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Lent III – Wake Up #KellyOnMyMind

Photo credit: Ann Borden, Emory Photo Video
BPhoto credit: Ann Borden, Emory Photo Video

2:40pm March 3, 2015

Executions POSTPONEDwith an “abundance of caution.”

& Brian Terrell! Awesome! JUST DON’T STOP, Team! 

Let’s add a new hashtag:  


Wake up!

When I woke up my daughter this morning and kissed her small cheek, I wanted with all my heart to wake her up to a world that no longer returns punishment for punishment and death for death. I wanted to wake her up to a world that has the strength and courage to respond to punishment and death with compassion for everyone involved. I longed to wake her up in a country governed by laws and leaders who use restraint when facing evil and harm, and who do not participate blindly in the taking of lives and call it “justice.”

Kelly Gissendaner was wrong, and she is the first to admit it. She found someone to kill her husband, and when she was found guilty in a court of law, she entered into a sentence that would most likely take the rest of her life in prison. When she woke on up Tuesday, February 24, she learned that day her appeal to the Board of Pardons and Paroles had been denied, after years of believing with her lawyers that she would receive clemency.

In the course of 18 years of waking up each day in prison, Kelly has experienced a profound transformation. Her heart and her mind have changed. Here is a piece of that story from her friend and former prisoner, Nikki Roberts.

Nikki met Kelly when she tried to take her own life. She was carried into a cell and put on suicide watch. Kelly spoke to Nikki through an air vent: “Stop giving up your power!” Later Nikki realized with Kelly’s help that in the prison system, death is a reality and “merely a matter of numbers.” Kelly urged Nikki not to give herself over to death. “Make something of yourself.” she said. And Nikki got the message, saying Kelly gave her hope. And from that hope, Nikki turned her own time in prison from being considered a “disciplinary problem” to being a peer mentor.

Nikki says about Kelly’s impending execution: “You’re killing someone that’s a help. You’re killing someone that gives hope. You’re killing someone that after 18 years has a rehabilitated mind. You’re killing someone that made peace with her three children.”

Kelly’s children, the people most impacted by the crime she committed didn’t forgive their mom initially. But today they are fully reconciled, and “they are begging the board of pardons and paroles to allow their mother to live.” says Nikki.

Nikki says of Kelly: “She is being judged for taking one life. But she’s not being granted mercy for giving so much life to others.”

Today, I want to appeal to your sense of the power of redemption, the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. Even if you still believe in the death penalty has a legitimate form of punishment (and I will respectfully and openly disagree), Kelly’s story is one that shows a different pathway, a Christ-inspired way, a morally responsible state-sponsored way to respond to the loss of life taken in murder. Call on Gov. Nathan Deal to stay the execution.
If 18 years in prison has resulted in a woman’s life transformed into one that helps save the lives of others, then why should we participate in snuffing out this one life? If prison’s highest goal is rehabilitation, then why should we reward meaningful human change with death?

When the state takes a life we are each implicated. And I want to raise my Baptist voice of dissent in that process. I don’t want to be party to taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Retributive justice does not deter crime, nor does it contribute to improving the human condition. In fact it only exacerbates the problem, sanctioning, authorizing and normalizing the taking of lives.

Of course I believe there are people who are so torn and broken that they are beyond the capacity to live freely and peaceably with others. And persons in that condition should indeed be set aside from society, and treated with compassion and protection for their sake as well as the sake of those not restrained. Only love and compassion change hearts and lives. Sometimes even they fail, but murder and state-sponsored executions do nothing for the cause of redemption.

Jesus put it best:

38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of God. (Matthew 5:38-45)

Will you join me today and telling Gov. Deal that we want him to act with compassion not retaliation? We beg him to choose out of mercy not judgment alone, out of love, not hate, out of his best understanding of humanity as informed by his Baptist faith, and not canceling out the good work of redemption that is unfolding in Kelly Gissendaner. May that same help, hope and peace that she embodies be more possible in Georgia, and in these United States, and in all of God’s creation.

At this posting, I don’t know what we will wake up to in the morning. I don’t know if Kelly will be alive or dead. I don’t know if Governor Deal will have more or less weighing on his conscience. I do think following this story has changed me, and I will carry some of the help and hope and peace that Kelly shares with me. I thank God for her life, and I hold out hope there will be many more years for her to live.