Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Kelly, Still On My Mind

Dear Kelly,

I know you were penpals with a number of people during your incarceration, including Jurgen Moltmann, so perhaps you can still answer another letter, albeit an open one, since you no longer possess any earthly address.

It has been nearly three weeks now since you were executed, brought out of this life while singing Amazing Grace, and I still find myself trembling and my voice quaking when mentioning you.  I find others bordering on tears when reflecting on your story.  And I find a nation, a world, we live in, still struggling with its own barbarism, its own brutality, in such a manner that we ourselves still struggle for the redemption that you sought and, ultimately, I pray, have now found.

That word--redemption--and words like it, words like "rehabilitation" or "restoration" mean little to us in truth.  We say that they do, that the aim of our penal system is to rehabilitate, redeem, and restore broken people to some measure of wholeness, but we still materially profit off of their imprisonment and enslavement.  We still believe in punishment, and perhaps rightly so, but our zeal for it has clouded our ability to see the fruits of what the Spirit can sometimes wrought in a wretch's life.

I have to think that is why you went out of this world singing Amazing Grace, because it was indeed God's grace, freely offered from the divine to each of us, including you.  And in truth, that grace offends us deeply.  If it didn't, you would likely still be very much among the living, because we could actually accept the possibility that God's grace had reached you in a particular and eternal way and redeemed you forever for the better.

Instead, you have joined your victim among the dead and I am left facing the angel at the empty tomb of Christ, who implores to me why I look for the living among the dead.  I so dare to look for the living among the dead because of you, Kelly.  Because you, now dead, had found new life.

You aren't alone in this.  We say that we love a born-again story, a tale of a sinner so great and so in need of God who then recognizes their own frailties and failures and surrenders them over to God.  But then we kill that sinner.  We did not want to think that you could have possibly received such a divine pardon and lived out a new life in Christ accordingly.  Because of that, we killed you.

I'm using "we" a lot here, even though it is just me writing to you, because just as you were demanded to take moral responsibility for the life you took, I have come to believe that we as Americans and as citizens have to take the moral responsibility for the lives we take.  I am responsible for your death, Kelly, even as I publicly campaign against capital punishment, and I am so very, very sorry that you had to die.

You may be gone from this world, but you are hardly forgotten in it.  Your name comes up in conversation and I think not just about you but about the other souls we have deprived ourselves of long after their "rehabilitation," people like Stanley Tookie Williams and Karla Faye Tucker.  Your name has joined theirs in a long testimony to the heartlessness of God's allegedly favored nation.

If that piece of information serves as cold comfort to you, know that it does for me as well.  Insanity is repeating the same action expecting a different result; we put to death killers who have visibly and demonstrably repented, and the result really is, and ought to be, as we expect.  We are no closer to putting down the sword.  We are no closer to turning the other cheek, to praying for our enemies, or to blessing the person killed alongside us, telling them that they will be with us in Paradise.

That's probably the biggest thing I don't get about that whole heart-rendering phenomenon, though, from Karla Faye to you: we are so quick and eager to read that story of the repentant criminal from Luke's account of the Crucifixion, but the minute weare  presented with a similarly repentant criminal, we do not bless them as Jesus did, we have her killed.

On other days, this might be cause for unbelief in me.  Not in God, for my belief and faith in the God who guided and made us both remains intact.  But not in humanity either, because in truth, my belief in humanity had already begun to erode a long time ago.  It gets revitalized at times, to be sure--a particularly profound story of goodness like yours did in fact achieve that in me once upon a time, but your story's ending was deleterious to say the least on that effect.  No, in full honesty, my unbelief in humanity's systems for hurt and pain is what reigns in my heart of hearts.

I need help in my unbelief.  I need help because I still long to believe.  In a way, I feel like I have to believe, that without this belief in my fellow God-children, this life would lose so much of the meaning that I--and billions of other believers--hold to be innately sacred.

Placed face-to-face with the sacredness of Jesus in Mark 9, a desperate father of a stricken boy cried out to Him, "Help me in my unbelief!"  It is a cry that I too have found myself uttering, not only to God or to God revealed through Jesus Christ, but to other people who are connected to that God, to people like you.

Help me in my unbelief, Kelly.  For you are still, and likely will forever be, on my mind.

Your brother in Christ,

Kelly Gissendaner was a woman on death row in the state of Georgia for conspiring with her lover to murder her husband.  While incarcerated, she had a profound experience that resulted in her conversion to Christianity and her ministry to both inmates and released inmates, especially a group that came to call themselves the Struggle Sisters, of whom my friend the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt is pastor.  Many of the Sisters spoke of how Kelly literally saved their lives by talking them out of suicide attempts and recidivism.  How having a penal system so heartless and soulless that it puts to death one who has herself saved lives and souls after having her own soul saved benefits them, or you, or me, is impossible to understand.

Longview, Washington
October 20, 2015

Image courtesy of Twitter


  1. Eric, thank you for opening your heart and soul and inviting me in to your feelings about the life taken from Kelly; and the deeper connectedness we each have to one another. Thank you.

  2. Eric, thank you for opening your heart and soul and inviting me in to your feelings about the life taken from Kelly; and the deeper connectedness we each have to one another. Thank you.