taking the words of Jesus seriously


EDITOR’S NOTE: RLC has been following closely the story of Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled for execution in Georgia tonight. As many Christians support the death penalty, we wanted to share this letter from Christian ethicist David Gushee. It was originally posted on Baptist News Global.


By David Gushee


Follow David: @dpgushee


Dear Georgia’s Christian Citizens:


Unless something dramatic changes, tonight, March 2, your employees in the Georgia prison system, enforcing your laws, paid by your tax dollars, will take a Christian woman named Kelly Gissendaner from her cell and calmly kill her.


This means, in a very real sense,  you will kill her. That’s because someone whose salary you pay will be the one to strap her to the gurney, and someone else you are paying will run the lethal chemicals into her body, and someone you elected made the laws that these prison officials are enforcing. So you are responsible.


Actually, my fellow Georgians and fellow Christians,  we are responsible. We will kill Kelly Gissendaner.


We will kill her not because she poses any kind of threat to society, as she is disarmed and rehabilitated, and has been incarcerated peacefully — indeed, as a model prisoner and a real force for good in her prison — for years.


We will kill her not because she is unrepentant for her crime, but even though she is deeply repentant.


We will kill her not because Georgia kills all people convicted of murder, because no state, including Georgia, executes all people convicted of murder, but instead executes a tiny minority of murderers, mainly those characterized by socioeconomic powerlessness or bad legal decisions.


We will kill her not because the death penalty functions as any kind of deterrent, because there is no evidence that such a sparse and randomly used penalty functions anywhere as a deterrent in the United States today.


We will kill her not because executing someone can heal the wounds of grieving family members, because the long death penalty process and finally an execution more often worsens and inflames grief and unforgiveness.


We will kill her not because Georgia’s citizens are united in their support for the death penalty, because many Georgians, including many protesting today, are vehemently opposed to this penalty.


We will kill her not because Georgia is participating in a surging national trend toward support for and use of the death penalty, but instead contrary to a strong national trend away from support for and use of this penalty.


We will kill her not because Georgia benefits from national attention to our highly questionable implementation of the death penalty in high-profile cases, but despite the fact that it is not what Georgia’s businesses and tourist sites and citizens want to be known for.


We will kill her not because Georgia’s largely conservative citizenry generally express support for strongly centralized state power, but despite the fact that Georgians generally distrust an overly powerful government. And there is no greater governmental power than the power to kill its own citizens.


And, sadly, we will kill her not despite but because of the way many Georgians think about our dominant Christian faith. 


Here I part ways with my fellow Georgians who do support the death penalty, for I most certainly do not. But I think I understand the version of Christian faith that undergirds that support. I wish to reason with you as a fellow Christian and ask you to reconsider this position on principled grounds.


Knowingly or not, many Georgia Christians support the death penalty because there is a strong tradition of Christian support for the death penalty in the United States. This is true especially in the South, which executes far more people than any other region. The letter I write today could just as easily be directed to nearly any state in the South and a few elsewhere.


I urge my fellow Georgia (and Southern) Christians to pay attention to the sharply declining support for the death penalty among Christians in the rest of the United States and in the global Christian family — including the Roman Catholic Church, most mainline denominations, and a very large number of evangelical Protestants. Principled opposition to the death penalty is not an outlier position but instead widely held in the broader Christian world.


Many Georgia Christian citizens support the death penalty because they take the laws of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) seriously. But I urge my fellow Georgia Christians to pay attention to how most Jewish rabbis and scholars also take these laws seriously but for centuries have not supported the use of the death penalty. This is reflected in the fact that the modern state of Israel does not practice the death penalty, and has only executed one person, major Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.


I urge my fellow Georgia Christians to think about how little the death penalty is actually implemented even in the Old Testament itself, which offers several key accounts of murderers who are spared death for their crimes. Consider Cain, Moses and David. Perhaps this could lead my fellow Christians to the conclusion that the Old Testament death penalty statutes signal the extreme seriousness of murder and other crimes, and demand a proportionate punishment, but one short of death and tinged with some measure of mercy.


I urge my fellow Christians to contemplate the unjust use of the death penalty to kill the great majority of the leading figures we meet in the New Testament, including John the Baptist, Paul, Peter, Stephen and, yes, Jesus himself. Closely studying these abuses of state power recorded in the New Testament might incline my fellow Christians to be much more suspicious of state claims that it is time, once again, for the state to kill one of its own.


Some Georgia Christians support the death penalty because Genesis 9:5-6 seems to demand blood in retribution for blood. But I urge you to consider that this text does not envision a modern society with prisons where criminals can pay with their lives in a proportionate but very different way than execution — and urge you to again consider the clemency shown to major figures in the Old Testament itself, after Genesis 9.


Some Georgia Christians support the death penalty because Romans 13:1-7 says we should respect government, which executes divine wrath on wrongdoers, making them pay for their crimes. But I urge you to think about the flaws of all existing human governments, their manifest errors and injustices, perhaps especially in the criminal justice system, and the need to limit rather than expand state power.


Perhaps you could agree that life in prison without release is a mighty terrible penalty but one that sets at least that one crucial limit on the power of the state — the power over life and death. And you might dare to wonder how Paul himself would have interpreted Romans 13 a few years later when he was getting ready to be murdered unjustly by Nero.


Above all, I urge you, my fellow Georgia Christians, to linger around our Savior Jesus. Jesus who was coldly executed by Roman power. Jesus who stood with those on the margins and the bottom of society. Jesus who forgave and forgave and taught us to forgive and forgive. Jesus who said that only those of us without sin are free to cast the first stone.


My fellow Georgia Christians, I urge you to join those of us asking for mercy in this case — which means life in prison–not release, but also not execution. The case for that kind of mercy here is extraordinarily compelling. But ultimately, it’s not about one particular individual and the details of one particular case.


The issue is really that Georgia needs to join many other states and end the use of the death penalty once and for all. We don’t need it. It isn’t rationally or fairly applied. It’s marked by race and class bias. It’s more expensive than imprisoning someone for life. It doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t deter murder. It doesn’t heal our wounds. It doesn’t make us proud. And Christians, when all is said and done, it doesn’t fit with the Jesus whose forgiveness and mercy are the very ground of our lives.


Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, you could stop this particular killing — before night falls.


In the name of Jesus, many of us are pleading with you to do just that.


No more killings in our name, Georgia Christians. Not one more.


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