The Strange Case of Kelly Gissendaner

I wrote this the morning after Kelly’s execution, as I had many different thoughts on what had transpired.  I initially decided not to publish it, but after some editing and letting some time pass, I’ve decided to post it up.  If you were not aware of the case or the circumstances around it, Wikipedia provides a concise summary of the relevant details.


I stayed up late last night, but not to play games or watch a movie. I had several tabs of my web browser open, tuned to Twitter updates from media outlets in Atlanta covering the last appeals and eventual execution of KG.   I also had Facebook open, knowing that this was a popular cause to support among my clergy peers. During the previous vigil in March, a number of posts declaring support and offering prayers showed up in my feed. Curiously, I didn’t see one at all last night, and have only seen one thus far today. I started to post, but as usual, I find my thoughts to windy and twisting to condense into a *.sm (Social Media) format.

The first thing I need to say is that, theologically, as a Lutheran, I support the death penalty. For the state to carry out its God given duty of keeping good order, it must have the right to give and take life temporally. Most Americans, living our insular lives in an incredibly well ordered society (comparatively speaking) have never experienced the risks of a place where good order is just a dream, and so we take that for granted and believe no authority is needed to procure it – from our experience, it is status quo. So, while I support the death penalty, I understand how many people can, without irony on their part, declare it uncivilized.

That said, I have also experienced our courts first hand in this country, in more than one state and more than one setting. The idea that our courts regularly and uniformly crank out justice or that they are relatively mistake free in their judgements is ludicrous.

So what about this case in particular? In my opinion, there was simply too many question marks in KG’s case, to many things that made her a statistical outlier to the normal death penalty case, for me to be comfortable with her execution. The first and most compelling of these to me is that the man who carried out the murder is still alive. If the reason is that the guilty plea and subsequent testimony of her ex-boyfriend was at its heart a financial deal to save the state time and money, then what has transpired can hardly be called justice. It was, at best, “business” which is a mode of operation that by definition is foreign to the court system. If confession and contrition are indeed the reason for his receiving life in prison rather than the death penalty, I am unclear on how the same privilege was not afforded to KG, whose life changes have been universally testified to as being heartfelt and sincere. And so I found myself sincerely disappointed that the last, desperate round of appeals found no fertile ground, and genuine sadness that the execution was carried out.

However, there are a few rough edges to how the narrative that has played out that, simply put, fascinate me to no end.

The first, and perhaps shortest, is that the state should have had the honor and courage to commute the sentence after the debacle that transpired last March.   The very fact that the state hires shadowy apothecaries for the drug is not conducive to their case for that absolute authority over life and death. Even more damning is that the state orders a prescription of the lethal drug for the defendant, has that order filled on behalf the defendant by an unregulated apothecary, and then forces the defendant to ingest the lethal drug that, on the surface, she supposedly prescribed for herself. Firing squads and guillotines are among the lists of methods that would be far less heinous and more honorable to impose on a criminal. A clean and above board death is necessary to prove the worthiness of the authority of the state to carry out executions. Anything as absurd and convoluted as that lends credence to the thought that the state itself thinks it does not deserve that authority.

The second is that it was erroneously reported at first that not one person had shown up in support of KG’s execution last night. It was only after the supporter by tweeting photos of the crowd around her that forced the onsite reporter to amend his assertion. There were two areas set up for demonstrators, both in support of and against the execution. The “against” side drew a significant crowd, and the lone supporter was mistakenly directed in to the same crowd. The fact that the police assumed that everyone there was there to protest the execution (and also dressed in full riot gear) should be a good indication of how this was perceived internally by the state. The testimony of the lone supporter? Not a single clergy person present mentioned the victim or the victim’s family in their prayers that night.   The reporter on site verified this assertion as well. The credibility of the church and the sincerity of our compassion took a blow that night, and we were terribly oblivious to it.

The third is that KG’s repeated and desperate pleas for clemency stand at stark odds with the faith she reportedly carried and shared. To the point that, combined with the above evidence, I have to wonder anew at the depth of that faith and the credibility of the testimony that it was sincere. KG knew what she did, felt grief and sorrow for it, knew that she was rightly convicted, and faced the legal consequences of it. I can’t help but contrast her reaction with that of all those who have gone before her.   What a witness it would have been to use this time, this spotlight, to promote that faith, to give hope of the promise to others with a testimony that life awaited her beyond this life, and that she would be able to make amends with her husband in person after the execution! What a witness to declare that her guilt or innocence in the courts was inconsequential to the declaration of forgiveness and washing that she had received in her Baptism from her Savior!   How did she overlook this opportunity! And if she did, how is it that not one of her mentors and advisors at Emory or among the clergy supporting her suggested this, or spoke it themselves on her behalf?!   No, instead of the narrative being about faith and salvation, the spotlight was used instead to promote a political agenda against the death penalty.

Which leads me to my final thought in all this. KG had the amazing and rare opportunity to become a modern martyr for her faith. I don’t recall any of the early martyrs drawing attention to the injustice of the state or attempting to reform it. I do recall them standing with courage, facing their unjust death with the witness that it was, far from being a show of power on the part of the state, a show of just how powerless the temporal kingdom really is next to the power of God to forgive, to heal, and to save.  But it’s hard to critique her in that spotlight – what a strange and difficult place for her to be in!  And to know the encouragement she received would not have lead her in that direction.  Indeed, all her encouragement and support led her to where she was that night, desperately waiting to hear good news from what I have already admitted is a less than perfect temporal authority.  And so even as I mourn the passing of KG, I also mourn that the church, because of its focus on political change, seems no longer capable of providing a focus on the Gospel.  I don’t blame Kelly for not taking up the mantle of martyr.  I blame the church for having forgotten where good news comes from, and for forgetting that crucial revelation in the time when it was needed most.

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We Forgive Sins (?)

We’ve had a lot of questions about our sign the last couple of weeks, which reads simply: “WE FORGIVE SINS.”

The question from everyone has been, “wait, doesn’t God forgive sins?” And from at least one person, it was given in statement form, wherein we were assured that we did not, in fact, forgive sins.

To be honest, the reaction has been surprising. I did not think that was all that controversial a statement! I put it up more because people seem to have forgotten that this is one of the missions that Christ has given his church (John 20:19-29).

Do we believe that we are ourselves, through our own power or decision-making forgiving people? No. Not even the original disciples, hearing those words of Jesus in John, believe that is what is happening! We believe the power and authority is Christ’s alone, channeled through us as his people. This is the message of John’s gospel and our message as well. To claim otherwise would be to offer the kind of forgiveness that comedian Emo Philips joked about in the 80’s:

That kind of forgiveness is no forgiveness at all! But in truth, sometimes when we pray for forgiveness in our own prayers, in our own time, its hard to believe that God truly has forgiven us. Either the sins seem too great, or our faith seems too weak. We need assurance of that forgiveness. We need to hear it from somebody else.

This has been the messsage of the church since ancient times. In the Didache, a handbook for Christians that some scholars have dated as early as 50 AD, we are instructed: “In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions…This is the way of life.”

To be 100% clear, we are not claiming, as the church, to be the sole source of hearing forgiveness. The confessional documents for Lutheran congregations perhaps say it best: When someone is suffering from the burden of knowing their sins, they are relieved from that burden in one of two ways: faith in the Gospel (ie, they have prayed and read Scripture and are comforted and forgiven) or, failing that, “the church ought to impart absolution”, helping them to “believe that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven.” (Augsburg Confession, Articles XI-XII)

And so Jesus tasks the church in general and pastors in particular with pronouncing the forgiveness of sins that he grants. We take time most every day we worship to pray for that forgiveness both individually and as a whole community, after which the pastor says something similar to this:

“Almighty God, in his mercy, has given his Son to die for us and, for his sake, forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

I think perhaps some people are getting hung up on the pronouns, like the “I” above or the “WE” on the sign. I can see the confusion. But it is not all that unusual to say things in this way. As you read in John, Jesus himself uses the second person pronoun, saying “…you forgive the sins…” As another example, in Scripture, Philip (Acts 8:38) and Paul (1 Corinthians 1:14) are both said to have baptized people, though John the Baptist testifies that it is Christ himself who is actually doing the baptism (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33).

In the same way, while I and Celebration Lutheran will always be forgiving sins, we never do it without the authority, power, and permission of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

~ Pastor Kevin

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Lenten Class, Chapter 7

As promised!

Notes on Good News For Anxious Christians, Chapter 7

Why You Don’t Have to Worry about Splitting Head From Heart

1) In Hebrew, head and heart are the same word.  Even in the New Testament where the words are different, the form is the same.  “Jesus knew the thoughts in the Pharisees’ ______ .” (Matt 9:4, Luke 5:22)

2) Greek philosophers were the ones that decided that mind, body, and heart were all separate things.  Remember Luther? Thinking like Aristotle is “the worst enemy of grace” (Against Scholastic Theology, 1517).

3) When people warn you not to split your head from your heart, what do they mean? Which one are they worried about getting lost in the shuffle?  It seems that people are concerned that you are thinking too much and should not ignore your feelings.  In other words, they are saying “don’t think too much.”

