Our Story to Tell: Martyrology and #KellyOnMyMind

Through an accident of scheduling, I have spent my day today caught between martyrologies both ancient and modern. For class, I’ve been reading accounts of and commentaries on ancient Christian martyrdom stories. During study-breaks, I’ve been keeping up with the disheartening news surrounding Georgia death-row inmate and inheritor of the Kingdom of God, Kelly Gissendaner (#kellyonmymind).

On the one hand, such bodies of literature—ancient stories of Christian martyrs and the news about Kelly’s denial of clemency—are very distinct. The ancient Christians, in their own stories, were killed by the state because they were Christian. Tonight, barring a miracle or “last minute eruption of common sense,” Kelly will be killed in spite of her Christian faith and rehabilitation. (A banal aside: capital punishment puts the lie to justice). Although the historical record is murky, it appears that early Christians in particular locales and at specific times ran afoul of Roman authority for their religious identification. Kelly, on the other hand, is sentenced to die because of a crime she committed, an act she is wholly repentant of. In this way, the two kinds of stories are distinct: the early Christians were not criminals (the rulers, on the other hand, were frequently depicted as “lawless”), and Kelly is not, in the strictest sense, a martyr for the faith.

But Kelly’s story does share an important—crucial—affinity with those stories of the early Christian martyrs. Kelly’s and the early martyrs’ stories are contested narratives, representative of two versions of the same events. Told by Christians as acts of resistance to the historiography and jurisprudence of the state, the early martyrologies represent Christian efforts to claim and tell the story rightly.

The state tells the story quite differently: unwilling to make sacrifices to or name Caesar as lord, Polycarp represents to state power a square peg for a round hole. He cannot fit within the Roman economy of religion and politics; for this reason, and perhaps to appease a bloodthirsty crowd, he must be killed (cf. Martyrdom of Polycarp 8.2-3). Threats must be put down; peace and security must be maintained on land and sea. The people must have their blood.

The state of Georgia, on whose behalf Kelly Gissendaner may be murdered tonight, tells Kelly’s story differently from the way Christians the world over (including Pope Francis) have taken to narrating it. According to Georgia, Kelly owes a debt to the state that can only be repaid with her life. She committed a grave crime; rehabilitation is no payment—only death is acceptable in this economy. Execution is her just desserts; she had it coming.

Yet Christians contest the narrative. We must resist. Christians, like those who preserved the stories of the early martyrs, tell the story differently. We must tell it truthfully, with reference to the Kingdom of God as the true reality, the terra firma, upon which our epistemology and moral reasoning rest. Kelly is guilty, we admit; dead in her trespasses. But, with Scriptures in hand, we must continue: Kelly is already redeemed. She has been reconciled to God and humanity. She is our sister, beloved of God, and a minister of the gospelShe is a child of God, saved by grace through faithfulness.

By the moral calculus of the state and a decreasing percentage of its population, our version of the story is absurd. Kelly has it coming. This is her just desserts, and we are laughed out of court.

But still we tell her story differently. Resolutely, we tell the truth: Kelly is a sister. She is redeemed. She will live again. Her memory, beloved by the God of Jesus, will be preserved long after the state ceases to be.

We will tell her story differently. We will remember her differently. In the face of competing narratives, we will resolutely tell her story according to the truth of the grace of God, not the frail and fraught laws of the state of Georgia. We will stand with Paul and David, two redeemed murderers, and commemorate Kelly’s life, and death, as a witness to the love, peace, and Kingdom of a merciful God.  

We must tell this story, even as it falls on deaf ears in the courts of public opinion and among our brothers and sisters who can’t yet see Kelly’s story truthfully. To tell it is to tell Kelly’s story, and our own stories, within the grand narrative of grace displayed most fully through the death and resurrection of our crucified Lord.

This is our story to tell; we will tell it in remembrance of her.

Who is this who even forgives sins?: Kelly Gissendaner and the Law of Grace

Christians, like the Jews and Israelites before them, have ever been in an uncomfortable place in the world. We are an exilic people whose commonwealth is in heaven (Phil 3:20), who await a Kingdom not of this world (John 18:36), and whose Lord and Savior was executed by the state (Matt 27:24ff; Mark 15:6ff; Luke 23:13ff; John 19:1ff). Although Christians have enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) a privileged place in American society, we are—or, better, should be—like outsiders in the civic square that is American politics and jurisprudence. We must be strange; we must stand out. Whereas policy in the kingdoms of men follows the logic of retribution, Christians must be a people of grace.

How deeply and darkly ironic it is, then, that so many Christians join in stride with the clamoring crowds on the way to Golgotha, crying out for Barabbas and the death of the one whom God has already vindicated.

The state of Georgia has once again set a date for our Christian sister, Kelly Gissendaner, to die. If Christians remain silent, and if the powers that be remain cold-hearted, her execution will take place on September 29, 2015.

In one regard, Kelly’s story is totally unremarkable: she is set to receive a barbaric, cost-ineffective, and inconsistently-applied punishment that many before and, presumably, many after her will suffer.

But in another regard, Kelly’s story is remarkable and, for Christians, ought at least to give us a moment’s pause: while in prison, Kelly became a Christian, earned a seminary degree, and continues to minister to her fellow inmates. According to the Christian theological rubric, she has already been forgiven by the only one who can forgive sins. There is now no condemnation for her, for Kelly Gissendaner is in Christ.

Some will no doubt say that I am making here a category mistake by expecting Caesar and the state to follow the Lord and Law of Grace. Others will say that, while Kelly may be forgiven by God and can therefore expect to partake of eternal life, she still owes a debt to the state and that the state has the right to speed her entry into that life everlasting as recompense for her crime.

To those I ask: If God is real and the Gospel true, what is left for the state? If God is the real, if the Kingdom of Heaven is the true polis, how can the state and its policies trump the grace that the son of God died to extend? Christ is before and above all things, including the state, and he has already reconciled all things:

Colossians 1:15-20
[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, has already reconciled Kelly to himself and made peace with her through the blood of his cross. Christians, won’t you live into that truth and bear its witness to the state? Won’t you be a people of grace?

I make no bones to anyone about the fact that I am a Christian and that I think part of the Christian identity is to routinely and consistently choose life over death, in all circumstances, in the name of faithfulness to Christ and his Kingdom. Thus it should surprise no one that I am categorically opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I think you ought to be, too.

But this is a more modest claim, a more limited request: if you are a Christian, if you seek first the Kingdom of God, if you believe in the grace extended us all while we were still sinners, please stand for clemency for your sister.