‘privilege’ to talk. “Sir. Permission to speak sir?” an inmate would say to a male officer, eyes on the floor. He may bark back, “Denied! Get out of my face!” The inmate is to keep her arms at her side and march away like a scolded animal.

Discipline is one thing. I broke the law and I understand that I have to face consequences for that action. But what happened to me for 10 years of my life while incarcerated had very little to do with making me connect to why I committed a crime and re-entering society as a healthy-minded human being. Prison continually breaks you and then releases you in broken pieces.

 

Looking Up Instead of Looking Down

In some ways, the ability to see giants depends on your point of view. While all people of faith are called to be giant slayers, some fail to recognize the giants in their midst. The ways in which we experience privilege changes the air we breathe. Privilege makes us too tall, towering above others, almost as tall as a giant. For those who have privilege, it is easy to breathe because we stand above those who are gasping for breath. Privilege causes us to make friends with giants rather than slay them.

Our identities intersect with privilege and oppression in multiple ways. The more privilege we experience, the more difficult time we have identifying giants. Even so, learning to see giants is not impossible. To establish a just world we need to start by breathing someone else’s air. We must watch as they trace the outline of the giant that must be defeated.

 

Remembering The Giant Has Brothers

When we think about our world and the many giants that stand against justice, we must remember that Goliath had brothers. If we see a giant injustice as disconnected, we miss the whole story. We cannot talk about mass incarceration without talking about for profit-prisons or the racist legacy of controlling black bodies. If we do not remember the giant of Jim Crow, then we will not know how to recognize him when he is resurrected in prisons and policing.

The brothers of mass incarceration are many. It is “broken windows” policing that fills our for-profit prisons and steals the last breath of too many black and brown bodies. Ferguson and Baltimore are not unconnected to mass incarceration or the death penalty. Racism is the giant that undergirds them all.

 

Practice Makes Perfect

Goliath might have been David’s first giant but he had plenty of experience with a slingshot. He told King Saul that he had “killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them” (I Sam. 17:36). If we want to slay giants, there is no shame in starting small. Train your eyes. Abdicate your privilege. Practice your breathing. See things from the other side. If your hands are unsteady, join others with experience. We are giant slayers, by God’s grace, but we are not in this alone.

 

Throwing Your Stone

There are stones that must be thrown. We can aim them at the woman caught in adultery and throw a stone of guilt, or we can save our stones instead for toppling the giants. The good news of the gospel for our time is this – giants can be slayed with small stones. The young people leading #BlackLivesMatter campaigns across the country are teaching us this lesson. The world will watch if we respond to injustice with faith and courage.

My 4-year old daughter has five smooth stones from the Valley of Elah. My mom chose them for her on a recent trip to Israel and came home and told her the story of David and Goliath. My prayer for her life and for the life of the people of God is that we will choose wisely our targets.

Where will you throw your stone?


 

Special thanks to my writing collaborator and friend, Nikki Roberts.

 

Bible Study Questions

  1. This article talks about mass incarceration as a giant that people of faith must tackle. What other giants might you name? Are they connected to this giant or any of this giant’s “brothers?” If so, how?
  2. Do you think understanding the concept of privilege and learning to abdicating privilege help us better reconcile ourselves toward the goals of creating a more just world? If so, how?
  3. If you were asked to imagine a just world, what would it look like? How would you describe it?

 

 

For Further Reading

http://www.southerncoalition.org/mass-incarceration-people-color/

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2011.

Levad, Amy. Redeeming a prison society : a liturgical and sacramental response to mass incarceration. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/09/nyregion/kalief-browder-held-at-rikers-island-for-3-years-without-trial-commits-suicide.html?_r=0

Nikki’s video from Kelly Gissendaner’s clemency campaign

Article about Nikki

About ON Scripture & The ON Scripture Committee

Like ON Scripture on Facebook

Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @ONScripture

 

Death Penalty

Lending Our Voices to Kelly

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on May 2, 2015

 

Last week, I wrote a blog post about Kelly Gissendaner’s life and I’ll admit that when I wrote the post I felt somewhat hopeless. I didn’t think that changing the story would do much to save Kelly. I didn’t think there was much we could do. But then yesterday I learned something. In the state of Georgia, the Board of Pardons and Paroles (who denied Kelly’s clemency) can reverse their decision at any time.

As long as Kelly still has breath, hope is still alive.

Hope has been a major theme in Kelly’s life. I imagine it sounded strange, even presumptuous, for members of the GA Board of Pardons and Paroles to hear people who know Kelly talk about her theology of hope. It probably seemed odd to hear that Kelly was in correspondence with a famous theologian named Jürgen Moltmann — a name who is associated with the “theology of hope.” (And if you haven’t heard this amazing piece of Kelly’s story, then you must read more here)

But the idea of hope is irresistible for people of faith. In reading Moltmann, Kelly learned about a hope that finds the pinnacle in the exodus from Egypt and the resurrection of Christ. And this resurrection hope is not just for some future by and by, the heaven beyond this life, but it is a resurrection that can change the world, here and now. It is a resurrection that can set us free. Yes, this idea of hope is irresistible.

