“Executing Grace: How The Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us,” by Shane Claiborne. Published 2016 by HarperOne. This review refers to the paperback version of the book.
I’ll tell you right off the bat, the only thing that I disliked about this book was the fact that it had to end. That’s saying something. I have a degree in Criminal Justice, and so when I read a book about the death penalty or the criminal justice system, the bar to impress me is pretty darn high. Not to mention, I’ve done a lot of reading and investigation about the death penalty over the years. It’s always had kind of a macabre fascination with it. I remember when I was younger I’d read about it from the college textbooks that my dad would bring home. I’ve also written two position papers on it, one in high school, and one in college at Weber State. In high school I was for it, but by the time I hit college, especially the second time around, I was done with it. If you’ve read other blogs of mine on this issue, you’ll know why I loved this book.
If you’re not familiar with Shane Claiborne, he’s a Christian activist/author, the Director of “Red Letter Christians,”and the founding member of “The Simple Way,” a radical faith community in inner-city Philadelphia. Shane is one of those people who thinks that all those things that Jesus said about loving your neighbor and loving your enemies weren’t just suggestions, and that we ought to try to live those words. He and others like Craig Greenfield really inspire me.
Part of the premise of this book is to evaluate why Christians in America seem to love the death penalty. As he says, “the death penalty has not survived in spite of Christians, but because of us.” That’s really kind of sad. Why would we support the legalized murder of another human being? After all, our Lord and Savior was executed by the state, so why should we be in favor of that?
To answer this, Claiborne dives head first into the Bible to explore the scripture and theology, from the Old Testament and the New, that is used to justify the Death Penalty. Of course anyone with a passing familiarity with the Bible knows about the death penalty in the Old Testament, which touts “An eye for an eye,” and all of those things in the Law of Moses that can get you executed. However, when you really start to dig into it, the Old Testament, as bloody and violent as it often is, doesn’t record all that many executions. After all, why didn’t God execute Cain after he murdered Abel? In fact God actually protected Cain from those who would take vengeance on him (Genesis 4: 15-16). Moses murdered a man and wasn’t executed. Same thing with King David. If God was really all about the death penalty, why weren’t these men killed for their high crimes? Claiborne gets into this and also discusses the history and theology of “An eye for an eye,” as well as Romans 13 which is often used as a justification for the death penalty in the New Testament. (Spoiler Alert: both Claiborne and the early church fathers read that passage very differently).
Claiborne then moves onto some of the theology behind the Atonement of Christ on the Cross, and a discussion about how the Crucified Christ became a symbol of solidarity and hope with the African American community that suffered through the lynch mobs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s one of the most powerful parts of the book, and really helps to strengthen his case for Christians to be against the death penalty.
With his theological underpinnings discussed and his case made, he switches gears to the death penalty in the modern United States and how we administer it. The facts he presents are damning. There are around 3,000 inmates awaiting execution in the USA. Meanwhile, 156 death row inmates have been exonerated and found innocent since 1973. Of course, it would be dumb to think that our courts have caught all the errors, and it’s a certainty that we have executed innocent people in the United States. The United States is 5th in the world in executions performed every year behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Hardly the kind of company we want to keep. Meanwhile, since 1976, 92.8 percent of executions have taken place in just 15 of the 50 states, largely in the “Bible Belt.” Also, 85% of US counties have not executed anyone in the last 45 years, and 80% of counties in America have no one on their state’s death row. In fact if we took out Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, then we’d be left with very few executions in the USA every year. Meanwhile polls are starting to show that when presented with an alternative like life in prison, a majority of Americans are now against the death penalty. Could the death penalty be dying?
Claiborne hopes so, and so do I. Throughout the book he recounts the horrors of botched executions, cases where people who were almost certainly innocent have been executed, stories of former wardens and prison officials who are forever haunted by their participation in the machinery of death, and of many, MANY people who are working to defeat this sentence and save people from state-approved homicide.
Of course, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking, “but what about the victims and their families? Shouldn’t they have a say somewhere in here?” Yes, Claiborne says, they should. However, he spends a whole chapter talking about how actually quite a few families of victims are against the death penalty, and about how some of them have even been threatened by the state for daring to speak out against it. It’s not as black and white as it looks. Life isn’t usually that way, and death almost never is.
However, perhaps the most moving parts of the book are the personal stories that Claiborne shares throughout it. These are real stories of grace, radical grace. There are stories of murderers finding forgiveness and grace, of victims moving beyond pain and violence to reach out and extend that grace to criminals, and about men and women who have still gone to their deaths after receiving that grace for themselves.
I have to give this book 5 stars. I really think that every Christian, every person of faith, should read it. I think if you do, you’ll be hard pressed to come away from it without at least having your opinions and thoughts on the death penalty truly challenged.