Transformation

Faith Leaders Nationwide Call for Stay in Atlanta Woman's Execution, Scheduled Tonight

A woman in prison. Image courtesy littlesam/shutterstock.com
A woman in prison. Image courtesy littlesam/shutterstock.com

It is a great and terrible irony that our country’s correctional system does not often allow for or take much pride in perpetrators’ self-correction.

Yet to the degree that transformation within the system is possible, such appears to have happened for Kelly Gissendaner. The 46-year-old woman was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of her then-husband, Doug. It is well-documented that her accomplice and then-boyfriend committed the act — he is sentenced to life, with a chance at parol.

Gissendaner faces excecution tonight at 7 p.m. EST.

If carried through, it will be the first time since 1976 that the state of Georgia will execute an individual who was not the person physically using violence in the crime.

Gissendaner’s case — that of a person guilty of murder whose profound internal transformation while in prison has led to a contemplative life of studying theology, mentoring at-risk youth, offering pastoral care to fellow inmates, and expressing full and sincere remorse for her actions — calls into stark question whether our criminal justice system, and specifically the state's use of the death penalty, honestly allows for the possibility for redemption.

Deconstructing God's Mission

Dennis Cox / Shutterstock.com
Dennis Cox / Shutterstock.com

When I ask people to describe a typical “missionary,” the usual response includes that of a young man with black pants and a white collared shirt (with a name tag attached) that knocks on doors, or perhaps an evangelical preacher who stands on (and shouts from) street corners, or possibly one who travels the far ends of the earth to help the poor and plant new churches. But just because some are more vocal and visible than others, such missionaries should not be acknowledged as the totality of all that exists, because:

All people in all places are missionaries, for all people in all places participate within a particular mission in some shape or form. Missionaries are as diverse as the human community itself.

While most missionaries do not self-define as such, the world is filled with them, many of whom serve with a high degree of commitment and faithfulness. For instance, if a missionary is – by definition – one who participates within a particular mission, then those who consume Coca-Cola are not merely consumers, but they are – by definition – missionaries of the Coca-Cola brand and its corporate mission. Similarly, there are countless political missionaries in all corners of the globe. As election cycles draw close, such missionaries multiply in mass numbers, and their energetic zeal often rivals – and sometimes far exceeds – the determination of many religious clergy labeled as extreme.

The world consists of countless missions and innumerable missionaries. As stated from the onset, all people in all places are missionaries, so not only should we hesitate to assume we know what a “typical missionary” is, we should also attempt to distinguish who a Christian missionary is to be within the context of countless other (complementary and competing) missions and missionaries. So what follows is a brief reflection on what the focus of God’s mission might be, and an exploration of how Christian missionaries may be able to function as a result.

What Is the Lord's Justice?

EXECUTE: TO ENACT OR DO. Having grown up in inner-city Chicago, I have fond memories of red fire hydrants, swinging jump ropes, and church robes. During summer, the fire department would open the hydrants. Parents granted the petitions of children to run through the streams of water, soaking our clothes and cooling our backs. And while I never achieved the rhythmic agility to jump Double Dutch, I loved to recite the rhymes, which eventually helped me gain a verbal dexterity like that of my pastor. I wanted one day to have a robe like hers—one that signaled that the words I spoke revealed the reign of God.

Turn the clock back. Some children would hold very different memories of fire hydrants, ropes, and robes. In Birmingham, Ala., in1963, the force of the water injured petitioners for freedom. During the American Revolution, a Virginia justice of the peace named Charles Lynch ordered extralegal punishment for Loyalists to the Crown. The swinging rope became the tool of mob violence. And the “hooded ones” continue to use the label of “Christian” to make a mockery of the vestments of clergy.

Fire hydrants. Ropes. Robes. Execute: to eliminate or kill. Meaning conveyed to the hearer may not at all resemble the intention of the speaker. Often communication requires suspension of what we think in order to listen to the context from which the speaker shares. Reading is no easier a task. Sometimes the same letters forming the same word present entirely different meanings. Justice executed. What does it mean?

