In the early 1990s, Kelly Gissendaner was convicted of the murder of her husband Doug Gissendaner and sentenced to the death penalty, despite the fact that Kelly did not commit the murder herself. Kelly personally admitted on many occasions her guilt for conspiring in the murder of Doug and her deep regret for how she played a hand in his death. Kelly never claimed to be innocent, but her sentence has always seemed greatly disproportionate to the sentence given to the man who actually killed Doug Gissendaner. He is up for parole in 7 years. Kelly was executed by the state on September 30, 2015, despite pleas from those who knew her about her changed heart, her love for people, and her ability to minister to the women in the prison around her.
My involvement in the case of Kelly Gissendaner began, essentially, by accident. I latched onto what was happening on social media and people began to look to me for answers about the activism that was occurring at Candler. In retrospect, I could have refused this role. I could have claimed that I had no idea what was going on, that I was not in charge, and pointed people to other authorities. But I didn’t. I took it upon myself to answer these questions, to be a voice in a place where one was needed, and to answer my call to justice work.
I am often careful in talking about justice work, because I realize we are not all called to the same things. Not everyone is called to hang banners at 4:00 a.m. or protest in the streets. Some of us are called to quiet prayer. Some of us are called to organize logistics behind the scenes. Some of us are called to teach others. It feels a little bit like beating a dead horse to say that all of these gifts and skills are important (even though they most certainly are), so instead I’ll say this: no matter what your gifts are, you are called to justice work. We are all called to help the oppressed, house the stranger, and heal wounds. We are all called to this, not because I say so but because scripture tells us we are.
Over and over, the law codes of the Old Testament tell the people of Israel to care for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner – the most helpless and outcast members of the Ancient Near Eastern society. The prophets chastise Israel for their ignorance of these law codes. The prophets claim that the exile they are experiencing is because the Israelites failed to do the justice work that God asked them to do. The Psalms characterize the wicked and the evil ones as those who do not do justice but impose violence and oppression on the people. It goes without saying that the teachings of Christ show us how to bring justice, offering grace and acceptance to all those despised by the world.
The question, then, is what does this look like for you? This question can be overwhelming. I’m often overwhelmed by all of the brokenness around us. Economic inequality, racial injustice, oppression of immigrants and refugees, abuse of women, destruction of creation - these types of lists are nearly unbearable. Similarly, to reduce the brokenness of the world to merely a list of problems greatly minimizes these issues. The truth is that you cannot fix everything. I cannot fix everything. But we can, together, try to fix little pieces of some things. When we, as the church, through prayer and faithfulness, allow ourselves to tap into our passions, sometimes seemingly by accident, we become God’s agents.
It’s true that we can’t change the world. But the good news is that God can. This might seem cliche, like something off of a terrible bumper sticker. And I don’t say it to mean that God works magic to make everything in the world happy and shiny. I do mean, though, that God redeems our brokenness. God offers us resurrection through Christ. And not just us, but the world. All of these systemic issues that overwhelm us can begin to be healed by our own small actions and by God’s great actions through us.
Where is your voice needed? What are your gifts? For whom does your heart break?
Candler School of Theology intern
Tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the Ward Hall, Brenna will be speaking in more depth on her experiences of advocating for the life of Kelly Gissendaner. Explore with her the Biblical and theological issues of capital punishment, our legal systems, and our faith.