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. 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!