NOTE: This post was written by one of our guest bloggers, Nathaniel Grimes. For more from Nathaniel, be sure to check out his page.
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. – Romans 9:14-16
(Today Kelly Gissendaner is set to be executed in Georgia. There has been a movement calling for a stay in this process, and you can go here now to sign a petition.)
What does the case of Kelly Gissendaner say about our conception of the gospel? And what does the gospel have to say in the case of Kelly Gissendaner?
She is friends with famous theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, and seems to be doing good pastoral work. None of this, however, erases the legal fact of her (alleged) guilt. The phrase in this headline struck me – “despite religious conversion.” Assuming that religious conversion is not equivalent to something like new evidence in her original case, why is this a good reason to stay her execution?
The answer has everything to do with the way we understand the gospel. We think that Kelly’s choice for Christ is what should save her. This exposes the theological dimensions of the way we justify the death penalty. Her humanity, and specifically the choice of God in Christ to be for and with humanity, is the gospel’s account of her salvation. But there is another account, one in which if she reforms herself and proves her worth, she will achieve the conditions necessary to be saved. In this case, her salvation is proved over against those who have not achieved the conditions. Their condemnation is reinforced by the fact of her salvation. What a hellish proposition.
Pleading for the life of anyone on death row is really only threatening to the death penalty system if the argument serves to “justify” all lives on death row. If we base her salvation on the satisfaction of certain conditions, we are confirming that the system basically has it right – we just think there should be different conditions.
Twitter user Bo Eberle points out that her story can become “a story of lauding the prodigal who finally realized authentic Xianity within Xian culture.” This is a story that makes us Christians feel better, a story in which we are centered and made the arbiters of who should be saved. People are saved by the fact of their social proximity to us. We judge Kelly to be worthy, and therefore condemn her fellow inmates.
The execution of Jesus by the state proves the innocence of all its victims. The differences between them are like, to borrow an image from Karl Barth, “the difference between mountain and valley” which “becomes meaningless when the sun at its zenith fills both with its light.” We celebrate with Kelly that she has entered this reality, and accepted God’s “Yes” to her. We welcome the words of her friend Jurgen Moltmann: “as Christians, we receive our salvation from the justifying righteousness of God. We reject all forms of retributive justice. We reject the death penalty in the name of God.”
Let’s not pit Kelly against her fellow inmates. Her execution should be stayed not because she is special, or white, or a pastor, or a heartwarming story of Christian conversion. The grounds for our advocacy on behalf of Kelly is the fact that she is part of a humanity to which in Christ, God has decisively given his “Yes.”