taking the words of Jesus seriously

 

Last night the state of Georgia executed the kid who they let live under a bridge. Joshua Bishop was a person who never had a fair shake at life. He lived with violence. His mother was abusive; she was addicted to alcohol and drugs. Josh didn’t want to leave her because he didn’t want her to be alone. Sometimes she made him sleep under their trailer. He spent his part of his childhood living under a bridge near a grocery store to get away from the abuse. He was in and out of foster care and children’s homes. When Josh was 19, he was high on cocaine and booze and made the horrible decision to take another person’s life – something he quickly regretted. But tonight – the state of Georgia – in a sober and calculated decision took his life with no regret, somehow believing that this would even the score.

 

The story is too familiar. Abuse. Trauma. Violence begets violence begets violence. Not to mention arbitrary punishment – the accomplice strikes a deal and one pays with death while one gets life in prison. This is the story we are hearing over and over again in Georgia, where six people have been killed by the state since a temporary moratorium on the death penalty was lifted last September. In each case, the story is too familiar – racism, arbitrary sentencing, a parole board who could not give a damn about how the person has changed since that one awful day. Even when the victim’s family members plead for the one on death row to be spared, the good Christians of our state plow ahead as if their most important task is killing their own citizens.

 

Tonight, as I prayed during the Open Door vigil at the Capitol, I could not help but sit with the irony. We went to church on Sunday to celebrate a Christ who was executed and who triumphed over death, but then four days later we execute again as if this is our moral duty.

 

Last week, Kayla Gissendaner – the daughter of Kelly Gissendaner who was executed by the State of Georgia in October – sat in my Restorative Justice class at McAfee School of Theology and said that her mom hoped that her execution would be the last. Five executions and six months later, my seminary students are still pondering the question – did Jesus hope his execution would be the last? Is he grieved each day that we not only keep killing, but that we use scripture to justify killing in his name?

 

I go to a church where we remembered Good Friday with the “seven last words” of Jesus, and celebrated Easter with the “seven first words” of Jesus’ resurrection. So as I sit with Josh Bishop’s execution, I cannot help but reflect on the “seven last people” who were executed in our state.

 

Warren Hill was killed by the state of Georgia on January 27, 2015, despite being intellectually disabled. While the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that is it unconstitutional to execute a person with intellectual disabilities, they allowed states to define intellectual disability, and Georgia has the most difficult standard of proof. Despite having an IQ of 70, and despite seven state and independent psychologists confirming his disability, Warren Hill was killed in my name.

 

Kelly Gissendaner is the case that was closest to my heart. As an organizer with the #KellyOnMyMind collective, I fought hard for Kelly’s clemency. She was not the “trigger person, ” and her time in prison changed her. She was a graduate of the prison theology program and pen pals with famous theologian, Jürgen Moltmann. She won more than 50 people to Christ in prison and stopped fellow prisoners from committing suicide. Kelly met every possible criteria for clemency – she was transformed, she showed remorse, she didn’t actually commit the crime, her children (also children of the victim) pleaded for her life. But the state didn’t care. Kelly is dead.

 

Marcus Ray Johnson was killed by the state in November of 2015. The investigator on his case is a close friend. She knew Ray was innocent and grieved his death. No DNA linked him to the crime. All evidence was circumstantial. But Ray, despite claims of innocence, was killed by a state who could not wait 90 days for new DNA testing.

 

Brian Terrell was executed a month later and also had a strong innocence claim. There was no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony that was used to convict him. In fact, foot prints at the crime scene left a shoe impression smaller than Brian’s feet. No fingerprints at the scene matched Brian’s, but two matched another person – his uncle. Brian always maintained his innocence, even rejecting a generous plea deal, saying he did not commit this murder. But in the end, despite claims of innocence, Brian was killed by the state of Georgia.

 

Brandon Jones was killed this past February – two weeks before his 73rd birthday. Like so many on death row, Jones experienced abuse as a child. His first conviction was overturned by a federal court after finding that jurors consulted a Bible during deliberations. In a second trial, he was sentenced again to death, despite misgivings of one juror. Brandon never lived to see is 73rd birthday. He was killed by the state.

 

Travis Hittson, also killed in February, was a Navy veteran who fell in with the wrong crowd. Like Gissendaner and Bishop, Hittson had a co-conspirator who is serving life, not death. During the vigil at Jackson for Hittson, I met his friends and family members who described him as an impressionable kid who, while drunk, was convinced to kill someone because he thought they would kill him and his family.

 

With Josh Bishop’s death last night, these seven deaths are more than I can take. If we cannot speak up against the death penalty, then we can no longer claim to be Easter people. If we still kill in the name of Christian morality, then we’ve missed the whole point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. I live in a state where the good Christians on the parole board brought up Jesus on the cross as a proof-text for why Kelly Gissendaner’s life should not be spared. Jesus did not get off the cross, they said. Kelly’s redemption didn’t matter at all.

 

Seven people. Seven stories. Just a sampling of the 73 people who have been executed in Georgia since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976.

 

If anyone has any faith left in the death penalty, it is based in the idea that this severe punishment is reserved for the worst of the worst. These people we have killed were not the worst of the worst. They were trauma survivors. They made terrible mistakes. Some were likely innocent. Some were changed by Christ’s love. All were loved and created by God.

 

In light of these stories, I call on my Governor and fellow person of faith, Nathan Deal, along with our legislators to sit with the dead, to grieve with the living. I ask them to listen to the stories of lawyers and advocates, pastors and faith leaders who are walking alongside those on death row. People who still believe in redemption are crying out – we are better than this!

 

It is time for a moratorium on executions in light of the arbitrary and unjust nature of capital punishment in our state. But we who are Easter people must remember that the Jesus we follow, who was killed by the state, hoped his execution would be the last.

 

About The Author

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Rev. Dr. Melissa Browning is a theologian, ethicist, and activist who studies community-based responses to injustice. Melissa teaches seminary students at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University where she is the Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry. In this role, she teaches courses in practical ministry, community development, and community organizing. For the past 17 years Melissa’s study and fieldwork has been tied to East Africa. Her most recent book, “Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania,” builds on a year of fieldwork completed in Mwanza, Tanzania, where women were asked to re-imagine Christian marriage as a space of safety and health for women. Melissa is also active in death penalty abolitionist work in Georgia and worked as an organizer in the #KellyOnMyMind collective – a public clemency campaign for Kelly Gissendaner. Melissa is an ordained Baptist minister with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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