A killer and a theologian: Touching CNN story gets jailhouse religion — and journalism

Last month, we critiqued a New York Post story on Jeffrey Dahmer's killer that totally failed to get religion.

Basically, the piece was journalistic trash:

Now, for something totally different: a touching CNN story that absolutely gets jailhouse religion — and journalism.

Really, this is an amazing, extremely well-told story:

The compelling lede:

Atlanta (CNN) A few months ago, Kelly Gissendaner wrote a letter to a pen pal across the Atlantic. She told him the state of Georgia was about to fix a date for her execution. One evening soon, she would be strapped to a gurney, needles would be inserted into her arm, and poison would course through her veins until she was dead.
The letter arrived a few days later at the home of an 88-year-old man in Tubingen, Germany. After reading it, he took one of his white handkerchiefs, folded it neatly and placed it in an envelope to mail to Georgia's death row.
"When the tears are coming," he wrote, "take my handkerchief."
The man in Germany was Jurgen Moltmann, an eminent theologian and author who met Gissendaner in prison in 2011. The two have kept in touch through letters ever since.
The circumstances of their lives are vastly different. And yet, they found commonality.

Keep reading, and the story delves into the faith journeys of both Moltmann, who at age 18 was recruited into Adolf Hitler's army, and Gissendaner, who was sentenced to die for recruiting her boyfriend to kill her husband.

A reader who called our attention to CNN reporter Moni Basu's story commented:

Lots of good details and personal touches and observation on the interaction between German theologian Jurgen Moltmann and female Georgia death row inmate. But best of all, it allows for more than one side of a heated issue, in this case the death penalty, to be fairly represented. This story, at least in the view of this reader, makes the effort to get the religion at the heart of the matter.

Amen. Amen. And amen.

The other side of the story that CNN presents so masterfully:

Phil Wages, pastor at Winterville First Baptist Church near Atlanta, is among those who stand with the victim's family. He says he would never put his name to a petition seeking clemency for Gissendaner.
"Absolutely, I believe in the power of the Gospel to change anybody from a sinner to a saint, from having a heart of stone to heart of flesh," Wages says. "But I don't think change negates what the state of Georgia decided. There was enough evidence to convict her and give her the death penalty. Change does not get her a 'get out jail free' card."
Wages was an officer in the Gwinnett County Police Department in 1997 and watched his colleagues bring in Gissendaner after her arrest. He says he is glad she turned to God.
"I think a lot of men and women behind bars would not have otherwise been interested in the Bible had they not been in such a difficult place," he says. "It does take suffering sometimes for people to begin to think about spiritual things."
But he does not agree with the theology that drew Gissendaner to Moltmann's teachings.
"Moltmann believes God suffers with us," Wages says. "This is not the understanding of the church for thousands of years. I would argue that God is transcendent. He is above creation. Therefore, he can't suffer with us."

Kudos to the CNN writer for recognizing the value of telling the full story.

It's impossible to grasp the breadth of the piece based on the few snippets I have copied and pasted. I urge you to check out the story yourself. By all means, read it all.

Image via Shutterstock.com

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