Death is the problem, not the solution

November 9, 2016 — 7 Comments
Photo Credit: Don Pino Esposito Flickr via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Don Pino Esposito Flickr via Compfight cc

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.

7 responses to Death is the problem, not the solution

  1. Thanks, Josh, for such an accurate review of Shane Claiborne’s book about how the “death penalty killed Jesus and why it’s killing us.” I also read the book and found it to be such a strong theological and scriptural mandate to work for abolition of the death penalty if we profess to be followers of Jesus. I, too, was so awed by the account of the early Christian church members who understood that they could not participate in violence, be it state-sponsored such as war and the death penalty or more personally initiated. Shane Claiborne will be in Portsmouth area on November 20th at Pleasant Valley Community of Christ worship service in Lucasville (on Sedan-Crabtree Rd) at 10:30 AM with a community meal to follow. He will also be at All Saints Episcopal Church for an open forum at 2PM on that same day. Both events are welcoming especially for anyone who struggles with how to reconcile being Christian and being a citizen of a State that executes prisoners.

    • Thanks for all the effort you’ve put into raising awareness on this subject and for bringing Shane to Portsmouth, Lorry. I know you don’t get a lot of “thanks” for what you do, but there are those of us who appreciate and benefit from it.

  2. Andrew Wehrheim November 9, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Josh, I’ve been trying to reach you for the past two days. What’s up?

  3. Though I used to agree, I don’t necessarily see things in the same light anymore. I used to believe that all people, at their core were good people. That everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, at least. However, after personally witnessing the evil in some men, the utter darkness that they don’t even quite understand, I think that some men death is the only feasible option. Like sociopaths and what-not.
    My view is this: many families of murdered/raped children find much comfort and consolation from seeing that the offender will not ever be able to hurt anyone again.

    Now, not all are like this. But I say, if the family of the victim supports the death penalty, then go with it. However, if the family goes before the prosecution and protests it, then don’t seek it.

    Why deny the family justice so a murderer can have his? Besides, people are aware that killing someone may result in death.

    I’m not condoning the death penalty. Simply showing my perspective on the issue. Great post though. Love ya bro!

    • Thanks, Michael. I appreciate your perspective and hear where you’re coming from. A few things in response:

      For me the main question is this: Is anyone beyond redemption? Paul, as you know, put himself forward as the best example that no one is beyond redemption. If the “chief of sinners” can find new life through grace, surely the man on death row can too. Capital punishment cuts short a person’s chance at redemption and I personally feel that no one but God is worthy to make that call on a person’s life.

      I understand many people disagree with me on this, though, and will cite some of the points you’ve made. I can accept your argument as long as you can answer one question for me in the affirmative: Are you willing to take the person’s life yourself? In other words, would you be willing to cast the first stone? Or push the button? Or kick the chair? If you can say that you’re willing to do the deed yourself then I can at least accept your argument for the death penalty. I think most people who support capital punishment do so without thinking this through. It is easier to accept the practice of death for death when we have the intermediary of the State to do the dirty work for us, but if individuals were required to kill people themselves I think most would naturally (and rightfully) hesitate. Many former wardens and death team members are tormented by their participation in this process and now oppose capital punishment as a result.

      I realize you said you are not necessarily condoning the death penalty, though. Just some food for further thought.

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