The last time I saw Kelly Gissendaner, at the end of the summer, she had just received a letter from German theologian Jurgen Moltmann. He told her he was planning to come visit her when he traveled to the United States this fall. This news raised Kelly’s spirits, and she was visibly more hopeful than I had seen her in some time.
As Kelly has been awaiting a new death warrant — which she has now received — she and I have returned to the writings of Jurgen Moltmann. We first read Moltmann together when Kelly was my student in the theology certificate program in prison. Like me, Kelly had a conversion to hope after reading Moltmann’s theology for the first time. My conversion in graduate school gave me energy to actively work for social change and believe in the possibility of real change, even when I am tempted toward despair. Kelly’s conversion in prison gave her a new sense of purpose and direction, even and especially in the face of death:
“For a while now, and because I was on death row, I didn’t have a plan for my life,” Kelly shared in her graduation speech in 2011, “but I now have a plan.”
Our reason for reflecting on hope and life at this time may seem obvious. On the one hand, our hope is clear: We hope for clemency. We are calling on Governor Nathan Deal’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Kelly’s death sentence to life in prison without parole. On the other hand, what it means to be people of hope in the face of condemnation to death is not at all clear. For, the threat and likelihood of death surrounds Kelly on every side.
In the midst of this, we are tempted toward presumption in one of two ways, each of which betrays the difficulty of hope and makes us passive. Many of us presume that we will not get what we hope for. We presume that what the Apostle Paul calls “the powers and principalities” of death have won in this instance. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has spoken; they denied Kelly clemency in February. Others of us may be tempted toward the premature presumption that surely God will not let this happen; that the execution was halted before; and that if we keep the faith, we will get what we hope for.
In contrast to both of these temptations, biblical hope affords us strength to live in the tension between false certainties. As we fight for Kelly’s life, we have no certainty, only a command: We are to “live into the possibilities and promises of God” in active resistance to death.
For, as Moltmann teaches, biblical hope is not a hope that gives up on this life and looks for something better beyond the grave. Rather, hope lives into the promises of God with confidence that when we do so, we “revolutionize and transform the present.” We participate in the movement of God in the world – the God who asks us to pray that the kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
A theology of biblical hope cannot be separated from a theology of life. The God of Hope is the Spirit of Life – the source of life, the author of life, the sustainer of life, the giver of new life, and most importantly, the lover of life. All of God’s promises – the promise of liberation, new creation, restoration and repair – lead to an affirmation of life, this life, here and now, not only in the age to come.
Kelly’s crime is precisely that she did not affirm life, the concrete life of Douglas Gissendaner, a good man and father to her children. The scandal of the gospel is this: even given this severe and painful reality, God affirms Kelly’s life; God affirms all of life.
In the coming weeks, Kelly and I invite you to join us as we read and reflect daily on Moltmann’s theology of hope and theology of life. We will be reading from Jurgen Moltmann: Collected Readings (Fortress Press, 2014), beginning this week with the first chapter, “Theology of Hope.” We are grateful that Fortress Press has made this reading available free of charge. You may download it here.
Each morning, I will be posting quotes from this chapter on Facebook and Twitter. If you choose to read along with us, you can share your own prayers and reflections with the hashtag #kellyonmymind #theologyofhope. In the evening, at 7 pm, I invite you to join me in praying with Kelly.
Jennifer M. McBride is Board of Regents Chair in Ethics, Assistant Professor of Religion, and Director of Peace and Justice Studies at Wartburg College, in Waverly, Iowa. She is author of “The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness” (Oxford University Press, 2011) and co-editor of “Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought” (Fortress Press, 2010). Since 2008, she has taught in the prison-based Theology Certificate Program of which Kelly Gissendaner is a graduate. You can read more about Kelly’s case and find suggestions for taking action at www.kellyonmymind.com.