I’ve been a fan of Shane Claiborne since I read his first book, The Irresistible Revolution, way back in 2006. It’s been ten years since I discovered his work and I can tell he’s been busy since then. Lately his focus has fallen on the death penalty, in particular on abolishing it. As he says in his latest book, Executing Grace, “Death is the problem, not the solution.”
The death penalty has been with us for a long time and has existed in many different forms. In fact, it is so historic and common place that most people just take it for granted as a necessary evil in society. At least that was the notion I took toward capital punishment whenever it crossed my radar as a young Christian. At first I didn’t think about it at all; when I did, I just kind of accepted it as part of the fabric of life in a fallen world.
My view has changed since then. I now stand with Shane and many others who advocate for the end of the death penalty. Like Shane, I view this issue primarily through the life and teaching of Jesus. Just ask the woman caught in adultery what the Lord of Life thinks about the death penalty and you will see where I’m coming from (John 8). While this may be an issue that most Christians simply gloss right over, the Word of God has something profound to say on the matter.
I read Executing Grace in anticipation of Shane visiting my hometown toward the end of this month (local peeps, contact me for details). Some friends of mine are bringing him here to present his case against state-sanctioned murder. He’ll be sharing as part of the Sunday service at a local church in the morning and holding a public forum at another church in the afternoon. If his public presentation is anywhere near as compelling as his book, I predict either riot or revival will break out in my mostly conservative-based community.
That is not a personal knock against conservatives, mind you. I’m part conservative myself. 😉
It is hard to do justice to Executing Grace’s breadth of content in a short review such as this. Shane begins by identifying the gnawing feeling most people have that something isn’t right about the practice of killing in order to show that killing is wrong. He talks about the victims of violence yet doesn’t limit those victims to any one side of the case (for example, the duration of a single death penalty case can perpetuate the re-victimization of families for many years after the initial act of wrongdoing). Then the conversation turns theological: Shane talks about popular ways in which the Bible is used to justify killing by the State and spills plenty of ink highlighting the most famous execution in history, that of Jesus himself. I was particularly impressed with Shane’s explanation of the purpose and limits of the “eye for an eye” concept of retribution.
Toward the middle of the book he shifts gears to discuss the early Christian attitude toward violence in general. This will blow your mind if you aren’t already familiar with the early church’s witness against death in all its forms. From there he proceeds to more recent history concerning the use of the death penalty throughout both America and the world, and here I must warn you that the account becomes mind-numbing. Not just the statistics, but the stories Shane shares throughout Executing Grace will rip your heart out again and again. This is not a book for the faint of heart.
About the time Shane makes a shocking connection between the rise of legal capital punishment and the decline of illegal public lynching is when you really start to see how this conversation invites so many broader questions concerning race, economic inequality, and the brokenness of America’s criminal justice system (a friend of mine who is a former prison guard believes that our system is nothing more than a “conviction system” and has little to do with real justice). The chapter on the death penalty’s “hall of shame” is riddled with accounts of botched executions and wrongful convictions of innocent people; even Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor confessed, “More often than we want to recognize, some innocent defendants have been convicted and sentenced to death.” In the final two chapters Shane addresses the question of alternative forms of justice and calls the reader to action “in the name of the executed and risen Savior.” Having succeeded in putting a face on the “issue” of capital punishment, he rests his case on a resounding note of hope.
So I urge you to read Executing Grace. If you are new to the conversation about the death penalty and want a Christ-centered perspective, I cannot think of a better place to begin. You will hear the voice of Jesus through Shane’s writing as they must have heard him on the hills of Galilee all those years ago, saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I tell you to love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you” (Matthew 5:43-44). I recommend Shane’s book most of all because it is so much more than a treatise against death; far more than that, it is a clarion call to life.