Here at Mbird we spend a good deal of time hemming and hawing against the myth of humanism – that we are free to shape our own destinies, unconstrained, or mostly unconstrained, by our past, circumstances, and vices – unbound, that is, to our deeply distorted wills. The facts dismantle this myth quickly: the fact that the worst human atrocities have been committed in our most advanced century, that New Year’s resolutions quickly dwindle into February guilt, that the decades in our lives when we’re advancing and progressing tend to be the most unhappy ones. When people actually do change for the better, it often follows the mechanic of Alcoholics Anonymous’s First Step: “We admitted we were powerless…”

Contemporary culture seems more averse to such an admission of powerlessness than ever, built largely on personal metanarratives of advancement, of upward movement – just look at the rise of self-help and its infiltration of the business/management world and the religious world, or the way it’s magnetized psychology, sociology, new-age spirituality, and other genres to serve it. We live in a culture absolutely averse to bondage, stagnation, and powerlessness to change.


But this week, in the example of Kelly Renee Gissendaner, I realized our culture’s stance on self-improvement needs some qualification. Gissendaner grew up in rural Georgia, born to parents who drank heavily, did drugs, and divorced after four years and some infidelity on her mother’s part. Her mother took custody and married a man named Billy eight days later, a man who beat Kelly’s mother and her children, and frequently reminded Kelly she was ugly, unwanted, and unloved. After a teen pregnancy and some poorly-destined flings with guys, she entered into a tumultuous marriage, culminating in her husband’s death at the hands of her boyfriend (who plea-bargained down for a life sentence) and her conviction (death penalty) for planning and instigating the murder, an act of brutality for which she felt no remorse.

She’s scheduled to die tonight, years after a conversion to Christianity in prison. She’s earned a degree in theology. She’s become penpals with Jürgen Moltmann, perhaps the most distinguished theologian alive. More importantly, a guard says that “Kelly Gissendaner is a peacemaker and has many times made the job safer for me and my staff”, and Gissendaner herself remarked that “I have learned to place my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.” Ministers and seminary teachers (Candler, Emory) describe her as “fully redeemed”, passionate for Christ, and so on. She counsels, listens, prays, and teaches theology.

There’s no point here in adding to din of voices calling for her sentence to be downgraded to life without parole. For one, the state’s already rejected a petition for clemency; also, other websites, blogs, and journalists are doing that good work. But back to this strange tension in our culture: obsession with personal change yet, for some circumstances, willful ignorance to the apparent fact of a genuine personal turnaround.

What to make of it? There are a couple of behavioral issues in play. We perhaps tend to overestimate our own ability to change, hence the self-help boom. And maybe the more distance we get on someone we are, unless we’re idealists, more likely to accurately perceive the feeble nature of their will to change. There’s also a self-righteousness bias: when issues can easily be perceived in binaries, like good/evil or convict/good citizen, murderer/not murderer, we on the right side of those divides like to think of them as immovable. It can feel threatening when people beneath us start to move in our direction of goodness, even more so in cases, like (apparently) this one, when they move beyond us, when the convict becomes a better person, more loving, more humble, than we are.


The assumption that a murderer cannot have become a beneficent influence on society is obviously wrong and based on a self-serving assumption by those of us without felonies. The guilt, however, remains. Were justice merely punitive, the sentence of lethal injection would, as far as I can tell within the confines of Christianity, be deserved. The question of how far our own systems of justice should take on divine prerogatives is a long and fraught one, muddled by power struggles and widely differing contexts. In the time of Christendom, the secular arm would administer civic justice, but the bishop could plead for clemency, and it’s encouraging to see clergy, in this case, doing just that.

The death penalty in general looks increasingly unpragmatic and out of step with the best elements of modern political assumptions and ideals. And in this particular case, there shouldn’t even be a debate unless the board of pardons had information others don’t. In the time when much of Christianity’s most influential political thought was written, when Church and State were delicately balanced, the assumption was that the old age was passing, and the state must give way to the new, the world of mercy represented by the (oft-interceding) Church.

We no longer live in a truly ‘secular’ time, at least not in its original meaning of an age anticipating the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. That is, the truly secular ruler held the authority and power of the present age, but knew that “the present form of this age is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31), and that the wisdom and rulers of this age are “doomed to perish” (1 Cor 2:6). For example, a ruler back then, believing that he could be liable to divine judgment at any time, might temper his judgment with clemency. Now the state has become not a provisional arm of governance, but the reality.

Still, there is the same tension between judgment and love. It is not the state’s function to take on the divine prerogatives of either absolute punitive justice or unadulterated mercy alone, but to model justice while being receptive to the spontaneous workings of the Spirit which, though we may not change much for the better, can always operate to rehabilitate the sinner. St. Paul tells us to “regard others as better than yourselves”; in this case, to recognize one’s own “powerlessness” (Step 1), but to be alert for the workings of the Spirit in others. But we tend to do the exact opposite. Though the present case seems like a terrible decision, we hope for more than rehabilitation, for more than a continued life of virtue. As Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “If the State of Georgia has no mercy, she has received already the mercy of Heaven.” Amen.