The Death Penalty: A Moral Question or a Merit Question?

As you may know, late Monday evening something of a miracle happened…for a second time. Kelly Gissendaner, a death row inmate in Georgia, was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection. It had been scheduled for the previous week, which was delayed due to weather. And on Monday, after rounds of appeals, her execution was delayed again due to the injection chemicals being cloudy. (Remember, there have been recent issues with this.)  In the days leading up to her proposed execution date, and in the days since, there has been a lot of discussion based around merit and grace. Much of it has been heated, or at least impassioned…in a negative kind of way. I think it may be helpful to take a step back and clarify that questions of both morality and merit have a place, but we tend to talk past each other when we’re presuming different ones as our foundation.

To me, here’s the basic question: Do you believe anyone deserves to be granted clemency from a death penalty sentence? Some people answer no. Some people believe under no circumstances should anyone be granted pardon. They don’t have to ask any more questions, because it’s a closed case.

For the rest of us, if we answer yes, then we have to ask a follow up question: How should clemency be decided? Is it an issue of merit, because the inmate has shown signs of remorse and reform? S/he has proven worth of living? If yes, then this is a merit issue for you. You think the justice system is for reform, and if that reform happens, then another chance should be given. (I do, too.)

For some of us, yes, merit should be acknowledged, but it’s also a moral question: Does the State have the right to execute people? Is this a moral thing to do? Is this a proper use of power? If you do not believe the State should have the right to kill a person, then merit is a secondary issue, and also a non-issue.

For me, parole is an issue of merit. If an inmate shows remorse and reform, it makes sense to me to grant them a reward for good behavior by lessening their sentence. But for me, the death penalty is not an issue of merit. It’s an issue of morality. I do not believe the State should have the right to take the life of people, whether guilty or not. I believe this because I confess that God is the Giver of Life, and even the Resurrector of Life, and if we are to follow God, we are to be about life, and not death. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.” It’s up to God to deal with the guilty. So, whatever else the Kingdom of God is, I don’t think the Kingdom of God is us killing people, whoever they are.

So, I understand that Kelly Gissendaner plotted to kill someone, and helped destroy the evidence. I understand that she made any number of really terribly immoral decisions. Even if she had not repented in the slightest, nor changed, nor felt remorse, I would still seek to defend her life. This is not a matter of merit–whether Kelly, or any other death row inmate, deserves to live. It’s a declaration of God’s sovereignty over human life.

Sure, it also doesn’t make rational sense to me to think that we are preventing violence by exacting violence. I just do not believe in the myth of redemptive violence. Just like spanking a child for hitting his sister is nonsensical, or yelling at someone to stop yelling, or bombing someone to stop them bombing…I do not believe we should kill people to teach them that it’s wrong to kill people (or to deter other people from killing people). None of this creates peace. It creates more violence. I realize that either way we’re vulnerable to something…I’d just rather be vulnerable while practicing peace.

Peace is a terrifyingly difficult thing to practice. It requires its own kind of force, and it’s not the kind of force we’re used to, or most comfortable with. It requires the kind of force that transforms hatred into something else.

I was watching Harry Potter 5 with my kids during a recent snow day, and there’s that scene where Dumbledore and Voldemort are battling it out in the Ministry of Magic. Voldemort smashes all this glass in the lobby, and he swirls his wand to gather up all the shards of glass and then hurls them at Dumbledore and Harry. Dumbledore raises his wand, throws up a shield, and when the glass passes through, it becomes water droplets. That is peacemaking writ large. It is the power to transform something intended for harm into something else entirely. It takes a stronger wizard. It takes creativity and quickness of mind and a forcefulness of will.

Dumbledore_shieldSo. To be clear, certainly Kelly Gissendaner’s friendship with Moltmann is a compelling story of redemption and grace, and I can get teary-eyed pondering it. But that’s because I believe the death penalty is wrong, and life is right, and it’s a story of life that’s literally happening on death row. I’ll keep advocating for her life. I think she’s being made new. But even if she wasn’t, I claim that she is a child of God, and her life is precious.



  1. Related: A friend of mine shared an article, in which the writer (Erin Wathen) says,

    “Don’t get me wrong, I signed the petition. I, like many others, am glad that her execution is, for now at least, postponed (on a technicality, for the second time). But I signed the petition because I am against the death penalty, in general. I am against the state having the power to kill anyone—be they the most hardened, unapologetic criminal; or the one who found Jesus on death row. To use her religious experience as the protection against state-sanctioned murder implies that all those other convicted criminals DO, in fact, deserve to die–because they have not articulated their reform within the parameters of the Christian narrative.”

    I thought that was perfect.

  2. Agreed, April. Thanks for sharing that.

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