A sad moment

Kelly Gissendaner’s clemency appeal has been denied. Her execution is scheduled to go forward this evening at 7 pm EDT.  This, despite myriad petitions, and appeals from the highest ranking religious official in the world (who also happens to be a head of state).

Some people think because I have said Ms. Gissendaner’s conversion to Christianity is improper grounds for the commutation of her sentence to life without parole, I must be in favor of the death penalty.  Clearly, if you have taken the time to consider my words carefully, you will understand that is not the case. I am against capital punishment, and I am against it on the grounds of my (admittedly, somewhat lax at the moment) Christian beliefs.  But I also know, as a US citizen, Ms. Gissendaner’s conversion is inadmissable as a mitigating circumstance.  Her amendment of life, yes.  Her having become a model prisoner, yes.  But her newfound faith in Jesus Christ, no.  That would privilege Christian faith above any other cause for amendment of life and good behavior.  It means a atheist in the same circumstances would be disadvantaged.  And in a country whose founding principles include an abhorrence of privilege for one religious tradition above others or above the distinct rejection of religious faith.

As a Christian, I can be glad for Ms. Gissendaner’s conversion.  From Christian principles, I can oppose capital punishment.  But as a Christian, I have to oppose capital punishment for everyone, not just for other Christians.

I can even oppose capital punishment for different reasons in different cases.  In Ms. Gissendaner’s case, I oppose it largely because it is disproportionate to her actual crime:  she solicited the murder of her husband, but did not actually inflict the fatal injuries.  (The man who did so will be eligible for parole in 8 years.)  In the case of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, I opposed it because it was not only disproportionate to the crime (although in the opposite direction), but because execution had the potential to turn McVeigh into a martyr.  McVeigh espoused a lousy cause.  The world is not improved by the government making martyrs for lousy causes.

There is always a reason to do something besides execute someone.  Let them live their life out, under heavy guard, as well as they can.  The appeals have cost the state a great deal of money; there is no economy in death.  Let them be a patsy rather than a martyr.  That’s not clemency.  That’s not soft on crime, because capital punishment is not a deterrent to the crimes for which it can legally be imposed.

I am grieved by this decision to deny clemency.  I am puzzled by the bloodthirstiness of the so-called “civilization” implied by the refusal.  And I am outraged by a state which has no obligation–in fact or feeling–to explain why it has chosen to do so.

Christians believe life is sacred.  We differ significantly on what that means–both “life” and “sacred” are contested terms.  But taking a life, especially after many years of incarceration, has no real place in a religion which speaks powerfully of compassion, mercy, repentance.  Or even justice.

Nonetheless, if Christianity is a force for good, it is a force for good for everybody.  Not just for Christians.  Not just for people like us.

And so, I believe it is wrong to go forward with Ms. Gissendaner’s execution.  But not because she’s a Christian.  Because it’s just wrong.


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