Last Wednesday, in the wee hours of the morning, the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner for her role in planning the 1997 murder of her husband, Doug Gissendaner. In prison, Kelly Gissendaner came to model what we think of when we talk about rehabilitated convicts. While the “prisoner finding religion” story may be cliché, there are times when it is beautifully true. Gissendaner lived out her Christian faith, becoming a pillar of strength for inmates struggling with the depression and hopelessness that often accompanies long prison terms. She pursued theological education, looking to better herself and build on the knowledge of the divine that sustained her. She even formed a friendship with renowned theologian Jurgen Moltmann. In his last letter to her, he reminded her of her identity as a “beloved daughter of God” and a “beloved sister of Jesus Christ.”
Figures from Pope Francis to the former Georgia Supreme Court justice who had upheld her sentence 15 years earlier offered pleas for clemency on her behalf. Just before she was executed by lethal injection, she sang “Amazing Grace.”
Wednesday night, on Oklahoma’s death row, Richard Glossip had his third “last meal.” His execution by lethal injection was postponed an hour before its scheduled time because the state apparently purchased the wrong drug — not because of the growing amount of evidence that Glossip is innocent of the crime of which he was charged – only the latest in Oklahoma’s recent difficulties with the lethal injection process.
On Thursday night, the state of Virginia executed Alfredo R. Prieto , a convicted serial rapist and murderer who remained unrepentant and defiant to the end. He was put to death via lethal injection, despite, as Scott Martelle noted in the LA Times, compelling evidence that Prieto suffered from intellectual disabilities that should have made him ineligible for the death penalty.
And on Thursday afternoon, a 26-year-old man slaughtered nine people and wounded nine others on the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, Ore. It is a sadly familiar story in this country, routine even. President Obama named it as such in his remarks last week, claiming that we have become “numb” to mass shootings and the discussions that follow. He’s right about that.
But I’d argue that we’re numb to all of our society’s violence, as we have lazily accepted a theology of death rather than do the work to reflect the theology of life so many of us profess to believe. I’m glad for the separation of church and state in this country, so don’t confuse this for me claiming that U.S. society should be run as a Christian institution. Rather, I’m saying that a lot of people in this country who profess to be Christian buy into this acceptance of violent death all too easily. The proof of this is that, shooting after shooting, execution after execution, violent death after violent death, we as a society have not changed. And it is our lack of change that keeps the door open for history to repeat itself.
So what do we do? As the president remarked, “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” They just aren’t. And not only are they not enough, they are increasingly disingenuous. Christians are not called to just talk about God’s healing and mercy and grace. We’re called to live it out. If our prayers, which connect us and guide us to the divine life, are not followed by action, which is how we answer God’s call, then they are fruitless. While we can’t ask our nation, one based in religious free expression, to act only as a Christian would, we as Christians can model actions for our communities that will hopefully spread far and wide.
We can join together across denominational lines and protest the death penalty, on the ground and through our voting decisions. This won’t always be easy in practice, but living out faith isn’t dictated by how easy the tasks are. In cases such as Kelly Gissendaner’s, it will be easier for us to lift up one who changed for the better. It’ll be easier to show the Gissendaners in our system grace and mercy. It’ll be harder to protest the execution of the Alfredo Prietos among us; yet Christ loves all, and none are beyond the redemption of God. So we must protest for the Alfredos, too.
We can be the first to put down the tools of violence. We can elect leadership who agree that doing so is critical for healthy communal life. I’ve written previously about Christians and handgun/assault rifle ownership, naming what I see as an incompatibility when it comes to trusting in, and in some cases worshiping, guns instead of trusting in God. I’ll continue arguing the same thing in the wake of the shooting in Oregon and in every subsequent shooting until we see change by choosing our neighbors over a particular possession.
We are a people who gather regularly to affirm that our hope is in life, in redemption, in renewal. When we support (and rest assured, it is support, even if it’s just our idleness that props up the status quo) death by violence as a narrative of our shared lives together, we are living antithetically to a gospel that says human life is sacred. We don’t get to skip the sacredness by passing off the responsibility of these acts of violence to the state, or to antiquated bureaucratic systems, or even to “bad guys with guns.”
We are our community, and Christians who make up our community should be among the first decrying this theology of death. All of us are either complicitly or explicitly involved, as our duty is to live out the gospel by loving God and loving our neighbors. We do neither when we turn a blind eye to the acts of violence in our midst.
We have hope as individuals, as congregations, as Christians in the body politic. It is a hope brought to us by Jesus the Christ, himself tortured and murdered as a form of legally sanctioned state punishment. It is a hope borne out of the empty tomb. This hope says, “Death does not have to be the way.” Living out such a hope is our path toward a less violent society. How long until this hope becomes the consistent message from our pulpits? How long until it rings out clearly from every voice in the church? How long until we start living as if life is our way?