Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us

By Shane Claiborne. HarperOne, 2016. 320 pages. $17.99/paperback; $12.99/eBook.

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“There is a contagion of violence in the world; it’s spreading like a disease. But grace is also contagious.” —Shane Claiborne

Grace is that “absurd gift,” unbidden, upon me suddenly, an overwhelming desire to extend generosity and kindness to everyone, forcing me to admit that another person suffers too. Grace is a gift from God, or whatever one names that presence beyond human understanding, that can suddenly usher me into new and always discomfortable territory.

Claiborne’s book forced me to think about what grace actually means. Before, I saw it as one of those overused Christian words that has no real life. Now I see it is a direct product of the Inward Light or seed of God that passes something unnamable to me when I choose to heed it.

Grace was executed 2,000 years ago on a “hanging tree.” Jesus was that “absurd gift” from God, in the guise of a child of God and servant to suffering humanity. Grace is being executed again and again in the United States today. It is the death penalty that is executing grace today, just as it was in Jesus’s time, and it is killing us too. But, we should ask ourselves, who can live without grace?

One could describe Claiborne as a radical evangelical Christian. He was born in the Bible Belt, which he aptly calls the “death belt”—the place of thousands of “picnic” lynchings of African Americans until recently, and where the death penalty is more prevalent than in any other part of our country. One born-again Christian declared Claiborne’s books were “messing with his mind.” Today this person is rethinking what it means to be a Christian in deed against doctrine.

In an informal, conversational writing style, Claiborne will “mess with your mind” too, no matter what sort of religious person—or non—you happen to be. He covers all of the tragic consequences of the death penalty, for many others are being “killed” besides the person in the electric chair. He has done extensive interviews and documentation of many issues, including racial bias in executions and consequences for the offender’s family. Believe it or not, there are many victims who speak out against the death penalty for the offender. They are sometimes re-victimized by the state for stating this position. Readers of Friends Journal will recognize the significance of the fact that U.S. states that use the death penalty are ignoring the possibility of using restorative justice, a process of reconciliation that would force an offender to face the people that have been hurt.

Among Claiborne’s interviews are those with people in the business of official killing, and in the end he finds they are deeply troubled, hence victims of the practice too. A common practice of people who are doing a bad thing is to search scripture to justify their actions. Many Christian churches are only too happy to help them, although the Bible says an unqualified “Do not kill.” This simple statement creates massive trouble for those who take this approach to quell their consciences. Nevertheless, the Bible is a favorite of death penalty supporters.

The non-biblically minded will also benefit from Claiborne’s analysis. For example, the leader of a major southern Christian tradition makes no mention of Jesus in his church’s statement of support for the death penalty! This is a glaring omission. What about the Old Testament? There one may find many crimes that carry a death penalty, yet rarely is it carried out in its pages!

I admire Claiborne’s facility for talking to many different kinds of people. He has great experience in this area; he is no stranger to men on death row. This book will open one to the breadth and depth of this particularly troubling problem in our society. One can become discouraged. Claiborne’s book will change that.

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