Can the Church Expect Grace from the State? Honest Questions Regarding the Execution of Kelly Gissendaner

My honest question is this: should Kelly Gissendaner’s conversion / rehabilitation be the reason Christians oppose her execution?

I cannot help but think if there is a specifically Christian appeal for an inmate’s life on death row, it must be an appeal against the death penalty itself. And if such an appeal is made, it should be made for every such inmate and, in a serious sense, all the more urgently for those who have not converted / been rehabilitated–for Saul more than Paul, for Isis more than us. Is that not the scandal of the Christian faith, a faith built on the foundation of a cross, a faith that is expressed when–and only when–the cross of Christ is a cross fit for the likes of me, for us: the guilty lovers of God called the Church? I don’t want to die, but neither do I want anyone to, after they are dead, have their souls cast into hell.

I struggle to know what a faithful perspective is here. I see the Church’s relationship with the state as the proper relationship between grace (Rom. 12) and justice (Rom. 13). To what degree do we want the state extending grace for offenses against other human beings? On what basis and in whose name would they extend grace? And would that not fail to preserve the necessary tension between the church and the world, the tension between two ideals that need one another to remain intelligible? Is this not the difference between between two kingdoms that are decidedly two kingdoms. And until there is only one kingdom to speak of, mustn’t we affirm a just state and a gracious Church, as though God somehow holds both accountable respectively, precisely according to these two distinct organizing principles? –Since he does.

I want Gissendaner to live, but that is because I don’t want anyone to die. I know that I belong on the gurney with her, with everyone. I also know that every deathbed is really just a gurney and no natural causes are natural. There is a judgement and death is its execution.

But Jesus placed himself under this judgment and executed death itself. And he did so by dying at the hands of the state without erecting a kingdom that replaced it–rather, a resurrection, an entirely different order of an entirely differently-ordered and -oriented kingdom, indeed, the kingdom that is established in this world by Christ and his followers giving their lives for a world eager to take their lives from them.

So as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, I must oppose any execution because Christ is every execution. But as a citizen of the United States, what am I to say? Harsh as it is, this execution cannot be called unjust, can it? Should we impose our standards of grace on the victim’s loved ones? Are we not in danger of endorsing injustice?

I am praying for the peace of God to be upon Gissendaner today; for all the families and friends involved, those of the victim and those of Gissendaner; and for the local church within their reach to be impossibly compassionate at all cost, no matter to whom.

Looking for clarity, not debate. I have no strong position here, just honesty. If there is anything in know to say with certainty at a time like this, it is:

Come, Lord Jesus.

A discussion that ensued:

  • Warren McClendon: I’m with you `Jeremy. The Gospel of Christ demands that we be far more concerned for the welfare of the non-believer, particularly in this situation. But for the record, I oppose the death penalty for the same reason I oppose abortion. The giving and taking of human life is the prerogative of God alone.
  • Jeremy Spainhour: I tend to agree, Warren, but I think a distinction must be made between the function of the state and the function of the Church–and I am not a calvinist, so I probably would see that distinction differently than most folks here. 
         In any case, the ideal function of the state is preserve a just society. I see abortion as a violation of the state’s function. I see the execution of a murderer as an attempt to preserve justice. The two are not comparable in my book.
  •  Warren McClendon: While I am a Calvinist myself, I do distinguish between the role of the state and the role of the church. We render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is Gods. There are however rare circumstances when I believe my faith compels me to intervene in secular affairs. And one of those circumstances is when the welfare of another human being is at stake.
  • Jeremy SpainhourI agree with that, Warren. I just think the Church, at most, should call the state to be faithful to its own purpose, not to purpose of the Church. So we agree on the abortion issue, I think, because we both believe the state should be expected to preserve justice for the unborn. And yet, I think we agree on the present matter because we both see the state acting consistent with its own purpose. Hence the dilemma.
  • Warren McClendon: Caesar can do with his own house as he desires. But I advocate for the life of the child, the believing killer or the unbelieving killer for the same reason. Their lives are valuable to me and to God as well. Justice is a Biblical concept as well as a secular concept. But I do not think killing falls within the definition of justice from the Biblical point of view. Though I must acknolaged that a secular government frequently views justice differently.
  • Jeremy Spainhour: Let me just press this particular issue, again, not from a strong position but from serious inquiry. 
         Killing simply does fall within the parameters of justice from a particular biblical point of view–particularly, that is, from the point of view of the Old Covenant, hence Jesus’s amendments of, e.g., Deuteronomy 19 (cf. Mt. 5-6). There is a definitive shift in the organizing principle of the Old and New Covenants, namely, the justice commanded in the Old Covenant is preserved and yet transformed into grace in the New, but only by preserving it. It is indeed “a covenant of blood.”
    That said, I see the Old Covenant in principle as God’s standard of justice for the nations. Indeed, Caesar’s “own” are only provisionally Caesar’s. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). This is why the prophets announce judgment on the nations primarily for (a) idolatry and (b) injustice. The coin may be Caesar’s, but Caesar is God’s.
    This is precisely why I struggle with this particular issue. I can’t help but acknowledge that “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (cf. Dt. 19:21) is, by definition, the express principle of justice in society.
    The Gospel is a stumbling block because it suggests that the human offense is such that we all belong on death row. “Take up your cross” is not simply a principle of self-sacrifice; it is a confession of guilt–“take up your cross,” not “lay down on your altar.”
    The logic of the church’s preservation of life is not on the basis of the common innocence of human life. It is precisely the opposite. In principle, I can’t escape coming to the following conclusion: (a) the Church agrees with the state that Gissendaner is guilty of her offense; (b) the Church agrees with the state that death is the appropriate punishment for the killing of another person; and yet, (c) the Church does not believe death is the final judgment and therefore grace is available for Gissendaner with reference to the final judgment.
    There is an interval between ‘b’ and ‘c’ that I simply do not know how to resolve, and I have yet to read or hear anyone who has adequately addressed it. How should the Gospel of eternal life for those guilty of sin (everyone) translate to the Church existing in an (ideally) just society? How can the Church call the state to be gracious without (a) endorsing injustice or (b) confusing the two?
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