By the time you read this, Kelly Gissendaner will most likely be dead. Killed by the state of Georgia. Five others are due to be executed in our country this week, including Richard Glossip, scheduled to be killed Wednesday evening.
If you don’t know Kelly’s story, look at the hashtag #KellyOnMyMind. Kelly had her husband murdered. There is no question about that, no doubt about guilt. But there is also repentance and forgiveness. Kelly has repented of her actions, reconciled with her children who have forgiven her, attended seminary while in prison, helped counsel and care for many women while they were in prison. But all actions as of 8 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday night have not resulted in clemency or a stay of execution.
What strikes me about Kelly’s story is not her own work, though anyone can see from her life that repentance and forgiveness is possible in this lifetime. What strikes me is that we still have not learned our lesson as a people.
Fourteen years ago this summer, I was in the middle of my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, 400 hours of intensive works as a chaplain intern at a hospital in Boston. As I entered a patient’s room, I paused, because I noticed he was crying. He wiped his eyes quickly, but I asked him how he was, what brought on the tears. He jerked his head up to the TV, and I looked to see the names of the victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. Timothy McVeigh was being executed that day. The patient told me that he was from Oklahoma City and had lost a friend in the bombing. “This has brought it all back. His death hasn’t made this any better, but it has brought all this grief back.” His expression turned to anger, and he said to me, quietly, “Timothy McVeigh killed over a hundred people, but we killed Timothy McVeigh.”
Though I have always been, for the most part, against the death penalty, McVeigh’s case had caused me to almost change my mind. This ruthless act, without remorse, to kill as many people as possible—if anyone deserved death, it was McVeigh in my mind. To this day, I can never forget the TIME magazine article with the photo of the firefighter carrying the dead baby girl out of the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
However, to this day, I can also never forget the words of that man in the hospital, with the tears down his face, reliving his grief as if his friend had been killed that very day I was visiting him.
The death penalty does nothing to deter murder; it does nothing to relieve pain and suffering. While I have never experienced the grief and pain of having a loved one murdered, I have met more people since that day whose loved ones were killed, who find that the death penalty does nothing to bring them healing or wholeness. It does not bring their loved one back.
We have mistaken punishment for justice. We have believed in the myth of redemptive violence. Our own Jesus was killed through capital punishment. So why do we still hold on to it? Why do we still believe that capital punishment is just, that killing another is a satisfactory response to murder?
I’m glad that Kelly’s life was transformed by Christ, that she has reconciled with her children and experienced forgiveness. I’m glad that so many have spoken up and that this movement has swept across the country and the world. I’m very saddened that at the moment I am posting this, there seems to be no hope at this time to save Kelly’s life. I am grieved that so many call this justice served, when there is no hope of restoration in this. Murder does not cancel out murder.
We must work to abolish the death penalty entirely, for the innocents and for the guilty, for those that grieve and those who cry out in anger. For the death penalty will never bring justice, but only relived pain, grief, and emptiness.
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