Georgia death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner was executed two weeks ago for her role in the killing of her husband. My friend Anne Elizabeth Swiedler stood vigil outside the state’s execution facility in Jackson during the final hours of appeal, denial and injection. I asked her to share with us her reflections on that experience, what it was like to be there in the late night and early morning hours as Kelly’s life and death were determined. Thank you, Anne Elizabeth.
Two weeks ago, we stood at the foot of the cross in Jackson, Georgia.
On the grounds of the prison, we were a collection of strangers and colleagues, former prison inmates and a member of the accused family. The experienced among us brought canvas beach chairs, knowing it might be a long evening. Others brought water and snacks just to share and help us renew our strength. Media lights hammered into us for hours while state prison guards in riot gear stood watch over us as we prayed, sang a little, walked in circles and just sat together as rejected appeal after appeal made death closer and more insistent. All the while, my cheeks dripped from the rainwater dropping slowly from the swaying branches over us.
We stood at the foot of the cross, offering only our presence and our protest. Conversations bonded us together until those moments between the end of the final appeal and the notification of the completed execution when silence among us fell swiftly and as deeply as if we were the ones strapped and readied for the final injection. By then, no words were necessary.
Rather, this silence was filled with tears for mercy, mercy for Kelly and her family, mercy for the victim and his family, mercy for the prison guards, mercy for the state, the parole board, and for the world. For just as we stood together under the night sky in solidarity with Kelly, her family, and the others on death row, we were standing for everyone else who needs the merciful touch of God in Christ.
It was Jesus that Good day on the cross, and it was a guilty, convicted murderer on the cross two weeks ago. Both of them suffered the obscenity of a death penalty, one innocent, one not innocent at all. Jesus was holding his prisoner that night, and I know she was holding on to him. And we were holding ourselves there in place, as the Body of Christ, standing at the foot of both crosses, both times in helpless protest against an understanding that conceives of violence as being the best and last word.
Ronald Rolheiser, in the current issue of America magazine, puts thecross in this perspective:
“The death of Jesus washes us clean by revealing the heart of a God who is faithful enough to not let us die, to open our graves and empty our cemeteries, even when in ignorance or malice we go on killing God and each other.”
During those damp hours of that late September nightfall we experienced the ultimate revelation of God in the awareness of his unfailing mercy for all of us, the mercy that says NO to all violence.
So, there in Jackson, as we said no, Kelly said yes to God for her new life in that unimaginable mercy of heaven. This was also a moment of new life: within me, still womb-like, barely fluttering, is my tiny fist in protest against evil. Through Kelly’s death, I see, now more than ever, that the cross is where we belong: where Jesus looks down in sorrow for our cruel unfaithfulness; and, where we look up to behold unfailing mercy, within mercy, within mercy.