SophieKelly is still on my mind. There is a simple brilliance in the hashtag that arose in the struggle to gain clemency for Kelly Gissendaner. #kellyonmymind helped spread Kelly’s story, and despite the events of September 30, the hashtag continues to apply - Kelly is still on my mind. She is present when I stand vigil at the Capitol steps, present when I write my ethics paper, and present when I gather with other Candler students to plan our advocacy against the death penalty.

With Kelly on our mind, a coalition of students from Candler’s Social Concerns Network and the Candler Evangelical Society coordinated an event called “Beyond ‘An Eye for An Eye’: A Theological Vision for Opposing the Death Penalty.” Watch the video. Fellow student Tyler Dunstan recognized that many Christians supported the death penalty because of their faith. Indeed, the top cited reason for supporting the death penalty is “an eye for an eye.” Furthermore, of all religious groups, white, evangelical Protestants comprise the largest group of support, with 59% favoring the death penalty. In order to abolish capital punishment, we as burgeoning faith leaders need to articulate a distinctly Christian approach that values Scripture, ethical considerations, and the legal system. Tyler rounded up three of the leading scholars in Biblical studies, Christian ethics, and law to address this issue.

Back in November, we scheduled this event for February 2. Yet when the State of Georgia scheduled its first execution (Brandon Astor Jones) of 2016 for that same night, we were forced to reschedule. Back on the slate for February 16, only two weeks later, we found ourselves meeting on the eve of another execution (Travis Hittson). The reality of continuing executions added an air of urgency to our conversation that night. While we discuss, debate, and pray, people are routinely being scheduled to die.

With nearly 90 people filling the lecture hall, Brent Strawn, Candler’s own Old Testament professor, ushered in the night with a poignant reflection on the complications of reading Scripture as our guide on this issue. He pointed out that “an eye for an eye” isn’t such a bad principle in its true biblical usage as a limiting factor, offering protection from escalating violence. Still, even when one can find support for capital punishment within the pages of the Bible, one can also find exceptions. Over and over, God spares people from punishment of death, beginning with Adam and Eve, and then Moses, and then David. True to form, Dr. Strawn asked us to consider the poetics of Scripture, calling us toward better and better embodiment of the commandment not to kill.

Dr. David Gushee, a premier Christian ethicist, offered the crowd a way to apply moral discernment, not only to the death penalty, but to many issues of concern. Moving beyond “naive evangelical biblicism” (The “I read the Bible and it tells me what to do” approach), Dr. Gushee urged us toward a hermeneutic of suspicion that recognized our location as readers of Scripture. We all encounter the criminal justice system out of our own experience. As we recognize our own location, we can also consider the perspective of others. What if, he asked, we read the Bible from the perspective of the executed? What would John the Baptist say about the death penalty?

Finally, Tim Floyd, JD, from Mercer University articulated the inconsistencies of application of capital punishment. For a system that claims to eliminate “the worst of the worst,” it actually only kills people who commit particular crimes with particular victims in particular counties with particular support for capital punishment. We were left to consider: If the death penalty is applied with such inequality, can that truly be fair and just punishment?

JacksonNot even 24 hours later, I gathered my warmest clothing and drove south to Jackson, where the State of Georgia would execute Travis Hittson. Joining a group of protestors, we called the names of all 61 people executed since 1976. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer, read Psalm 23, and sang “Amazing Grace.” I squinted down the dark road leading to the prison, tucked away behind heavy trees, as if the state recognized the darkness of their deeds and aimed to keep it from sight. Execution number 62 may be happening in darkness, but I now carried with me a fresh reminder from Psalm 102, thanks to Dr. Strawn’s lecture the night before. The Lord can see what is happening behind the barbed wire. The Lord is concerned for those living and dying on death row. The Lord offers mercy for all. May we as people of faith go and do likewise.

The Lord looked down from his holy summit, surveyed the earth from heaven, to hear the prisoners’ groans, to set free those condemned to death.(Psalm 102:19-20 CEB)