At 12:21am on Wednesday, September 30, the state of Georgia put Kelly Gissandaner to death via lethal injection. It was the third time that Gissandaner’s execution had been scheduled, the others having been delayed. Like many others, I’d hoped for a clemency decision by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles. When that failed, I prayed for a last-minute intervention by Governor Nathan Deal. Neither happened.
State execution by any means is fundamentally incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When it comes to issues of divine retribution, justice, and forgiveness, many Christians are incredibly egocentric. When we aggrieve others, we lean on texts such as Romans 3:23: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We even get extrabiblical: “God knows my heart.” But when it comes to the sins of others, especially those sins that we cannot imagine ourselves committing, suddenly God’s forgiveness and mercy has limits. It becomes a purely eschatological reality. But God’s forgiveness is not just about us and the people we love. God’s gift of life is not restricted to the innocent, to unborn babies. What does it cost us to care for the lives of those who are like us, those who are innocent? As Jesus teaches us, even sinners can do that (Luke 6:32-36).
The Gospel calls us to extraordinary –indeed, seemingly impossible– grace toward sinners like Kelly. I admit, it would be comforting to believe that the folks who hurt me will get their “eye for an eye” comeuppance. But Jesus turns that law upon its head:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:3-11 NIV).
Last night, the state of Georgia stoned a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery, a woman who had conspired with her lover to kill her husband. There is no doubt that she had done wickedness. There is also no doubt that, at some point during her 17 years in prison, she heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Those who encountered her in prison provide many testimonies of her obedience to that voice and her impact upon their lives.
Three times the people of Georgia were given a chance to examine ourselves and put down our stones. May God have mercy upon us for our disobedience.