“The truth is, wearing a cross two thousand years ago would be like wearing an electric chair around your neck today.”
From Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us by Shane Claiborne
As a supporter of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, I can tell you why, for many reasons, that state sanctioned killing is a dangerous practice. One reason is that most executions in the U.S. are of men of color, and given the institutional and systemic racism in the U.S., we’re talking about the color black, brown and red. Claiborne tackles institutional racism along with an array of other issues associated with state sponsored executions.
But before delving into the text, we should know the author and Christian evangelical who takes an unabashed and unapologetic stance against the death penalty.
Shane Claiborne is a passionate follower and practitioner of the teachings of Jesus Christ. He is also an evangelical activist who has penetrated and questioned those teachings for their relevance and application to some of the most glaring social issues that confront us. Claiborne is one of the visionaries of the New Monastic Movement and a founding member of the Simple Way, a nonprofit organization and intentional community located in the Kensington section of Northeast Philadelphia. It is not a new monastic order, but it is, according to Claiborne, guided by new monastic wisdom:
“…we decided that we were going to stop complaining about the church that we’d experienced and try to become the church that we dreamed of.” (https://onbeing.org/programs/reclaim-abandoned-spaces-shane-claiborne/)
The 44-year-old Tennessean activist, author and graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, challenged Philadelphia city officials by calling attention to the more than 20,000 abandoned houses in Philadelphia whose homeless population numbers roughly 5,600. He not only challenges officials, but fellow Christians regarding their beliefs and their responsibilities in advocating them:
“I must say that I am still passionately pro-life, I just have a more holistic sense of what it means to be for life, knowing that life does not just begin at conception and end at birth, and that if I am going to discourage abortion, I had better be ready to adopt some babies and care for some mothers.” The Irresistible Revolution (2006), pg. 44.
It is a holistic view that Claiborne takes of the death penalty. He begins Executing Grace with Biblical history and early Christian views on executions. In examining popular quoted Biblical injunctions in support of the death penalty, such as “an eye for an eye,” the author emphasizes how there are far more examples of forgiveness, grace and reconciliation in the “eye for an eye” Bible.
It is in this discussion of Biblical history that Claiborne redefines the crucifixion as an example of state sponsored execution:
“There is a danger in forgetting the terrible, bloody, tortuous, gory sickening part of Jesus’s death and thinking of it only in an abstract, transcendent, spiritual way. One concrete way to remember the grit and horror of it all is to speak of Jesus’s death as an execution.” (pg. 84)
While the discussion of Biblical history does not reveal the exact number of executions that were carried out according to Biblical injunctions, it does give a startling number of the executions carried out in the U.S. since the country’s inception of colonialization: 15,000. After a Supreme Court moratorium on executions in the 1960’s, the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Then 1,422 executions followed, 37% carried out by Texas, one of the five southern states which represent the death penalty’s largest support base.
In chapter 8, there is the examination of the relationship between race and the death penalty. Historical evidence links the decrease in lynching to a corresponding rise in the number of African Americans who are sentenced to the death penalty. The author concludes that lynching was in fact state sponsored and supported as evidenced by the lack of convictions that resulted from the lynching deaths of hundreds of African Americans.
An examination of the death penalty would not be complete without addressing the shameful number of wrongful convictions. There have been 156 people released from death row since 1973, based on discoveries that they were not guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. In this chapter, “The Death Penalty’s Hall of Shame,” chapter 9, other reasons for eliminating the death are highlighted, including botched executions, wrongful convictions, mental illness, judicial overrides and economic bias.
The book explores the emotions and beliefs that are involved in government approved executions from the perspective of the victims’ families to that of the executioner whose job is not easily left behind after working hours are over. Executioners grapple with tortured sleep and haunting nightmares:
“’’ “I started to have some horrible nightmares,” he said. “It was the faces of the men that I executed. I woke up and saw them literally sitting on the edge of my bed. I’d move over to make room for them. They didn’t say anything to me. They just looked.” “”
The book gives a voice to the convicted and executed, to their families and those of the victims. Interestingly the book notes that families of victims who do not support the death penalty are almost always marginalized, even unto being disallowed in the courtroom to ask the court to spare the convicted person’s life.
The author asks that we examine the lack of efficacy in government sponsored executions and the more efficacious practice of truth and reconciliation as exemplified in the case of the Amish of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In October 2006, a gunman shot girls, ages 6-13, killing five, paralyzing one for life before turning the gun on himself. What surprised many who followed the story was the Amish response which included ongoing visitations and prayer sessions with the gunman’s family.
Executing Grace is far from an easy read. Claiborne does provide some buffer by interspersing the horrors of the death penalty with the good news from the Bible. Hopefully readers who are pro-death penalty will come away feeling a little less attached to their convictions, and those who were already anti-death penalty will come away with a broader understanding of the death penalty, its history, practice and failures.
Like all the systems managed under the old story, the criminal justice system is not in need of reform or remediation, but dissolution. It is only from the awareness that comes from a shift in consciousness that we can create a New Narrative that ensures planetary justice and security for all of earth’s inhabitants. ~Akilah, March 2020
Note: Are Prisons Obsolete, by Angela Davis is another book you may be interested in. It focuses on the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration.