When Mercy Gets Messy


By Rachel Freeny

I've had Kelly on my mind a lot the past few weeks, and I'm not the only one. Her story is incredible, and the events surrounding her scheduled execution are a picture of the body of Christ at its best. Thousands of people came together across the country to protest and pray for merciful justice that would give life instead of death.

Kelly Gissendaner was supposed to die, but she didn't. Complications with the lethal drug concoction forced officials to halt her execution for the second time in the space of a week. Protestors have lobbied for her execution to be cancelled altogether, and now we wait for the Supreme Court to decide her fate.

Protesting on Kelly's behalf is easy for me because she is a changed woman. While in prison, she took part in a theology training program, sought redemption and forgiveness, and became an incredible force for good in her prison.

Kelly touched the lives of the people who taught her, those who were in prison with her, and the thousands of us who never met her. Through God's grace, she now enjoys a restored relationship with her children, the ones who have the most cause to hate her or want her dead.

Kelly's is a story we all like to hear. She changed teams and is now on the side of good. Surely this Kelly, a different Kelly from the Kelly who murdered her husband, deserves to live. Out of every murderer on death row, surely this repentant one deserves a second chance.

But what if this story was different? What if Kelly wasn't repentant? What then? Would we still cry out for mercy for her?

Mercy is messy. There's no getting around it. As followers of Jesus, we believe that Christ died for all people that all people may live. No one is beyond redemption. Many a preacher has espoused this gospel truth from the pulpit, but in supporting the death penalty we, as Christians, say it isn't actually true. When we support execution, we declare that the person strapped to the table is a lost cause.

If we truly believe that no one is beyond hope, then we must abolish the death penalty not just for the Kelly's on death row but for countless others awaiting execution. We do this knowing full well they may never say they are sorry.

We fight for their precious lives knowing their stories may never look like Kelly's, but we still want them to have a chance to live a different, redeemed story.

In Kingdom Ethics, Glen Stassen reminds us that “followers of Jesus are not people who seek retaliation by taking life for life, but instead they seek ways of deliverance from such vicious cycles of adding more killing to killing.” Stassen invokes Jesus' teaching on loving our enemies, a teaching that is as difficult as it is noble.

Fighting to end the death penalty requires us to get messy and deal with the more difficult questions within ourselves. I, for one, get exhausted just thinking about all of the time, energy, and emotion that goes into speaking out for what we believe to be right. I am intimidated by the amount of personal investment that goes into caring enough about someone's life to fight for it. Especially when it involves wading into the middle of a polarizing issue.

Then I remember how many times Jesus entered into the messiness of life and called us to follow in his footsteps. He took up for the woman about to be stoned for adultery, knowing her guilt but seeing a precious daughter worthy of a second chance. Redemption is for everyone, and redeemed people seek redemption in every aspect of life. Even the messy and complicated ones.