In the early morning hours of last Wednesday Kelly Renee Gissendanner, the only woman on Georgia’s death row, was executed for her role in the stabbing death of her late husband Douglas Gissendanner. She was pronounced dead at 12:21 by a lethal injection of pentobarbital at Georgia’s State Prison in Jackson.
Referring to Pope Francis’ recent address to the joint session of Congress, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the pontiff’s diplomatic representative in the United States, sent Georgia’s State Parole Board a request for commutation of Gissendanner’s sentence “to one that would better express both justice and mercy.”
Pope Francis is opposed to the death penalty, because as he told Congress, “every life is sacred; every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity.” Pope Francis’ remarks are guided by the belief that every life is sacred because it is created in God’s image.
Cases like Gissendanner’s bring into specific relief the tension between the scriptural principles of “justice and mercy.” Specifically, what bearing should the biblical teachings of forgiveness and mercy have on criminal sanctions meant to promote justice?
It surprises some that it was God who instituted the death penalty. The principles of justice had been lost before the Flood when man had become wicked and “the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” Genesis 6:5. When Noah and his family disembarked from the Ark, on the brink of a new civilization it was necessary to reintroduce the principles of justice that were lost before the Flood.
God commanded Noah, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man,” Genesis 9:6. Our Father’s reasoning here is that the murderer having destroyed the image of God in another, forfeits the right to bear that image himself, and it is society’s responsibility to execute justice on behalf of the one murdered.
The very reason some think the death penalty should be abolished, life is sacred because it is created in God’s image, is the very reason God gave for instituting it. When offended Jesus tells us to forgive to guard our hearts from the spiritually debilitating and consuming emotion of vengeance. But it is biblically incumbent upon society to establish and maintain justice. Society would collapse into anarchy without the sure expectation its governing authorities are committed to the furtherance of justice.
The irony here is that Gissendanner’s lover, Gregory Owen, with whom she conspired to kill her husband is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole. He was the one who actually stabbed Douglas Gissendanner to death, but she is the one who died for it. That to me is an injustice in a criminal justice system meant to promote justice, and is the sort of thing that needs to be remedied. But justice should not be abolished because it is flawed; it should be corrected.
The death penalty is indeed a punishment, but it is in a greater sense justice.