A passionate Christian voice for abolishing the death penalty

Ted Grimsrud—October 20, 2016

A review of: Shane Claiborne. Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2016. 313 pp.

In Executing Grace, Shane Claiborne, a pastor, activist, and writer of popular theology, has written what we could call a “heart based” argument for abolition of the death penalty. He emphasizes at the beginning that this book is not so much about “capital punishment” as it is about “grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love” (p.3). Or, perhaps more precisely, the book is about “grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love” as applied to the death penalty.

The style is personal, even chatty. But the plentiful stories are powerful, and the theological logic is straightforward. One set of stories concern loved ones of murder victims who oppose the death penalty. Many of these numerous loved ones base their opposition on their beliefs about, Jesus, and the dynamics of forgiveness. Part of Claiborne’s critique concerns the American system that silences these voices in the name of “justice.”

Death penalty proponents have used the Bible to justify executing convicted murderers. As Claiborne points out, “over 85 percent of state executions in the last thirty-eight years occurred in the so-called Bible Belt” (p. 43). So, for an evangelical Christian such as Claiborne, the task is not to argue that the Bible should play no role in the practices of a secular nation such as the United States. Rather, he endeavors to reread the Bible and show that its message ultimately supports the abolition of capital punishment.

Such an argument requires refuting two key principles that Christian supporters of the death penalty usually refer to—(1) the notion of justice as “eye for an eye” that leads to the assertion that when a person takes someone else’s life they deserve to lose theirs and (2) the sense, drawn most directly from Romans 13, that the state has been established by God to use the death-dealing sword to exact justice.

Claiborne’s arguments against applying these biblical teachings to justify our death penalty are not definitive, but they are solid and ultimately most centrally rest on the message of Jesus that counters standard interpretations and applications of those two principles. As well, Claiborne reflects at length on the story of Jesus’s own execution and argues that that death should have ended any acceptance of the death penalty for his followers.

The key takeaway from the story of Jesus is God’s forgiving mercy. “The crucifixion was an act of divine solidarity and costly forgiveness. As God continues to remain loyal to a disloyal people, we now are invited to extend the same grace to others. We are to be like God and forgive. We are to see people who do evil with the possibility that they can be healed. And we are to extend to them the same grace God extends to us. We are all victims of the crushing power of sin, and all in need of liberation” (p. 109). That is, the cross is most of all about God’s mercy, not about God’s punitive justice—therefore it underwrites abolition, not more executions.

Claiborne argues that the early Christians did indeed draw this kind of lesson from the story of Jesus and stood against the death penalty. But this was not to last. “The more mainstream and popular Christianity became, the trickier it was to maintain a countercultural commitment to nonviolence and grace” (p. 137). So, what is now needed is a willingness to Christians to go back to their founding documents as their main ethical source.

There are, of course, also non-theological reasons to question the death penalty. Claiborne’s summary of this part of the discussion, while somewhat cursory, does touch on the main points—especially the disparity between the vast majority of U.S. counties that do not execute and the handful of counties that are responsible for almost all of our executions. It is no accident that most of the executing counties are in parts of the country that have deep racist histories and in the present disproportionately give the death penalty to racial minorities.

Another huge problem with the practice of capital punishing, poignantly illustrated by several of Claiborne’s moving case studies, is the all too common occurrence of innocent people being executed. “Why should we have a system in which irreversible injustice is inevitable?” (p. 226).

Ultimately, Claiborne suggests, we need a new vision of justice. He wraps the various threads of his argument together in a discussion of the recently emerging approach called “restorative justice.” He points out that a notion of justice that is more concerned with healing and reconciliation in face of wrongdoing is much truer to the biblical story than justice that insists on punishment, even to the point of death, as the response to wrongdoing. And he goes on to describe how a restorative approach is actually much more likely to facilitate healing for loved ones of victims.

This heartfelt and attractively presented argument against the death penalty will be welcome among death penalty abolitionists. Claiborne’s presentation will gain the most traction with evangelical Christians due to its biblical emphasis.

It will be good for evangelicals to have such a forceful, clear presentation that argues on the grounds of the biblical witness. But the book will have value for everyone else who has serious doubts about the moral—and practical—appropriateness of America’s use of the state-sponsored practice of taking human life that differentiates this country from virtually all other global democracies.

One major reason why Claiborne’s book should be welcomed by those beyond the evangelical community is that it is precisely that community which constitutes the population segment in the United States that is most positive about the death penalty. So, even for those who might find Claiborne’s argument a bit proof-texty or overly pious, that he has written this book is cause for celebration.


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