The context for the next four weeks exposes what the Lord’s justice requires.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.


[ February 2 ]
Fighting God in Court
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

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And Now, the Rest of the Story

From destitution and fear to security, Charlene (Photo courtesy of Sean Sheridan, World Relief)

A FEW YEARS ago in this column, I told the story of Charlene, a woman I had just met in a camp for displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Charlene’s civilian husband had been murdered by rebel fighters in Congo’s brutal civil war. She and her eight children then fled for their lives, ultimately finding shelter in the hovel of mud and sticks where I met them (September-October 2010).

Like thousands of other displaced Congolese women, Charlene had been forced by destitution to hike into the forest for firewood to trade for food for her children. Like thousands of other displaced Congolese women, Charlene had been brutalized by fighters who hid in the forests and used rape as a weapon of war. Like thousands of other displaced Congolese women, Charlene had been impregnated by her rapist. Because of the stigma of rape in that culture, the beautiful two-week-old baby she’d named David was destined to a life of marginalization and despair.

Charlene was the first woman I met in Congo. She explained to me that even when the women went to the forest in groups, armed rebels would overpower and rape them. If husbands went into the forest to protect their wives, the rebels would kill the husbands, and then rape the wives. The women took the risk—and paid the price.

For me, Charlene gave human shape to Congo’s horrific story of colonial exploitation, tribal conflict, and foreign greed. In the four years after we met, hers was the first story I told whenever I spoke about Congo. It was her pain that motivated me to keep speaking, writing, and advocating for Congo.

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Making Once Enough

I RECENTLY saw a photograph of me taken on the day I was born: two weeks premature, swaddled, peaceful, vulnerable, beautiful—pure potential. I wanted to travel back in time to give the little guy some advice and protect him. Most of all I wanted him to experience the things I missed—those that only seem to come to our attention with the benefit of hindsight. I wanted him to take more risks for the good, not worry so much, be more open to receiving love, take more walks in fields and on beaches, and avoid a thousand mistakes. I wanted him to be different.

While wanting to undo history is probably a human universal, it can also be a kind of psychic violence, emerging from the notion that there is such a thing as the person we were “supposed” to be. Indulging this notion led to me projecting it onto three intriguing films. Short Term 12 is a lovely, painful story of recovery from childhood wounds. In Seconds, the newly restored melancholic science fiction tale of human engineering from 1966, Rock Hudson brilliantly imagines what happens when you convince yourself that superficiality is depth and exchange the life you have for cosmetic “transformation.”

Both touch on questions of how to live with what you have, and find their answer in About Time, the latest comedy from Richard Curtis, writer-director of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually. It’s easy to resist Curtis’ films—the privilege that his characters inhabit is rarely acknowledged, and their speech patterns are so monochromatic as to suggest they’re all auditioning for an Aaron Sorkin project. (I loved The West Wing as much as the next person, but nobody really talks like that.)

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Church of the Open Doors

WHEN CECIL WILLIAMS was 8 years old, he imagined murdering a police officer. It’s a jarring way for an influential minister to begin a memoir about radical hope and perseverance. But in a short lifetime of intense oppression, Williams had already internalized heartbreaking lessons of systemic injustice and the righteously violent tendencies that can follow. The budding young leader already nicknamed “Rev” and wise beyond his years also knew that if he could imagine brutality, he could envision a transformed society.

“Imagination is one of the most penetrating and incendiary forces I’ve ever experienced,” he writes in Beyond the Possible: 50 Years of Creating Radical Change at a Community Called Glide, co-authored with his wife and longtime collaborator, Janice Mirikitani. Building on their shared vision over a remarkable half-century, they lead what might be the most exuberant congregation in America. Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and the Glide Foundation are inextricable, legendary San Francisco institutions, the latter one of the city’s largest social service providers and the real-life shelter featured in the 2006 biopic The Pursuit of Happyness.

