Where is our theology of life?

October 2nd, 2015

It has been a violent week.

Earlier this week, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner for her role in planning the murder of her husband Doug Gissendaner in 1997. Throughout her time in prison, Kelly came to model what we think of when we talk about rehabilitated convicts. While the “prisoner finding religion” story may be cliché, there are times when it is beautifully true. Kelly lived out her Christian faith, becoming a pillar of strength for inmates struggling with the depression and hopelessness that often accompanies long prison terms. She pursued theological education, looking to better herself and build on the knowledge of the divine which sustained her. She even formed a friendship with renowned theologian Jurgen Moltmann. In his last letter, he reminded her of her identity as a “beloved daughter of God” and a “beloved sister of Jesus Christ."

Despite numerous pleas for clemency, with protestations coming from figures like a former Georgia Supreme Court justice who upheld her sentence 15 years prior, and even Pope Francis, Kelly was executed by lethal injection. She sang “Amazing Grace” to the end.

On Wednesday night, Richard Glossip had his third “last meal.” His execution by lethal injection was canceled an hour before its scheduled time because the state of Oklahoma apparently purchased the wrong drug. This is despite the fact that more and more evidence has come to light that Glossip is likely innocent of his crime (coincidentally, he was also convicted of plotting a murder but not committing it). His death has been postponed indefinitely, citing problems with the drugs on hand. Oklahoma has a recent troubled history with injections.

On Thursday night, the state of Virginia executed Alfredo R. Prieto, a convicted serial rapist and murderer who remained unrepentant and defiant to the end. He was put to death via lethal injection, despite, as Scott Martelle noted for the LA Times, compelling evidence that he suffered from intellectual disabilities that should have made him ineligible for the death penalty.

And on Thursday afternoon, a 26-year-old man slaughtered ten people and wounded seven others with guns on the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, Oregon. More details will surely come to light, but it appears to be a story we can identify as familiar in this country, routine even. President Obama named it as such in his remarks yesterday, claiming that we have become “numb” to mass shootings and the discussions that follow. He’s right about that.

But I’d argue that we’re numb to all of our society's violence, as we have lazily accepted a theology of death rather than do the work to reflect the theology of life so many of us profess to believe. I’m glad for the separations of church and state in this country, so don’t confuse this for me claiming that American society should be run as a Christian institution. Rather, I’m saying that a lot of people in this country who profess to be Christian buy into this acceptance of violent death all too easily. The proof of this is that, shooting after shooting, execution after execution, violent death after violent death, we as a society have not changed. And it is our lack of change that keeps the door open for history to repeat itself.

So what? What do we do? As the President remarked, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” They just aren’t. And not only are they not enough, they are increasingly disingenuous. Christians are not called to just talk about God’s healing and mercy and grace. We’re called to live it out. If our prayers, which connect us and guide us to the divine life, are not followed by action, which is how we answer God’s call, then they are fruitless. While we can’t ask our nation, one based in religious free expression, to act only as a Christian would, we as Christians can model actions for our communities that will hopefully spread far and wide.

Photo by Mike Dubose, UMNS

We can join together across denominational lines and protest the death penalty, on the ground and through our voting decisions. This won't always be easy in practice, but living out faith isn't dictated by how easy the tasks are. In cases like Kelly Gissendaner's, it will be easier for us to lift up one who changed for the better. It'll be easier to show the Kellys in our system grace and mercy. It'll be harder to protest the execution of the Alfredo Prietos among us; yet Christ loves all, and none are beyond the redemption of God. So we must protest for the Alfredos, too.

We can be the first to put down the tools of violence. We can elect leadership who agree that doing so is critical for healthy communal life. I’ve written previously about Christians and handgun/assault rifle ownership, naming what I see as an incompatibility when it comes to trusting in, and in some cases worshiping, guns instead of trusting in God. I’ll continue arguing the same thing in the wake of the shooting at UCC, and in every subsequent shooting until we see change by choosing our neighbors over a particular possession.

We can vote for and work for complete access to healthcare that reflects the sacredness of life to which we give lip-service, knowing that truly caring for an individual in Christian terms means unconditionally lifting them up regardless of their age, regardless of their status, regardless of their troubles, regardless of their actions. Innocent or enemy, we are to be graceful as God is graceful.

We follow and trust in God made flesh in Jesus Christ, and a crucial part of that trust is cemented in the three-fold truth: God lived, God died, God lived again. We are a people who gather regularly to affirm that our hope is in life, in redemption, in renewal. When we support (and rest assured, it is support, even if it’s just our idleness that props up the status quo) death by violence as a narrative of our shared lives together, we are living antithetically to a gospel which says that human life is sacred. We don’t get to skip the sacredness by passing off the responsibility of these violences onto the state, or antiquated bureaucratic systems, or even onto “bad guys with guns.”

We are our community, and Christians who make up our community should be among the first decrying this theology of death. All of us are either complicitly or explicitly involved, as our duty is to live out the gospel by loving God and loving our neighbors. We do neither when we turn a blind eye to the violences in our midst.

We have a hope as individuals, as congregations, as Christians in the body politic. It is a hope brought to us by Jesus the Christ, himself tortured and murdered as a form of legally-sanctioned state punishment. It is a hope borne out of the empty tomb. This hope says, “death does not have to be the way.” Living out such a hope is our path toward a less violent society. How long until this hope becomes the consistent message from our pulpits? How long until it rings out clearly from every voice in the church? How long until we start living as if life is our way?

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