The Execution of a Graduate: Struggles From Candler School of Theology


I needed a theological education that could save my life. For years, I struggled to survive under the weight of what I was taught at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I just couldn't believe that God hated that many people. How could a God called Love only have love for those whose minds and hearts were closed to the world around them? I couldn't give up. I had to take one more chance on God and life. When I arrived at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, I got the jolt of existential electrification that I needed. In classroom after classroom, I met a God that knew my name and desperately sought to breathe life into me. Just when I thought it might be over, a little theological education got me moving again. Though there were difficulties, I can say in no uncertain terms that my tenure at Candler School of Theology saved my life.

Most people would not think of the largest women's prison in Georgia as a center of theological education. When I first heard about Candler's Certificate of Theological Studies, I thought that someone had really lost it to try and construct theological education in a prison. Then, I met some of the graduates of the program. God shows up and shows out in some of the strangest places. Upon encountering some of these women, I realized that theological education was saving their lives too.

In 1997, Kelly Gissendaner was sentenced to death for orchestrating the murder of her husband, Doug. If we think about it logically, Gissendaner probably deserves to die for her crimes. I guess we all deserve to die for our crimes to some degree or another. Struggling to find life in dark spaces, Gissendaner started her theological education from the same place that I did. From lesson to lesson, Candler School of Theology taught Gissendaner that the love and grace of God never fails. I never grew tired of that lesson. Knowing that she would be probably executed, I wonder if Gissendaner thought that theological education would save her life? In a spiritual sense, I suspect it already has. Yet, Gissendaner was still scheduled to die March 2. In the midst of such a crisis, what are we to do with our theological educations?

The Candler School of Theology taught me that I was learning in order to give life to others. Today, I am struggling with the value of such education when the state is preparing to kill one of the graduates. How could this happen? Where were we? Maybe we were in prison when she was there. Maybe we will be with her until the bitter end. Maybe we will be the ones who keep her memory alive. All of this theology is well and good, but I would still like to save her life. If theological education cannot both raise the dead to life and keep the guilty from being slaughtered, then what good is it? For the sake of Kelly Gissendaner, I pray that we figure this piece out..