Confronting my own Racism

03/03 Update: Execution delayed because drugs to be used are “cloudy”–unclear if SCOTUS is reviewing case or not.

03/02 Update after 9pm: Execution delayed for SCOTUS to weigh in.

Tonight a woman named Kelly Renee Gissendaner is scheduled to be executed in Georgia at the age of 46. Her picture has been in my newsfeed for days, a beaming face under a blue graduation cap. She is known to at least one of my classmates from seminary.

At 6:45 tonight, I sat down on the floor to pray for Kelly. I wanted to pray for her in the minutes leading up to and following her scheduled 7pm execution. As I prayed, several thoughts and phrases repeated in my mind…
I sang the spiritual, “Oh, Sister, let’s go down, down to the river to pray.”
I recalled the words of the Nunc dimittis we recite at evening prayer, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace… for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
I apologized to Kelly and made promises to her.
I asked God’s forgiveness for my being complicit in a broken and sinful system.

And then it hit me.

While I have been opposed to the death penalty for as long as I can remember, this feels different. And it feels different because Kelly looks like me.

A white woman, pictured in cap and gown, smiling, a professed Christian.

The difficult truth–for me at least–is that this death affects me differently than the more prevalent images of incarcerated black males. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

I’m re-reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow with a group of parishioners at Trinity Wall Street right now, I just met with a previously incarcerated black man last week to discuss some excellent work he is doing to give hope to prisoners serving life sentences, and I share dinner with a group of recently incarcerated (mostly black male) people once a month–so it’s not like I’m naive to the very real problem race disparity and mass incarceration.

And yet that knowledge is apparently not enough to override my internal prejudice.

Perhaps others will be more affected by Kelly’s execution as well, and perhaps God will use that extra dose of “she looks like me” discomfort to bring about justice. I don’t know. But I know Kelly has taught me a lot this night.

As of 8:45pm, Kelly has not yet been executed. She has been denied clemency–a decision affirmed by the parole board after her scheduled 7pm execution. I can’t imagine what the past few hours of hopeless hope have felt like.

Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.

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