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From left to right, Jürgen Moltmann, Kelly Gissendaner, and Jennifer McBride, photo provided by Jennifer McBride
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Remembering Jürgen Moltmann

In friendship, Jürgen says, we experience a “broad space” in which we can expand. The power and beauty of the letters between Kelly and Jürgen lies, in part, in the fact that they occupied a wide space that encompassed radically different social locations.

I met Jürgen Moltmann in graduate school when I hosted him for a Project on Lived Theology event at the University of Virginia in 2005. Having heard that he was known for writing to people across the globe, I sent him a letter afterwards to tell him that I had had a conversion to hope on account of his visit. I never could have imagined that, five years later, this internationally renowned theologian would be corresponding with Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on Georgia’s death row, developing a friendship that would be definitive for her — and, I’ve come to believe, was definitive for him in the final season of his life.

After reading some of Moltmann’s work in a theology course I taught at the prison where she was incarcerated, through a certificate program housed at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Kelly asked if it would be appropriate for her to write him. I said yes, certain he would write her back. When she was denied clemency, a local and international advocacy movement arose that was rooted in her theological studies and friendship with him.

“Friendship” is an essential theological category for Moltmann (or “Jürgen,” as he invited me to call him, since, as he told me, “My first name is not ‘Professor’”). In friendship, Jürgen says, we experience a “broad space” in which we can expand. The power and beauty of the letters between Kelly and Jürgen lies, in part, in the fact that they occupied a wide space that encompassed radically different social locations. In one sense, it would be hard to find two people more different in this world — a German academic who is one of the most widely read and respected theologians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and a woman incarcerated in a Georgia state prison. Yet I was struck by how similar they were and how real the connection was between them due to their journeys of faith and shared theological reflection.

Jürgen was so impressed with Kelly that he asked if I would bring him to meet her when he traveled from his home in Tübingen, Germany to Atlanta, Georgia, where he would be delivering the Reformation Day lecture at Emory. This opportunity led to him giving the keynote address at the theology graduation in prison and to a two-hour pastoral visit with Kelly and me.

Like Kelly, Jürgen’s conversion began in prison, when he was taken by the British as a prisoner of war in February 1945. Like Kelly, this was where his formal theological studies began.

In his keynote address, Jürgen spoke about the beginning of his theological vocation in prison: “When I first heard of your study of theology in prison, pictures of my youth and the beginning of my own theological studies emerged from the depth of my memory. Yes, I remember,” he said.

My theological studies started in a poor prisoner-of-war camp after World War II. I was 18 years old … In a camp of forced labor in Kilmarnock, Scotland, I read for the first time in my life the Bible and encountered Jesus. I had not decided for Christ, but I am certain Christ found me there when I was lost in sadness and desperation. He found me, as Christ has come to seek what is lost.

I tried to understand what had happened to me. We had “a theology school behind barbed wire.” … Excluded from time and the world, imprisoned professors taught imprisoned students. … We studied the Bible, church history and theology, but we also tried to come to terms with our death-experiences at the end of the war. Theology was for us at that time an existential experience of healing our wounded souls.

These were the beginning of my theological studies and my first experiences of the Church of Christ: the Church in prison camps. Later I became a pastor and professor of theology, but deep in my heart, there is still sitting a frightened and sad POW.

Affirming the graduates’ theological contributions to the “world-wide fellowship of all theologians,” an “age old community” that includes “Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Jürgen continued,

Every Christian who believes and understands is a theologian, not only the professionals at Candler or Tübingen, every Christian! … You are really theologians and in fact excellent theologians. I have read a paper that Jenny McBride sent me, and I was impressed. My students at Tübingen could not have made it better. …

I would like to encourage you: Go on and take the next course in Theological Studies. And you must not only learn from other theologians, develop your own thoughts. We need your spiritual insight and theological reflections. … We need you: the theology in the world needs the theology in prison. …. You are the Church! We are sisters and brothers in Christ Jesus.

