Author: Shane Claiborne
Publisher: Harper One
Publishing Date: June 7, 2016
Pages: 320 pages (Paperback)
As a daughter of the Christian Reformed Church, I learned about the sanctity of life when I was quite young. Our pastor referenced the “imageo dei” in practically every sermon. In my teen years, I joined church members in signing an anti-abortion petition; we considered ourselves unequivocally “pro-life.” And Good Friday was the worst day of the year not just because you had to go to church on a weeknight, but because it marked the moment when humanity betrayed its Savior and deprived him of his life.
Interestingly—perhaps ironically—I also grew up in a household that supported the death penalty.
For a tradition that preaches of a Redemption that follows the Fall, I have encountered an uncanny amount of pro-death penalty sentiments in Reformed circles. I found myself waffling back and forth, wading through the pros and cons of death penalties vs. life sentences for many years. Even more frequently, I failed to take the death penalty seriously; it was a theoretical exercise, a topic for debate, not an urgent and abhorrent contradiction of my faith.
But Shane Claiborne’s Executing Grace leaves no room for Christian apathy.
“When we kill to show that killing is wrong, aren’t we reinforcing the very thing we want to rid the world of?” Claiborne asks in the opening chapter.
Claiborne addresses the death penalty from all angles. He starts with scripture, dealing directly with the most common arguments in favor of capital punishment: Romans 13 and Old Testament death penalties. Yet Claiborne also reminds readers: “Much of the Bible was written by murderers who were given a second chance. Moses. David. Paul.” If these Biblical heroes could be redeemed, who are we to determine who is or is not worthy of redemption?
Ultimately, Claiborne points out that Christians worship a victim of the death penalty: “At the heart of Christianity is an executed Savior. He was a convicted felon, tried and found guilty, jailed, shamed, and sentenced to die at the hands of the state.” Christ triumphed over death in the resurrection, embracing death so we would not have to. His crucifixion makes grace scandalously available to all—victims and victimizers, the widow and the convicted felon dying at his side.
The book also applies a historical lens. Claiborne finds that Early Christians viewed capital punishment as a betrayal of Christ; in fact, they believed it was better to die than to kill. He also writes that “ancient Jews stopped practicing the death penalty around the time of Jesus.” Christ’s death and resurrection ushered in an era of radical, holistic pro-life movements within Judaism and the Early Church often overlooked by contemporary Christians.
Claiborne goes on to painstakingly examine the gut-wrenching legacy of lynching and its connection to capital punishment. He argues that the death penalty occurs primarily in places where lynching was commonplace, and that it replaced lynching as the main method used to kill people of color in the United States. He also writes that the murder of black people by all-white mobs is echoed in the all-too-common occurrence of all-white juries sentencing black people to death today. Disturbingly, according to Claiborne, lynching has occurred in the U.S. as recently as 2014, when a young black man in North Carolina was hung by a tree for dating a white woman (179-180). Although only 13 percent of the current U.S. population is black, 42 percent of death row inmates are black, and 32 percent of those executed since 1976 were black. These racial disparities are a direct result of our nation’s history of systematically slaying black people.
The book also examines the uncensored reality of the death penalty today. As recently as 2010, Utah executed an inmate via firing squad. Executions have also gone horrifically awry. In 1983, a botched execution left John Evans’s body charred and smoldering after being electrocuted for fourteen minutes. In 2014, Joseph Wood was given 15 times the prescribed dosage of poison and died slowly and painfully over the course of two hours. Despite the 1986 Supreme Court Case Ford v. Wainwright, which established that people with mental illnesses should not be executed, several people with severe mental illness have been executed since. Then there is the sheer number of executions: The United States has the fifth-most executions of any nation in the world, following only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
And 156 death row inmates have been exonerated after being wrongly convicted since 1973.
“Why should we have a system in which irreversible injustice is inevitable?” asks Claiborne. Us Reformed folks are well-aware of our brokenness and fallibility—it should come as no surprise that our courts make mistakes. If errors are a given—and if execution is costlier than a life sentence—why continue to support death as punishment for a crime?
Sadly, Christians are uniquely responsible for maintaining the death penalty. “Over 85 percent of state executions in the last thirty-eight years occurred in the so-called Bible Belt,” Claiborne writes. How did a religion built on the principle of grace become one of the main mechanisms of death in the U.S.?
Mercifully, Claiborne infuses his book with hope. Each chapter ends with a hope-filled story—stories of second chances, of overturned convictions, of surprising and redemptive relationships. And even as Claiborne breaks down the gruesome truth of the death penalty, he returns again and again to Christ. In this way, Executing Grace forces readers to confront the blaring contradiction of a savior who offers life, and a system that perpetuates death.
This book is one to purchase, underline, highlight, dog-ear, and keep close at hand. Claiborne’s writing is clear and occasionally even conversational. The book’s facts and helpful arguments lend itself to functioning as a handbook of sorts, while its integration of scripture, narrative, and testimonies makes the book easily digestible. Overall, the book is a powerful reminder that when we lose faith in the power of redemption, we join the powers of death. And as Reformers, of all people, we should choose to consistently be on the side of life.