Over the last few days, various petitions to commute the sentence of death by lethal injection Kelly Gissendaner to life without parole have come to me via social media and email. I am fully in support of this, as Gissendaner did not actually kill her husband, but supposedly convinced her boyfriend to do so. Not having access to the actual trial records, and knowing that the boyfriend took a plea deal, I have questions about what “convincing” him to kill Mr. Gissendaner means. (Did she actually direct Mr. Owen to kill her husband, or did she indicate that the only way she could be with Mr.Owen was if her husband were dead, because divorce was not forthcoming? There’s a difference, and it is not clear which it was, or where her part may have fallen between the two.) The boyfriend got a life without parole sentence, despite actually having physically caused Mr. Gissendaner’s demise; Ms. Gissendaner went to trial and was sentenced to death. It has been almost two decades that she has been imprisoned. This seems disproportionate, as her weapons were words not directed toward her husband; Mr. Owen’s were much more concrete, applied directly to his body.
I signed one of the petitions, and the execution has been delayed, although not because of petitions. Rather, with fewer states actually carrying out executions by lethal injections, there are some questions about the drugs used for this purpose, and this must be investigated further prior to going forward with the death sentence. Unfortunately, this is likely to be only a temporary delay, as all legal appeals for clemency have been denied, and no further recourse is available.
Since her imprisonment, Ms. Gissendaner has become, by all accounts, a “model” inmate. She has even completed a degree in theology, converted to Christianity, and become pen-pals with the noted theologian Jürgen Moltmann. All of that is commendable, and tugs at the heart when one considers that the State of Georgia still intends to execute her once the “proper” drugs can be secured and administered. (Why we are concerned about the safety and purity of a drug cocktail whose sole purpose is to kill, is another set of questions. The likelihood, I think, is that it is another delaying tactic.)
My social media feeds have been full of petitions, prayers, and declarations of solidarity with Ms. Gissendaner, mostly from Christian friends, and a good deal of it on grounds of the condemned woman’s conversion to their religion. It is good that Ms. Gissendaner has amended her life, gotten an education, is now a model inmate, and helpful to other incarcerated women as a result of her Christian belief. It is good that thoughtful Christians have consulted the teachings of their religions to come to an informed opinion that capital punishment is inconsistent with their practice (despite the command of Exodus 21:24 to take eye for eye, life for life). It is even perfectly fine to publicly proclaim that it is Christian doctrine which provides the motivation to oppose the death penalty.
But it is completely inappropriate to use Ms. Gissendaner’s conversion as justification for the commutation of her sentence. And it is bad public theology to do so.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first is simply that Ms. Gissendaner’s sentence should never have been death by lethal injection. That has nothing to do with her religious beliefs, or her amendment of life within prison walls. Capital punishment was always a disproportionate response. Certainly, encouraging another person to kill your husband (even if you will somehow benefit from his death) is a very serious crime, and requires a serious but proportional response. The disproportionate sentence is certainly an issue which could be discussed through the methods of public theology
My best guess is that there is a certain amount of gender bias going on here. It is somehow unnatural for a woman to do such a thing, and the horror generated by the fact that a woman (a mother, no less), prompted the extreme response of a death sentence. That is an issue which must be addressed, and could be done by using the publicly accessible record of Christian theology.
But her Christian conversion is theologically and legally immaterial to whether her sentence should be commuted (and commutation is what is sought, not pardon). And Christian people, especially Christian citizens of the United States, should not be making Ms. Gissendaner’s religious convictions, a point in objecting to her execution. Because to do so creates an improper privilege of Christian belief over adherents of other spiritual traditions, or those who claim no spiritual affiliation at all. The implication is that if conversion to Christianity makes the prisoner worthy of a lesser sentence, then refusal or failure to convert means that the prisoner is deserving of whatever in/justice the secular system has imposed. And it absolves Christians of the responsibility to protest injustice on behalf of all–they are only obligated to protect those who can in some way be identified as their own.
We can claim her as a child of God who should not be executed. We can point to her amendment of life, and the value she brings to others–even if that value is largely limited to the confines of her prison. But we cannot make her self-understanding as a Christian an added-value to that when we plead for her life. We are obligated to oppose capital punishment on behalf of all persons, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof, especially when the sentence is disproportionate to the crime. We are to applaud and uphold all amendment of life, and all opportunities an inmate takes toward self-improvement–not just those with a Christian theological basis, even if they end up with a famous theologian as a correspondent. She could have come to a similar improvement through the study of art, literature, history, or psychology. We must not elevate the study of Christian theology above learning in other humane disciplines.
Should the State of Georgia execute Kelly Gissendaner? I do not believe so. But her degree in theology, her Christian conversion, and her correspondence with Professor Moltmann, are irrelevant to my opinion. I consider myself primarily a public theologian. The key insight of public theology, simply put, is that Christianity, if it is good at all, has to be good for everyone–not just Christians. And from a public theology standpoint, where the good sought is not for the individual Christian, or the privilege of the Christian religion and its institution, but the benefit of the wider society–especially the secular society–Ms. Gissendaner’s beliefs do not matter at all.