By the October 2011 graduation, Jürgen and Kelly had exchanged a number of letters, ten in all, over a fifteen-month period. Their correspondence demonstrated not only that theology could be “an existential experience of healing wounded souls,” but also, as he said in his first letter back to her, that “theology is a great passion and a journey of adventures and discoveries in the holy mystery of God.”

In her initial letter, Kelly wrote about studying Christian hope in the theology foundations course and asked what would happen to her at her time of death. Jürgen assured her that what Jesus says to the thief on the cross, he says to Kelly at her moment of execution, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” He continued, “Not in three days, not at the end of days. … This is the ‘Today’ of the eternal God, God’s eternal presence. Kelly, God has embraced you already. … And the risen Jesus is waiting for you on the other side. You are expected.”

Like me, Kelly had a conversion to hope after reading Jürgen’s theology for the first time. My conversion in graduate school gave me energy to actively work for real social 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,” she shared in her graduation speech, “but I now have a plan.”

The greatest journey I’ve ever taken is through the theology program, which has affected all aspects of my life. Now I can do nothing but obtain all the knowledge I can through the Bible, theology, and great theologians like my friend Dr. Moltmann. … This journey will never end, and I’ve come to a point in my life where I’ve found out who I am, where I’m hoping to go, and what direction to take. In the theology program, I found people, my fellow students and instructors, who are on that same journey.

After Kelly’s execution was halted in March 2015, on account of “cloudy drugs,” the investigator on her legal team told me months later, as she awaited a second death warrant, “The more I’ve thought about it the more convinced I’ve become that Kelly’s life was saved that night because of the work you all did to make sure the world was watching. The Department of Corrections didn’t have to stop the execution on account of the drugs.” Just as true was this reality: the way we got the world to watch was by highlighting her friendship with Jürgen. From its first mention in a New York Times religion column, the story of their friendship spread like wildfire across the globe. We were getting so many interview requests that we couldn’t keep up. In his writing, Jürgen calls the kind of friendship that some of us in the theology program were able to share with Kelly, and the kind of friendship that she and Jürgen formed, “open friendship” — friendship with a public quality to it, a public stance and a personal defense of someone we love but society condemns. In his last letter to Kelly, Jürgen wrote,

In these sad days and difficult night my heart and mind are with you, and my thoughts and prayers are with you all the time. Let nobody rob you of your dignity: you are a beloved daughter of God. Let nobody touch the freedom of your soul: you are a beloved sister of Jesus Christ. Those who want to take your life really don’t know what they are doing. Forgive them, their future is dark. You are the truly free one.

On Tuesday, September 29 at 7 pm, I shall lite a candle light and pray for you. You are then not alone. I and thousands of concerned sisters and brothers are with you … You are an amazing person and [I] shall never forget you.

In my grief, as I process the news of his death, I’m rustling around in drawers, flipping open books, trying to find his most recent letter and wondering how I could have possibly misplaced it. His first letter to me is framed; his letters to Kelly that I published, and hers to him, and his to me, sit in my Ikea sideboard until I find the courage to part with them in an Emory archive. Stuck between books on my shelves or in piles on my desk are various notes and letters from former students in prison, Kelly’s peers, with whom I am still in regular contact. One of them, Malaika, has taped eight 8.5×11 pieces of white paper into a makeshift poster she recently sent me, artfully displaying a quote from Jürgen that summarizes the this-worldly implications of his theology of hope, rooted in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead: “Nothing is inevitable; anything is possible.”

Malaika and I — along with the other graduates in Kelly’s class — feel a deep connection to and love for Jürgen. Our love for him is not simply the result of the conversions to hope we each had after reading his theology. And it is not simply the result of the effect he had on us when we met him, for me, first at UVa, and for them, inside the prison. The deep affection we feel for Jürgen Moltmann stems from this simple fact: He loved our friend Kelly so well.

Excerpts used here were previously published in You Shall Not Condemn: A Story of Faith and Advocacy on Death Row (Cascade, 2022).

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