Shane Claiborne’s newest book will come out on June 7th – Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. In this book Shane offers a powerful and persuasive appeal for the abolition of the death penalty. Shane tells stories of horrific pain and heroic grace. We sat down with Shane to discuss his newest book.
Q: Shane, you’ve been working towards the abolition of the Death Penalty for a while. When and how did you get started in this work?
One of my earliest memories surrounding the death penalty was from a letter I got. Ever since I wrote The Irresistible Revolution, I’ve given books to people living in prison. One day, I got a letter from a man on death row, and all it said was “PLEASE HELP” in bold black letters. I hung it on my chapel wall and the urgency of it struck me. Over the years, I got to write lots of folks in prison and many on death row, and started hearing stories that eventually inspired Executing Grace. One guy told me that he had committed a terrible crime and yet the victim’s family argued against the execution. He said, “I wasn’t a Christian then, but I am now”–and I realized the power of grace and how important this issue is.
Q: Why did you decide to turn your activism into a book?
I’m not a single-issue kind of person–but I have found the death penalty to be an incredibly compelling issue. It opens up a pandora’s box of really important questions. What is real justice? Why did Jesus die? What is restorative justice? Questions about race and justice and how much we trust the government. The real inspiration for the book, though, is the murder victims’ families that don’t believe the execution is the right way forward.
Q: Unfortunately, it seems that the death penalty is still something that is divisive among Christians in our country–what are the main barriers to Christians once and for all standing together against the death penalty?
The death penalty hasn’t survived in spite of Christians but because of us. A problem that we are very vocal about at RLC is that sometimes we have lost Christ as the center of our Christianity–so we end of trumping some of Christ’s teachings with other scripture (Old Testament, Romans) to justify the death penalty. There is definitely a biblical backbone for supporting the death penalty. That’s why so many people who have studied this are appalled–because Christians are using scripture to support the death penalty.
That’s why it’s so important to do really good theology in Executing Grace. Even though we call ourselves Red Letter Christians, we believe the black letters of the Bible are important and inspired by God. But it’s a mis-reading of those texts that can become deadly. People use “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth” out of context–even attorneys in court. We need to counter bad theology with good theology.
Dale Recinella, a chaplain on death row, wrote a book called The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty. One of the things he says is that if the rabbis looked at the current death penalty in America they would be horrified because it doesn’t meet any of the biblical standards. The Jewish community in practice has abolished the death penalty, but Christians are using those same texts to justify the death penalty.
At the end, the question is how does this reconcile with the words and life of Jesus?
Young millennial Christians are against the death penalty because they cannot reconcile it with the Bible and with Jesus. The National Latino Evangelical Coalition came out with a unanimous statement from their board calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The National Association of Evangelicals drastically changed their statement on the death penalty. The Pope has also released a statement calling for the end of the death penalty–this is all great momentum forward. I hope the book helps Christians be a part of making history.
Q: For those who don’t know much about restorative justice, what is it and how is it different from our current justice practices?
I think one of the best translations of biblical justice and righteousness is restorative justice. Restorative justice is not just about getting the punishment you deserve for a crime, but about healing the wounds that have been created. That’s a very different kind of framework than what we have in the United States. Our criminal justice system is punitive rather than restorative. A punitive criminal justice system is asking, “What crime was done, and what is the punishment to fit that crime?” The focus is on the offenders getting what they deserve, emphasizing a violation of the law. Restorative justice, on the other hand, is a more communal model. Crime is seen as a violation of people and community. It focuses on healing the harm done by those violations–and it involves everybody (victims, offenders, etc.). Restorative justice asks, “Who has been hurt, what are the victims’ needs, and whose obligations are these?”
There are many places with a restorative model of justice. I tell stories where victims of violent crimes have actually given their voice against an execution. I tell a story about a young woman whose dad was attacked and killed, and when she went to trial she stood against the death penalty. During trial she was actually threatened with fines, possible jail time–she was treated like person on trial rather than a victim. These stories are not as well known because they are not amplified. If victims are for the death penalty, they voices are amplified and their stories are known. But if they are against it, their stories are often silenced. We saw that in the Boston bombing as well. A number of people in Boston, victims and citizens, were against the death penalty. This was also the case at Charleston and Sandy Hook where many victims’ family members did not want further violence. I want to lift up those voices. Many of those people are working to end the death penalty out of a faith motivation, but others just don’t want to impose that kind of cruelty on a person.
Q: Tell us a little about the research you did and the stories you uncovered. What stories influenced you most?
Bill Pelke is definitely an inspiration. His grandmother was brutally killed by some teenagers. One of them became the youngest woman on death row and was facing execution. At first, Bill wanted the toughest possible punishment. Later, he realized that Jesus would want forgiveness, and remembered what his Nana had taught him (she was a Sunday School teacher). He became really vocal to fight the death penalty. When the young teen was released from death row, Bill was there to greet her and welcome her with open arms. Sadly, she later committed suicide. Through this experience, Bill began Journey of Hope, an organization that gets together victims of violent crime and family members of those who have been executed–and these people grieve together. (Watch Shane’s interview of Bill from a few years back.)
There are a number of wonderful groups like Journey of Hope that focus on restoration and forgiveness, such as Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and also Murder Victims Families for Human Rights. These people have the fragrance of Christ about them through their forgiveness and grace.