Is All Life Really Sacred?

Timothy Tutt | OnFaith Voices By on

The state of Georgia is prepared to execute Kelly Renee Gissendaner by the end of the day today. Her story is grotesque and grace-filled.

Seventeen years ago, Ms. Gissendaner conspired with her lover to kill her husband. The lover, who evidently carried out the act, was sentenced to life in prison. Ms. Gissendaner was sentenced to death. During her time in prison, Ms. Gissendaner has undergone a remarkable transformation. She has accepted full responsibility for her actions, earned a degree in theology, and become a powerful voice for redemption. To be honest, her story makes me weepy.

Over the past few days, a growing movement of support has called for a stay of Ms. Gissendaner’s execution. Hundreds of clergy from across the country signed a petition asking for Ms. Gissendaner’s life to be spared.

Would Christian clergy be as willing to support a death prisoner whose path to redemption led her to Islam or Wicca?

Mother Nature seemed to concur when the initial date of her execution was postponed due to weather. As the second date (today) has approached, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere are all clamoring for the governor of Georgia to halt the killing. My churchy-type friends are churning out hashtags and retweets urging mercy.

I hope the governor of Georgia does stop the execution.

But here’s what I have noticed. The voices calling for this stay of execution are largely white voices. Kelly Gissendaner is a white woman.

Among the signers of the clergy petition to stop the execution are several friends of mine — very good people. Many of whom want to overturn the entire, vicious eye-for-an-eye cycle that is the death penalty in America.

But I wonder about this case. Did Kelly Gissendaner capture our attention because she is white? Did she capture our attention because she is a woman? Yes, her story of transformation impresses me. As I said, it moves me to tears.

But surely there have been stories of transformation of black death row prisoners. Have any male death row inmates become teachers and voices for rehabilitation? Would Christian clergy be as willing to stand in support of a death prisoner whose path to redemption led her to Islam or Wicca?

Maybe Kelly Gissendaner’s story is another glimpse into the racial blinders that narrow our vision.

Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I’ve missed those stories. Maybe I don’t have enough diverse social media contacts. Or maybe Kelly Gissendaner’s story is another glimpse into the racial blinders that narrow our vision. Maybe we see someone who looks like us and we want to help that person more than we want to help someone who doesn’t look like us.

I am opposed to the death penalty. Period. Full stop. I do not think any government should execute any person. Injecting a woman with poison in Georgia is as abhorrent to me as beheading a woman in Saudi Arabia. I believe the redemption that Kelly Gissendaner found is possible for anyone.

But I have questions of concern for my white clergy friends who are asking to save Kelly Gissendaner’s life. Are you as willing to save the life of a black crack addict who raped a person? Are you as willing to stand up for the Muslim convict or the Wiccan convert? What about the unrepentant killer? Does he deserve our compassion also?

The initial petition to spare Kelly Gissendaner’s life stated, “All of life is sacred.” Do we believe that?

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.
  • tanyam

    Speaking only for myself, YES, I have and will work for the abolition of the death penalty, and for clemency for each and every person sentenced to the death penalty. I suspect many of us are on the listserves of People of Faith Against the Death penalty, and send our cards and letters each and every time a death is imminent. We’ve been preaching about the subject and producing denominational statements opposing the death penalty — for decades.
    I don’t know that every clergy person has or would do the same for others as they have for Kelly, but I believe their numbers are greater than you think. But not every death row inmate makes the NYTimes, as Kelly’s case did, and many other cases do not capture the media’s attention because the narrative is different. In Kelly’s case, the narrative is, “can the state admit that a person can change?” In other cases, the narrative has to do with an inmate’s IQ, or an inmate’s possible innocence, or — the story we sadly know all too well — inept counsel. I’m sorry to say this, but Kelly’s case may simply be a matter of a “shiny new thing” which grabs media attention. I am sorry to say it, but we’ve had plenty of page 1 stories about death row inmates who may possibly be innocent, and plenty of page 1 stories about those with low IQ’s, or sleeping attorneys. This is a new story. And clergy — in and outside of Georgia, have believed that perhaps their statements on this story might carry more weight. That while we are merely more “leftish, bleeding heart-types” who weigh in on other cases, this one we can say we know something about. We read the same theologians, we share the same credentials — as Kelly.
    But please don’t read our statements as something less than full support for the FULL end of state executions. We are weighing in as clergy this time, because the narrative suggests it might matter, and moreover, we have our own people to persuade, for whom the story of Kelly makes a particular kind of case. People can change, and death row inmates’ resemblance to you and people you know — is greater than you can imagine.

  • Diane Rheos

    Excellent questions. I have to admit that I am sure it matters that she is white, a woman, and Christian. How sad, and true. I too am so touched by her story and wish we no longer considered any violence against anyone a deterrent to them or others.Clearly it does not work. I think it’s important to make the point that you are doing here, Thanks for doing so.

  • bakabomb

    I signed those clemency petitions not knowing Ms. Gissendaner’s race, and I’d have signed anyway, irrespective of that detail. Her execution was stayed because of the most prosaic of reasons — the phenobarbital solution provided by a compounding pharmacy was cloudy when it should have been clear. This raises questions of the appropriateness of using compounding pharmacies as an end run around the fact that many drug manufacturers are now refusing to supply drugs to be used for death cocktails. In any event, to the underlying question “Is all life sacred?”, I answer with an unequivocal “Yes!” Yes, even if she hadn’t experienced a religious transformation — even had she not begun those good works in prison — she doesn’t deserve to be slain by the State.

  • Sam

    The whiteness and Christianness of Kelly makes this case palatable for a large number of Americans and thus is receiving an nonequivalent amount of attention. If she was not white then the likely impact of this would be lessened and it wouldn’t even brought up if she was wiccan. If she had found her way to Islam than I would expect her to be even treated more contemptuously and she would be paraded about as further evidence of what Islam “really is”.

    One day it won’t matter and we will actually treat all humans as though they are human. Along the way we will end the death penalty and totally reform our justice system too.