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.
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.
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.
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.
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.