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 gospel. She is a child of God, saved by grace through faithfulness.
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.