A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, March 02, 2015

Capital Punishment and Jailhouse Religion

There has been a flurry of activity on social media over the pending execution in Georgia of forty-six year old, Kelly Renee Gissendaner. She is scheduled to die by lethal injection tonight. Many are lobbying for her death sentence to be commuted to life in prison because of coming to Christianity and the positive influence she has had on her fellow inmates in prison. She even completed a theology program through Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. "Susan Bishop, a chaplain who first met Ms. Gissendaner in 1998, wrote, 'I have seen much ‘jailhouse religion,’ but, with Ms. Gissendaner, 'It is not a superficial religious experience.'"

I won't go into the details of Gissendaner's amazing story. You can read it here. However, I do have a question for my fellow Christians who support the death penalty, but who also support the commuting of Gissendaner's death sentence. Here is the question: "Would you support commuting her death sentence if the radical change in her life was due to her conversion, not to Christianity, but to Islam?"

I want to be clear. I oppose capital punishment. I would be very happy if Gissendaner's death sentence was commuted (though, I sadly doubt that will happen). I would be even happier if every death sentence in the country were commuted today. I am just wondering how a Christian who favors capital punishment, except in this case, justifies the inconsistency?

I still remember the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who also had a conversion experience inside prison. Many Christian leaders who supported the death penalty spoke out against her execution, including televangelist, Pat Robertson. The governor of Texas at the time (1998), George W. Bush refused to commute her sentence. As I watched the news on her case, I remember asking myself how Christians could support the death penalty, but oppose it for someone who had a "come to Jesus" moment in prison.

I'm all for conversion. As a Christian and a Wesleyan, I believe in the necessity of justifying grace, which is required for sanctifying grace to begin its work in the life of the believer. I believe the Holy Spirit can change lives dramatically. I have seen the Spirit at work. But I question the logic of why the Christian converted should get a free ticket off the execution gurney, while others should not.

Of course, the way to fix this is simply not to legally execute anyone, but I still have to wonder if Kelly Renee Gissendaner would be getting the same support from some if her conversion experience and change of life were the result of a religion other than Christianity.

'Tis a puzzlement.


Dennis Sanders said...

So, a few years ago, I wrote about two death penalty cases and about how and if death penalty opponents should stand up for killer that don't become model citizens. Here is the link: https://questorpastor.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/death-penalty-pr/

I think your question is valid, but I still remember this one and think there is a point to be made here as well.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for the link. I agree-- the hard cases should make us ponder this issue more deeply. Even though I oppose the death penalty, I feel that all too often activists against the death penalty do not do enough to acknowledge the pain and anger of the victims and address that head on as well.

bthomas said...

Mrs. Gissendaner is to be commended for all that she has accomplished subsequent to her being convicted for the murder of her husband. But that is irrelevant to and has no bearing on her execution for that murder. She did not act impulsively but with calculation and premeditation. She initiated, planned and participated in the murder of her husband. She has been rightly convicted of first degree murder. She deserves the death penalty for that crime. The only wrong in this matter is that her boyfriend will get away with murder as he will only do a little bit of time in prison. Once eligible for parole, he'll likely be set free on parole to get on with his life. Sadly Douglas Gissendaner will never have that opportunity.

Unknown said...

It is a puzzlement, and I continue to struggle with capital punishment.

If our criminal justice system was more justice and less criminal, if violent criminals got life in prison with hard labor to pay restitution and no chance of parole, I would be easily and happily against capital punishment. Because such is not the case, I am hesitant.

My hesitancy is due to the ease with which violent criminals are able to return to the streets to rape, molest, assault and murder again. So many of these crimes are committed by repeat offenders. For me it becomes a matter of weighing the lives of criminals against the lives of their potential future victims and their families.

However, I am also for conversion, and justification and sanctification. The death penalty takes away that opportunity permanently. It is also rages against my convictions as someone who is pro-life.

I used to be strongly anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment, but now that seems inconsistent to me.

But what really gets me is how people can be anti-capital punishment and pro-abortion. I just can't reconcile being the execution of violent criminals while also being in favor of the murder of innocent, helpless unborn children.

Having said that, I am hesitantly against capital punishment. But we must work for reforms in the criminal justice system that will keep violent criminals incarcerated and off the streets.

Yes, even if they become Christians. There is plenty they can do for God and neighbor in prison.