on kelly gissendaner and the danger of christian entitlement
(note: for those not familiar with Kelly’s story please follow this link for a very brief rundown on events:
Over the past few days my facebook and twitter feeds have been exploding with messages and news links about a woman in Georgia who is facing execution. #KellyOnMyMind has come to dominate the Christian social media landscape, and pictures of prayer vigils and calls to sign petitions (http://action.groundswell-mvmt.org/petitions/governor-deal-use-your-power-to-stop-the-execution-of-kelly-gissendaner) make up every other post in my newsfeed. This is good and important because capital punishment in any form is simply wrong. Particularly, as Christians, we cannot be proponents for an act wherein someone’s life is taken away from them. Kelly is guilty, but that should not mean that she is put to death. She does owe society and the family of the victim whom she caused to be murdered a debt, but that debt is not her life.
And, as Christians, we should applaud and support the reconciliation and powerful witness to faith that Kelly makes day-in and day-out in the prison where she is incarcerated. Reconciliation is one of the most important tenants of our faith. Reconciliation is the example we are given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, calling us to live into the gospel of love and forgiveness.
However, the way that Kelly’s pending death has become the new cause du jour in Christian circles causes me to pause and question what the real motives at play are in reacting so loudly for her.
The following is a list of all people who have been executed in the United States since January 1, 2015: Andrew Brannen, Johnny Kormondy, Charles Warner, Arnold Prieto, Warren Hill, Robert Ladd, Donald Newbury, and Walter Storey. These men range in age from 41-66, 4 of whom were white, 3 black, 1 latino. 0 of whom inspired a nationally trending hashtag.
Not only did these men not inspire a hashtag, their names are as anonymous to your average Christian as any person in the correctional system.
But why is this?
Were these lives not as important to stand for when they faced imminent death?
What about their story allowed for the common apathetic “There’s just nothing I personally can do about it” response from most people, including most Christians?
Most articles I read about Kelly point to one specific fact about why she, in particular, should not be put to death. To quote an article from sojo.net: “Gissendaner’s case — that of a person guilty of murder whose profound internal transformation while in prison has led to a contemplative life of studying theology, mentoring at-risk youth, offering pastoral care to fellow inmates, and expressing full and sincere remorse for her actions — calls into stark question whether our criminal justice system, and specifically the state’s use of the death penalty, honestly allows for the possibility for redemption.”
This type of argument is a dangerous road to head down.
If we are promoting a Christian faith, and the realities of reconciliation, and the chance for rehabilitation in prison, then we must promote that reality for all who are facing the death penalty. If we really feel this strongly about the death penalty, we should have been advocating with just as loud a voice when Andrew, Johnny, Charles, Arnold, Warren, Robert, Donald, and Walter faced their executions this year.
So, why Kelly? What makes her life so important to become a national touchstone?
I feel that there are two elements at play, that if we actually reflect back on what is happening, we will acknowledge our own shortcomings and may have the opportunity to extend this conversation when Kelly is no longer here to serve as a rallying cry.
First, the big piece that has been held up as the primary reason for staying Kelly’s execution (apart from the fact that capital punishment is wrong) is her rehabilitation, specifically her Christian conversion, theological and pastoral work. Kelly is a great example of how prisoners can experience rehabilitation and truly become changed individuals when faced with the stark realities of the lives they lived that led to their incarceration. I’ve experienced these transformations first-hand when doing prison ministry, being more inspired and moved by those men than I ever thought possible. However, there is a danger in using her Christian identity as a primary reason for a stay of execution. Her identity as a Christian does not mean that she should receive any preferential treatment. Her identity as Christian should not be why Christians across the country are coming to her defense. Her identity as Christian should not be the rallying cry against capital punishment. When we allow this identity to bleed into our reasoning, we run the risk of advocating for the cessation of the death penalty, but only insofar as it relates to other Christians. If we do not stand up as loudly for non-Christians as we do for Christians, then we run the risk of escaping into our entitlement, failing to push the societal norms that have begun to become familiar in our country.
Second, is an interesting aspect that crops up in passing in many of the articles. It is Kelly’s gender. Many articles are sure to mention one line in particular, that Kelly will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. Kelly’s gender should not matter when we talk about ending capital punishment. When we discuss her case, and her punishment, in terms of her gender, we play into the tired stereotypes that permeate our culture. Women (as a whole) are not inherently weaker than men, they are not inherently more gentle than men, and they are just as capable of perpetrating acts of evil as men. Just because men much more commonly commit these acts, does not change the very real fact that women commit them as well, and that they have the power to commit them.
So, why does the 9th person set to be executed in the United States in 2015 all of a sudden inspire a groundswell of support?
We need to seriously consider this question and reflect on why we have become so passionate about fighting the death penalty for this one particular human. If her Christian identity and her gender are big pieces to why she has caused such an uproar, we need to seriously consider how this reflects on our experience of entitlement in this country.
We should be standing this loudly against capital punishment for all who face this terrible relic of an out-dated justice system. And, we must ask ourselves, will we still be standing this loudly after Kelly is dead?