4) Ironically, this backfires on us.  If we don’t think about our feelings, how can we act well on them?  And if you shouldn’t split head from heart, why are they split in the first place?

5)  The problem is not really too much thinking – or even too much feeling!  The problem is bad thoughts and bad feelings – we might even call them “evil.”

6)  Feelings give perception to thought.  If we don’t use them, we deny reality and avoid the truth.

7)  Thinking gives understanding to feelings.  If we don’t use it, we distort reality and lose control of ourselves.

8)  For example, anger.  Yes, its even okay to have anger.  Thinking about our anger helps us to put it in its proper place.  If we can not put it in a proper place, it will overwhelm us.  The same is true of grief.  [When peopel come to me for counsling, its usually because they are struggling with putting thinking and feeling together – either they are overwhelmed by feelings or confused by thought.

9)  So, thinking welcomes feeling.  And feeling welcomes thinking.  This can be thought of as a virtue, because it helps us take right action and make right decisions.  But of course Paul (and Luther) would remind us that building character is not the end game, it ultimately is there to produce hope (Romans 5).

10) Need a final check down?   Think about “head knowledge.” It actually sticks around because of how you feel about it – you enjoy it!  That’s why I can tell you wildly insignificant trivia about Star Trek and why I pushed through the density of Kierkegaards writings – I have feelings attached to my thinking about them.  And the “head knowledge” that you don’t enjoy – those definitions your teacher made you memorize back in school that you forgot a few months later?  Yep, no feelings attached to them!

11) Final warning – do not be afraid of questions, and of seeking answers.  We should never be content to say “God makes no sense” or “faith makes no sense” or “theology makes no sense.”  Those are shortcuts for not spending time thinking and feeling about our beliefs and our God.  And the truth is, we could all use a lot more time doing those things.  Don’t be afraid to question – just remember that your belief in God should not hinge on whether or not you agree with the outcome of those questions!

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The Kingdom Of God

I did a lot of reading over my vacation this past week, and I think this was my favorite quote from the theological side of reading that I did:  

“If there is even the slightest hint of a human contribution to the kingdom of God, the old being escapes into its pious pretentions, disappears into the ‘kingdom’ behind the walls, its ersatz version of the Kingdom…There is, you might say, a big sign on the kingdom of God that says: “KEEP OUT! GOD ALONE AT WORK! COMING SOON! For the Time Being, Mind Your Own Business!” It is not the Christian’s business to bring in the kingdom of God in any way, shape, or form! If you try to do that you end only by helping the devil destroy it.”

~ Gerhard O. Forde, “Luther’s Ethics”, A More Radical Gospel

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What is Courage?

I was listening to ESPN yesterday, and the morning show host said something very…well, interesting:   “Courage is tolerating what you don’t agree with.”  Well, that’s certainly a definition.   Not sure if its a good one though.


For the people of the Old Testament, the word for courage carries with it the connotation of being strong physically or emotionally in the face of an enemy or danger.  And in at least one instance, it carries the idea of being obstinate.  Stubborn.    In fact, the only two times people are told to be courageous in the Old Testament is when they are facing battle or facing God!


In the New Testament, the term ends up having three different uses.  The most common is in reference to believers facing persecution – not unlike facing battle – death and injury are possible outcomes.  The second, and my favorite, comes from Christ himself in John 16:33 – “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”  How great is that?!  The third though is the one we want in this instance.


It comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, one of his earliest writings (and that, because of historical inscriptions and a cross reference to events in Acts, we can date very precisely – to 51 AD).  In that letter, Paul says (2:1-2):


“You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.


Italics mine, of course.  For Paul, courage is something does not cause you to be silent, but to speak.   I would think that would  be obvious.  To label it anything else is to cruise dangerously close to the idea of doublespeak and the world of propaganda techniques.


Now the morning host made the comment in reference to the ongoing discussion this week prompted by NBA player Jason Collins revealing that he was gay, a splash because it is the first time an active player in a major team sport has made that declaration.   Clearly this is something that continues to divide people, divide churches, and divide Lutherans.   I am not going to solve that division in a blog post, and I do not intend to try.


What I do want to do is ask that, no matter which way you come down on that hard topic, we can get together and agree that the definition of courage is not tolerating what other people believe.   If that were true – Jason Collins was more courageous in his years of silence than he was in his pronouncement.   Surely we don’t believe that do we?   Courage is always speaking out in face of opposition, speaking out whether you think you have support or not.   By the same token, when Chris Broussard spoke out against Collins in his report the next day, that was, whether we agree with him or not, something that also took courage.