As Kelly sits on death row, waiting for an execution on Monday (only six days before her birthday), Christian churches are in the season of Lent. We are waiting for Easter, waiting for the resurrection of Christ to break again into this world again. We are waiting for the world to be reborn in God’s goodness.

The good news for this faith — a faith of the exodus and the resurrection — is that God has mercy, even on the worst of of us. Scripture reminds us that God called people with murderous pasts — King David, Moses, the Apostle Paul — they all had a role in taking the life of someone else yet even after this, God still uses them and calls them to God’s work.

So today I invite you to join me in hope and act in hope that Kelly might live. You can listen to Kelly’s story in her own words by watching this powerful video. You can share her story through social media and help change the conversation about Kelly’s case (#KellyOnMyMind). You can contact the GA Board of Pardons and Paroles and ask them to reverse their decision. You can call Governor Deal’s officeor reach out on Twitter and remind him (as a fellow person of faith) that his hands are NOT tied. He can put politics aside and take up the Christian mantle of mercy and ask the Parole Board to reconsider Kelly’s case. You can encourage faith leaders you know to sign this letter. Or you can sign a change.org petition here.

No, we are not hopeless. As Kelly said in her graduation speech from her program in theology, “Hope is still alive!”

 

 

Death Penalty

Meeting Kelly Gissendaner

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on February 27, 2015

 

Have you met Kelly? Not the mug shot that is in every news article, not the “first woman in 70 years to be executed in Georgia,” not the woman who you might think ordered too much food for her last meal. I’m talking about Kelly Gissendaner, child of God, sinner saved by grace, a minister who was known for sharing Christ’s love with both prisoners and prison guards.

If you haven’t met Kelly you better hurry, because time is running out. On Monday the state of Georgia will execute Kelly Gissendaner, not because she killed her husband, but because she asked someone else to. The person who actually killed Doug Gissendaner is Gregory Owen, a man who is not on death row or in danger of dying. In fact, he’ll be eligible for parole in eight years. He lucked out by being the first to say, “yes” to the identical plea deal both he and Kelly were offered.

But let’s not talk about him. Let’s talk about Kelly because we don’t have much time. You need to read her story and hear her words. You need to hear the words of her children who are now grieving the possible loss of a second parent. You need to hear from her friends and teachers, from the chaplains and ministers who witnessed Kelly’s transformation. You need to listen to the prison guards tell you how Kelly was a calming spirit to troubled inmates, how she told her story to youth on probation to prevent them from making the same mistakes. And keep reading her clemency application until you find the story of the woman whose life Kelly saved by convincing her not to commit suicide in prison.

You need to read Kelly’s story so you can judge for yourself whether or not Kelly should die, because her story has not yet been given a fair hearing. And if you think Kelly’s life is worth saving, then you must act, even if your voice is lost in the powerful, fearful wind that surrounds us. For if we do nothing, if we cannot even listen to her story, then we too are complicit in her death.

The first thing you need to know about Kelly is that she’s sorry, tremendously sorry for the part she plaid in her husband’s murder. She said:

“[I]t is impossible to put into words the overwhelming sorrow and remorse I feel for my involvement in the murder of my husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Doug was a wonderful person and a loving and generous husband and father….I wish I could truly express how sorry I am for what I did, but there is just no way to capture the depth of my sorrow and regret. I would change everything if I could….I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil, but I have learned first-hand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy.”

The other thing you need to know is who Kelly is now. The people who know Kelly say that seventeen years later, she has changed, really changed. Its not just that she’s “found God” as so many articles seem to suggest, but she has become God’s own child. She completed a Certificate in Theology that was offered by the prison and spent time studying scripture as a way to deal with her past. One of her teachers in the program, Dr. Jennifer McBride said, “Kelly has done, and continues to do, this incredibly difficult work. She has gone back to her painful memories, taken responsibility for them in the present, and shown profound remorse about whom she had been and what she had done…The depth of her spiritual growth in prison has been visible and concrete.”

As a person of faith, I love a good redemption story. In that place of knowing oneself and being deeply loved by God, people are called to new life, invited to take their sin and suffering and redeem it at the foot of Christ’s cross. I love to meet people who have been scooped up by God and turned around right.

I began this article by asking if you had met Kelly, but not because I know her and can introduce her to you. Her story is still one dimensional to me, words on a page that describe the life of a person I would be honored to meet. After hearing Kelly’s story, I can join Dr. James Waits in saying “I can see no good purpose in taking that life from us.”

So even at this last moment, I pray for a miracle. I pray that Kelly will be given life rather than death. And I pray that those of us who love a good redemption story will be given more time to meet this redeemed one of God.

The stories and quotes in this article come from Kelly’s clemency application. I wrote this article after spending and hour praying through this application, reading pieces of Kelly’s story and then pausing to pray, “Christ have mercy.” I invite people of faith and all people of good will to join me in reading and sharing Kelly’s story, and in praying for Kelly and those might have the power to grant her life. Share your reflections by using #KellyOnMyMind