Lutherans, faith leaders and other advocates are fervently working to stop the scheduled execution of Kelly Gissendaner, Georgia’s only woman on death row. The execution is set for Sept. 29. Gissendaner received the death penalty in 1988 for persuading her then-boyfriend to murder her husband. The boyfriend, Gregory Owen, is eligible for parole in eight years due to a plea bargain.
Gissendaner is featured in the October issue of The Lutheran magazine (www.thelutheran.org), in part because of the activism of Jennifer M. McBride, a Christian ethics professor of ELCA-affiliated Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa.
Gissendaner has shown remorse for her involvement in the murder of Douglas Gissendaner and has been through a transformation that has included reconciliation with her children and ministry to despairing inmates, some of whom speak on her behalf and plead for her life in videos circulating on social media this week.
McBride taught Gissendaner as part of a theology program in the greater Atlanta prison system. Through the theology program, Gissendaner became familiar with the writings of German theologian Jürgen Moltmann and started a letter exchange with him that has lasted five years. Moltmann, at age 85, was able to attend and speak at the graduation ceremony of the first cohort of graduates of the prison program.
Gissendaner’s execution was originally scheduled for March of this year, but first due to snow and then due to cloudy drugs, it was canceled. God, as Moltmann noted then, sometimes works in the most mysterious ways and when you least expect it.
Since the new death warrant was issued Sept. 18, McBride and other faith leaders have used Facebook and Twitter to encourage others to read (or re-read) Moltmann’s Theology of Hope message with Gissendaner. Fortress Press has provided a free PDF of that particular chapter from “Collective Readings” (Fortress Press, 2014).
In her urgency to have ELCA members and others read Moltmann and pray for Gissendaner, McBride wrote: “Our reason for reflecting on hope and life at this time may seem obvious. On the one hand, our hope is clear: We hope for clemency. We are calling on Governor Nathan Deal’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Kelly’s death sentence to life in prison without parole. On the other hand, what it means to be people of hope in the face of condemnation to death is not at all clear. For, the threat and likelihood of death surrounds Kelly on every side … biblical hope affords us strength to live in the tension between false certainties. As we fight for Kelly’s life, we have no certainty, only a command: We are to ‘live into the possibilities and promises of God’ in active resistance to death.”