When I was 11 or 12, during a no doubt sweltering Houston summer at my father’s, all the news could talk about was an impending execution. Now, I certainly knew before this that the death penalty was something that was used as punishment for heinous crimes, but for some reason knowing that it was happening in the state that I was occupying, somehow tethered me to the realness of the act. I have no idea what this man’s name was, or what his crime was, but I knew that that day he was being executed. I remember being up late that night–it wasn’t a school night, of course, so it was a completely acceptable thing to do. He was to be executed at midnight, and when the clock turned twelve, he would cease to exist. I had never known anyone that had died, I did not know this man, but somehow the idea of his breathlessness when the clock in my house chimed midnight stopped me cold. I was watching the news, and when they declared it done, I remember having the emptiest feeling, almost as if I had watched him fade away–this nameless unknown person to me. Somehow it was weightier because I lived in Texas, and that meant I was somehow, therefore, connected to this. I was a weird kid.
After all of this time, it astounds me that this memory has never left me…it was but a moment, after all. To be honest, I haven’t thought of this memory in years. It was brought back to me, however, by my facebook friends posting articles about Kelly Gissendaner. Admittedly, until right before I sat down to write this post, I had no idea who this woman was, but as I saw folks posting her story I was experiencing some weird mixture of saddness and miffedness (I was going to say anger, it seemed too strong).
From what I’ve read and seen on facebook, the main reason that is projected to petition on her behalf, is that her story is one of “redemption and transformation”. She has become a faithful Christian in jail, has mentored others, and on and on. We must save this transformed Christian woman from death. There was a vigil on the state capitol steps for praying for her life. 26,000 letters have been boxed up and sent to Governer Deal on her behalf, asking for her life to be spared.
I have serious personal and theological issues with the death penalty. 100% I think it barbaric that we allow states to murder people (additionally that we allowed states to sterilize folks as well). Out of fear, pain, hurt, vengeance, and money concerns we allow juries of our peers to decide what lives are worth saving, and what lives we should end.
I have no doubts that Kelly turned her life around. I have no doubts that she is truly repentant for her role in the murder of her late husband.
But what’s really got me troubled this evening is the silence I have heard about the 35 people who were executed last year. Who has cried out on behalf of the sacredness of their lives? Maybe they didn’t mentor younger prisoners, maybe they didn’t turn to God, maybe they also did horrible horrible things, but who are we to judge who is and isn’t beyond redemption?
Who are we to say that one life is more valuable than another?
That little Houston girl in me is deeply bothered this evening. I grieve for the family of Kelly Gissendaner’s husband, for their children that have been separated from parents. I grieve for the life of Paul Goodwin who was executed in Missouri last year. I grieve for all those whom we have decided are beyond help, beyond the reach of God, and no longer have the right to life. That little Houston girl is crying for this society, for these people, for all of this hurt in the world.
Yes, fight for Kelly’s life (though I am pretty sure she was supposed to be executed at 8:00 PM my time), but let us not stop there. Let us not only fight for the folks that are easiest to fight for. It is easy to fight for the woman who saw the error of her ways, and turned her life around, but dear friends it is much harder to fight for someone who doesn’t seem repentant at all. Who may even seem proud. These are beloved children of God too, and they also deserve our fight. For each life we decide should be snuffed out by our justice system there should be all kinds of letters, and vigils, and fight for their lives.
Now, full disclosure, I’ve never experienced the loss of a loved one by another’s hands. I cannot imagine how that would feel, but I only hope that I can respond with the kind of radical forgiveness that this amish community granted after a school shooting in 2006. I hope that I would remember that we are all working towards being reconciled to Godself, and that no matter what someone may have done, that person still has the hope of seeking redemption. I hope that I would fight for that person’s life if I had to, and I hope that we as people of faith will cry out for all those who face Kelly’s fate even if we find them to be somehow less deserving.