Writer Dave Eggers sums up Glide in the book’s introduction with a simple but uncomfortable truth: There are very few places in society where someone is not left out. Houses of worship are supposed to make a dream of inclusivity possible, but even the most inspiring visionaries live and lead imperfectly. Eggers proposes that because of the unconditional love necessary for a lasting marriage between two seemingly incompatible leaders—Williams, a black Texas minister with a solid upbringing, and Mirikitani, an agnostic Japanese-American poet from a broken, abusive home—Glide is one of the few radically accepting places where true unconditional love is practiced like the most dogmatic of faiths.

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A Gospel for the Common Good

OUR LIFE TOGETHER can be better. Ours is a shallow and selfish age, and we are in need of conversion—from looking out just for ourselves to also looking out for one another. It's time to hear and heed a call to a different way of life, to reclaim a very old idea called the common good. Jesus issued that call and announced the kingdom of God—a new order of living in sharp contrast to all the political and religious kingdoms of the world. That better way of life was meant to benefit not only his followers but everybody else too. And that is the point of it.

Christianity is not a religion that gives some people a ticket to heaven and makes them judgmental of all others. Rather, it's a call to a relationship that changes all our other relationships. Jesus told us a new relationship with God also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbor, especially with the most vulnerable of this world, and even with our enemies. But we don't always hear that from the churches. This call to love our neighbor is the foundation for reestablishing and reclaiming the common good, which has fallen into cultural and political—and even religious—neglect.

Judaism, of course, agrees that our relationship with God is supposed to change all our other relationships, and Jesus' recitation of the law's great commandments to love God and your neighbor flows right out of the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus (see Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Islam also connects the love of Allah with love and responsibility to our neighbors. In fact, virtually all the world's major religions say that you cannot separate your love for God from your love for your neighbor, your brothers and sisters. Even the nonreligious will affirm the idea of "the Golden Rule": "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31).

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The Cost of 'Perverted' Preaching

Congolese surgeon and activist Monique Kapamba Yangoy (courtesy of Christine Anderson)

THE DEATH OF a college student who had been gang-raped in Delhi provoked outrage and anger. More than 2 million Indian students joined a movement to protest the rising violence against women in India. According to official data, reported cases of rape have more than doubled in the past 20 years, and women are the victims of a high proportion of other violent crimes.

But there's another side to this story. "Almost as shocking as the Delhi gang rape has been the range of voices that have sounded after it," wrote Sagarika Ghose, a TV journalist and commentator. "Patriarchy is chillingly omnipresent." Rather than blaming those who attack women, leaders in some Indian villages blame Westernization, liberal consumerism, growing individualism, or even the women themselves—because they wear "skimpy clothes," talk on mobile phones, and work outside the home, according to South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper.

For 19-year-old Kanika Sharma, these leaders miss the point. "It is all about the mentality of the boys," Sharma told the Mail & Guardian. "They think because they are men, they can do anything. But girls should get equal rights and opportunities."

Sharma speaks while standing under a sign that says: Being a woman should not make you feel vulnerable. But sadly, throughout the world women do feel vulnerable.

Before I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—described as the "rape capital" of the world—I studied reports on rape as a weapon of war. In the DRC rebel soldiers have brutally raped thousands of women. They know that if they rape enough women and girls, they can destroy the social fabric of an entire community.

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CrossFit: A Secular Church?

Photo by CrossFit Fever / Flickr
Photo by CrossFit Fever / Flickr

The first Christmas after my daughter was born, I got a two-year membership to 24 Hour Fitness as a gift. Included in the membership was one personal training session.

My trainer bristled with annoyance at my “fad diet” when I told him we were going Paleo for three months. Then he showed me to the elliptical machine and told me that he lost weight by drinking sugar-free Kool-Aid all day and ordering off of the light menu at Taco Bell.

Obviously, our philosophies weren’t in line. But I was still able to get some cardio, weights, and an occasional spin class in at the gym. No hard feelings. But staying motivated and committed to working out while staying home with a toddler has been hard.

That might be because I haven’t tried CrossFit.

I think CrossFit is like secular church. It offers more than weight loss or fitness. It speaks to our innate desires for community, purpose, and transformation.

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