It might be time to remind ourselves of the definitions of “grace” and “mercy.”
On Tuesday, September 29th the state of Georgia will execute Kelly Gissendaner for a crime she committed in 1997: conspiring with her (then) lover to kill her husband. There’s no doubt that she deserves to pay for her actions, but there’s been some public debate in recent months as to what her “payment” should be. Obviously, the state of Georgia’s legal system has decided that Kelly needs to pay with her life, but many pastors, theology students, and other “concerned citizens” have advocated for her sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment instead.
So what’s going on? Why would anyone stand up on behalf of a convicted murderer? For many, it comes down to what’s transpired during Kelly’s time in prison. As many inmates seem to do, Kelly’s “found Jesus,” but evidently her “change of heart” has resulted in a genuine life-changing and life-giving transformation. In short, Kelly has become an inspiration and catalyst for other inmates to find hope and seek new life in Christ as well.
Kelly’s story is a wonderful testimony to Jesus’ ability to affect dramatic transformations, but does that transformation and the good that’s come from it warrant her receiving a pardon from the death sentence? For the courts, lawyers, judges, and jury members who’ve decided Kelly’s fate, the answer seems to be straightforward: no, she still needs to be put to death. But for us as followers of Christ- people who claim to have experienced God’s life-changing grace, mercy, and love firsthand- the answer isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) so easy. While we may not have committed murder, we have committed a variety of sins- crimes against God- for which God has forgiven us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. As people who’ve tasted the joy of forgiveness and new life, how should we feel about literally taking the life of someone who’s claimed to have tasted the same thing?
Speaking for myself, I find it hard to cry out for a woman to “get what she deserves” when I know that God has pardoned me from getting what I deserve many times. That is, after all, the very definition of mercy- not getting what we deserve. Of course, God takes it one step further and also extends grace- getting something that we don’t deserve. Namely, the opportunity to live out the new lives that God gives us through Jesus Christ. Do I believe that Kelly should be freed from prison? No; God’s forgiveness does not necessarily free us from the consequences of our actions. However, it seems like Kelly has made better use of her new life in Christ than the majority of Christians I’ve met; why should she be denied the opportunity to continue her work on behalf of God’s Kingdom, especially if she desires to do so among those who most need to experience the hope and redemption that only Jesus can offer?
The sad truth is that at this point it is probably too late for Kelly. Unless God miraculously intervenes, her life will soon come to an end. However, it is not too late for us who claim to follow Jesus to learn from Kelly’s story and to truly practice what we preach about God’s grace, mercy, and love. All persons bear the image of God. All persons possess immeasurable worth in the eyes of God. None of us deserve the new life that only God can give us through Jesus Christ, but we can only truly claim to understand God’s grace and mercy if we extend the opportunity for all persons to embrace and live out that new life.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:8 (NIV)
Thanks be to God. Amen.