Monday, March 2, 2015

One Lesurques is Enough: Karla Faye Tucker, Kelly Gissendaner, and the Theology of Mercy

In 1998, the state of Texas had a decision to make.  Its practice of the death penalty was (and still is) as vaunted a tradition in the state as its style of barbeque or its love of football.  But before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was the case of a woman, Karla Faye Tucker, who, in addition to being the first woman executed by the state of Texas since the Civil War, presented a serious dilemma to the  proudly and loudly Christian culture within the state.

Because, you see, Karla Faye Tucker was a born again Christian.  After having brutally murdered Deborah Thornton with a pickaxe while under the influence of drugs, Tucker found herself on her knees in her jail cell, praying to God to forgive her.  She became a Christian and, in the words of everybody who knew her after that point, became a model prisoner.  She seemed to be, in every sense of the term, rehabilitated.

And so when her plea for mercy fell before the Texas Board, Tucker was not alone.  By this point in time, Christians ranging from Pope John Paul II to the eternal crank Pat Robertson had weighed in on her behalf, urging mercy to be exercised by the powers that be with control over her life and her death.  Even the brother of her Deborah Thornton, her muder victim, urged for mercy.  These appeals for mercy from the outside generally followed one of two lines of logic--one being that the death penalty is intrinsically sinful, no matter who is on the guillotine, and the other being, what is the point of killing someone who has wholly reformed themselves?

Now, full disclosure--I belong to the former camp.  As a Christian, I follow and worship a man who was executed unjustly by the state, even though He had hearings before two (three according to Luke's Gospel) of the different relevant authorities: the Israelite high priest Caiaphas, and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.  Both pronounced Him guilty (Pilate may have tried to wash his hands of guilt, but he was the most culpable of them all).  You could argue that by the standards of His day, Jesus Christ had received due process, yet to a person, Christians believe that Jesus was executed unjustly.

Ergo, due process is no protection against an unjust execution.  Which means that no earthly protection can exist an unjust execution, which means any execution may be unjust and that I am thus obligated to oppose them all.

The 20th century philosopher Albert Camus, in his work Reflections on the Guillotine, wrote this about an innocent man who was executed by the guillotine, a man named Lesurques: "When...the name of the guillotine is Lesurques, (it) does not mean that all those who are decapitated are Lesurques, but that one Lesurques is enough for the guillotine to be permanently dishonored."

One Lesurques is enough for the guillotine to be permanently dishonored.  I would expand the collection of Lesurques to include not only those factually innocent of the crimes of which they had been accused and convicted (150 people since 1973 have been freed from death row after having proved their innocence, we have no idea how many people were wrongfully convicted and executed before their innocence was proven), but those who are guilty but have, in spite of everything else wrong with our prison system today, managed to rehabilitate themselves into model citizens.

Texas ended up doing precisely that with Karla Faye Tucker because, in spite of the passionate appeals from Christian clergy of all stripes, then-Governor George W. Bush signed the warrant for her execution despite his own prominent (and public) Christian faith, and she expired on February 3, 1998.

Why this history lesson?  Because we are living through the exact same dilemma, only this time in Georgia, and instead of Karla Faye Tucker, the woman whose number is about to be called is Kelly Renee Gissendaner.  Her crime was likewise utterly heartless: she commissioned her lover to murder her husband, which she was convicted for the same year that Karla Faye Tucker died: in 1998.  And like Tucker, in prison Gissendaner began a right relationship with God as revealed through Jesus Christ, going so far as to even complete a theology program specifically designed for prisoners that is run by a consortium of Atlanta-area divinity schools.  Even after she completed the program, she continued studying theology, and one of her prison chaplains, noting that how much 'jailhouse religion' she has seen in her chaplaincy work, said that with Gissendaner, her faith was the genuine article.

So, once more, Christian clergy of all stripes are calling for mercy on Gissendaner's behalf, because why cut off the fruit of our corrections system, especially when sadly such fruit is far too rare a sight to behold?  Why even bother trying to rehabilitate or reform people into loving neighbors of faith and goodwill?  Are our hearts truly that hardened?  Are we as incapable of mercy as these women were when they were themselves murderers?  What does that say about our own desperate, crushing need for salvation, about our need to experience and understand a true theology of mercy?

One Lesurques is enough for the guillotine to be permanently dishonored.  Our machinery of death was already permanently dishonored when Karla Faye Tucker perished at its emotionless hands, and it is about to double down on that disgrace should Kelly Renee Gissendaner face the same fate only hours from now.  Whether you believe that all execution is sinful, or that the execution of a model citizen is sinful, you as a person whom the state claims to speak for have a duty to stand up and say that you will bear no such dishonor, that you will shoulder no such disgrace, that you are still capable of saying to those who claim to be men of power, "NOT IN MY NAME."

The execution of another Lesurques, even by another name, be it Karla Faye or Kelly Renee?  Not in my name.  Never in my name.

And never, dare I say it, in the name of a far earlier Lesurques, whose death disgraced the empire that had tried Him and crucified Him.

Never in the name of Jesus Christ.  And never in the name of the God Almighty who sent Him.

Not in my name,

You can sign the petition for mercy for Kelly Renee Gissendaner here.

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