Courtesy of Shane Claiborne
A native of Tennessee, Claiborne calls on Christians, especially Evangelicals, to turn toward a practice of nonviolence, social justice, and solidarity with the poor.
Activists campaigning to abolish the death penalty recently confronted a new and urgent occasion for their efforts, when the state of Arkansas announced it would execute eight death-row inmates in a ten-day period because its store of chemicals for lethal injection was about to expire.
Among the newer activists to the decades-old struggle to end state-sponsored killing of people convicted of crimes is activist and writer Shane Claiborne. A native of Tennessee and graduate of Eastern University in suburban Philadelphia, Claiborne in the mid-1990s helped found the Christian community The Simple Way in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, where he still lives. He has since become an influential and prolific voice calling on Christians, especially Evangelicals, to turn toward a practice of nonviolence, social justice, and solidarity with the poor that he finds at the core of the life of Jesus and the message of the New Testament.
In 2016, Claiborne published Executing Grace, a prayerful manifesto making a Biblically based case for abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with restorative justice. During a Palm Sunday weekend visit to Madison, Wisconsin, as well as in a brief follow-up email exchange, Claiborne spoke with The Progressive about why his faith calls him to the movement to abolish the death penalty—a movement that crosses religious and secular lines and even brings together the families of crime victims and those condemned to die.
Q: You write that you once defended the death penalty. How did you come to change your mind?
Shane Claiborne: A lot of it had to do with taking a closer look at the Bible. I had a very surface understanding of some things, like “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The great thing about being at a good Christian college is that we dove deeper into some of those. We say, “There’s more to ‘an eye for an eye’ than meets the eye.” So that was part of it—good theology, deeper theology.
But the personal side of it was a big deal. A lot of the people in the stories I write about have become close friends, particularly murder victims’ family members that are against the death penalty. Many of them are compelled by their faith to find alternatives, convinced that it doesn’t actually bring closure, it just extends the trauma and creates a whole new set of victims. It legitimizes this kind of very immoral violence that we’re trying to heal the world of.
Q: You obviously had to seek out those stories. What drove that?
Claiborne: After I wrote my first book, I started giving it away to people in prison and got to know more and more of these stories. I saw more and more folks like my friend Art Laffin, a Catholic Worker against war and also against the death penalty. Then his brother was killed by a man who struggled mentally, and that became personal to him. Some of the most heroic redemptive voices that I see are folks that have used their deep pain and trauma to try to heal the wounds rather than exacerbate the resentment of violence.
Some of the most heroic redemptive voices that I see are folks that have used their deep pain and trauma to try to heal the wounds rather than exacerbate the resentment of violence.
Q: You point out that the Bible Belt is now the death belt. Why is it that conservative Christians still tend to staunchly support the death penalty?
Claiborne: In the Bible Belt, I still think that there is an underlying moral or theological justification for the death penalty.
Some of it is how we understand Jesus’ death. We’re missing the whole point of Easter when Arkansas is going to slaughter seven or eight people after Easter! There’s a racial dynamic: It’s largely white evangelicals [who support execution]. Similar to the eighty-one percent who voted for Trump.
But now, I think there’s some really beautiful signs. Millennial Christians are overwhelmingly against the death penalty. They’re like, “I can’t reconcile this with Jesus – ‘Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.’” Also, [some] conservatives have turned against the death penalty. It’s consistent with the conservative ideology of, “How much do we trust our government?”
Q: Is there a specific theological interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that justifies the death penalty in some people’s minds?
Claiborne: We’ve used some really dangerous theology to write a blank check to all authority. When you say “all authorities are established by God”—I think it’s a mis-reading of Romans 13 to say that means God endorses every government and every authority. What do you do with Hitler, what do you do with Saddam Hussein? What do you do with a professing Christian regime in Uganda that wants to execute folks for same-gendered relationships? Our government in the practice of the death penalty and mass incarceration has a lot of room for redemption.
I do think there’s ways of understanding why Jesus died that can end up creating almost a monster out of God, a God that needs blood. I think that Jesus died to end the sacrificial system, to say, “There is no need for more blood.” Any time we continue to try to cling to this blood atonement for crimes, we undermine the very redemptive work of Jesus.
I think that Jesus died to end the sacrificial system, to say, “There is no need for more blood.”
Q: Earlier this year, you were part of a group arrested at the Supreme Court for protesting the death penalty.
Claiborne: It was the fortieth anniversary of the first modern-era execution: Gary Gilmore. We used that anniversary as a fresh call to end the death penalty. We had the names [of] over 1,400 people who have been executed. And even as we did it, there was an execution imminent in Virginia that did go forward. We wanted to do provocative public witness.
We carried roses in two different colors: one for the victims of violent crimes, and one for the victims of state-sanctioned execution and their families. To be anti-death penalty doesn’t mean we’re anti-victim. We had murder victims’ family members and families of the executed who were there together and even went to jail together. One of the banners that they had said, “Remember the victims, but not with more killing.”
Eighteen of us went to jail for holding a [“Stop Executions!”] banner – kind of saying that your First Amendment ends on the property of the Supreme Court. We will challenge that. Our deepest concern is to use our trial to put the death penalty on trial. Our trial is on the anniversary of Furman v. Georgia, which is the case that the Supreme Court stopped executions and ruled that the death penalty was arbitrary and capricious. It’s absurd that we’re going to trial for holding a banner. We were handcuffed, shackled, chained at our feet, hands and waist, and held in jail for 30 hours. And at the end of the day, our courts continue to practice this thing of killing our own citizens.
Q: For people who don’t see themselves as directly affected—they don’t know any victims of fatal violence, they don’t know anybody on Death Row—how do they engage this issue?
Claiborne: Listen to some of the folks [talk about how] the death penalty has devastated their lives. And as Hebrews says, “Remember those in prison as if you yourselves were in prison.”
There are amazing stories that point the world towards healing from trauma and from violence. And in a world that’s so plagued by violence, I think they have a lot to teach us about moving forward without mirroring the very violence that we see in the world.
Q: You’ve written about the marginalization of victims and survivors who oppose the death penalty.
Claiborne: SueZann Bosler is one of those. She was basically given a gag order. She was threatened with contempt of court when she said that she didn’t want the death penalty, and even though she was stabbed in the head multiple times [and] her dad was killed. He was a pastor, and she just said, “That’s not what he would want, that’s not what I want.” She’s been a very incredible voice against the death penalty, and there’s just dozens and dozens of families like hers.
Q: How hopeful are you about eventual abolition of the death penalty?
Claiborne: I’m really hopeful. Folks that I know have been working on this for decades longer than I have are really hopeful. The signs are really everywhere—that executions keep falling lower every year, death sentences are dramatically lower, especially in the last year or so. There are setbacks—California’s narrow vote to keep the death penalty and even to expedite it, Nebraska’s massive battle there, pretty much single-handedly by the governor, to keep it in place. But I’m really optimistic. Part of why there’s such a youthful enthusiasm around Bernie Sanders was that he was against the death penalty. He said “In a world of violence, why would I want to add more to it?”
Q: How significant are the recent court rulings that have effectively halted two of the eight planned executions in Arkansas?
Claiborne: The fact the first two of eight executions were thwarted is something to celebrate. But the fight is not over. Now we need to stop them all. Every little step away from the death penalty is a step toward life and something worth celebrating. But we who believe in true justice cannot rest until the death penalty is dead, once and for all.