In reality this should not be a shocking revelation for us.   We know that in war, there are people who are courageous no matter what side they served on.   In the Civil War here in America, were there not courageous soldiers who fought for both the Blue and the Grey?   Courage is an action that can be identified regardless of its root ideology.   And because of that, it is something that we can all acknowledge if not applaud.  We should not try to make this too complicated.


The day before I heard that false definition on the radio,  I was reading an essay in Chesterton’s book, Heretics (Its not quite what you think. Probably. lol).  And he himself had a great definition of courage, one I think would be good to share in closing:  “It is only the last and wildest kind of courage that can stand on a tower before ten thousand people and tell them that twice two is four.”


To stand on a stage and proclaim a grand theory, or present evidence in support of a study or truth takes some courage, yes.  Who wouldn’t get butterflies in front of a large enough audience?   But the grandest courage is the courage that speaks out believing the truth to be self-evident.  To proclaim something so simple that you can do nothing but declare it (or act on it) as truth and let the chips fall where they may, uncaring of the consequences.


In the heart of a disagreement as sharply dividing as this, can this be something that we agree on?

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Balancing Expectations

I shared the David Platt “Radical” video on my Facebook page last week and asked for reactions.   And I was pretty blunt about mine – I think its a travesty to tell people that Law is Gospel, and to shame and guilt them into doing arbitrary moral acts.  But I understand why it happens.  After all, isn’t all of Scripture filled with those kinds of things?


Let’s take a look at how another “radical” Christian, Shane Claiborne, puts it:


“I wondered if there were other restless people asking the question with me: What if Jesus meant the stuff he said?.”


But Shane is not through there…he goes on to provide a more definitive example in another of his works:


“We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy, too. But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”

I understand the bitterness, I’ve been there myself.  And I understand the desire to be radical, I’ve been there myself.  And I do very much understand where he is going – a church that is no longer “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental,” words that another Christian author, David Kinnaman uses in his book, unChristian.


Lest you think we are getting serious at this point, let me take a moment to share the rebuttal that I faced and that David, Shane, and David all have to deal with as well, courtesy of Austin Powers:


“Well I wanna toilet made out of solid gold, but it’s just not in the cards now is it?”

When has the church ever *not* been those three things?   So long as we remain a broken and sinful people bound to a broken and sinful world, we will never escape those three descriptors.   If we could – there would be no need for Jesus to return.   We’d just float right up there on our own.


The real problem here is that we are not chasing after what God wants, but what the world wants.  Its not God that requires us to be unhypocritical, sensitive, and non-judgmental.  Shane, in his quote above, seems to have forgotten how the rest of the conversation with Nicodemus played out.   Nicodemus learned that it is impossible for him to be born again.  Just as the rich young ruler realized that it was impossible for him to enter heaven – no matter how perfectly he kept the law, fed others, cared for widows and orphans, and loved others.  Jesus did indeed mean what He said, Shane just seems to have forgotten where all those conversations, hard sayings, and difficult commands led:


“For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”


So if we want to be unhypocritical, sensitive, and non-judgmental, we desire that for the sake of the world, not for God.  And here is where we encounter the trouble – the world will never be satisfied.  God asks us for the impossible – be born again, and the world asks us for the impossible – be perfect, and we will always fail at both.   But of the two, only one makes provisions to rescue us from our failure.


How quickly we have forgotten the lessons of the history of the church.  When the church was young and fresh and full of life, feeding and clothing the poor and radically obeying Jesus, what did the world think?  Did it love it then?



Nope.  The world is insatiable.  It will never be satisfied.   It wasn’t satisfied when Moses parted the Red Sea.   It wasn’t satisfied when Elijah called down fire from heaven.  It wasn’t satisfied when Jesus fed the five thousand.   It wasn’t satisfied when Pentecost arrived.  And it certainly won’t be satisfied if the church somehow manages to overcome its sinfulness.  It will just accuse us of being smug, self-righteous, holier-than-thou.


And every time someone like Platt, or Claiborne, or Kinnaman ratchets up the bar, all they do is set Christians up for despair and failure, and give the world and the “new” atheists more evidence that we are terrible at being like Jesus.


TL;DR – Don’t expect to save the world, or to win it over.  The world will always hate you. Jesus Himself warned us about it, and made it a central point of His Gospel.  You want to do better?  Good!   But don’t be surprised if, after giving up your life, your family, and all your possessions, it still hasn’t gained you a think.  And never…EVER…think that anyone who doesn’t do those things is any less “authentic” or “real” a Christian than you are.   Because if you do, you will be right back where Nicodemus was – not as the person who helped bury Jesus, but the Pharisee who oppressed God’s people and placed a yoke on them that they could never bear.

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