A Review of
How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us
Reviewed by Douglas Graves
Over the years, Shane Claiborne’s work and voice for social justice issues have challenged many in the church to reconsider the role of faith in their everyday lives. His latest book, Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, is written in the same vein and certainly has the power to change many Christians’ perspectives on capital punishment. Surprisingly, the book has quite an optimistic ending, encouraging readers that the death penalty is on the run. But Claiborne does much more than simply dismiss any legitimacy still given to the death penalty. By telling stories of individuals behind the numbers and offering a refreshing view of God’s character and his expression of grace, Claiborne invites his readers to imagine a more fulfilling form of justice.
After diagnosing our lack of imagination when it comes to justice, Claiborne quickly moves to talk about the victims of capital crimes. But he does not simply echo common arguments frequently made on behalf of the families of victims; instead, in considering true justice, Claiborne notes that often families opposing the death penalty for the accused are not only ignored by the state, but even occasionally silenced and threatened. But, “justice is about amplifying the voices of those who have been silenced” (22), so what is justice in these instances? Claiborne makes it clear that these stories are not merely clever anecdotes given to argue against the death penalty, but rather are all too common occurrences for us to continue insisting on the “justice” of capital punishment.
These stories—from the victims to the victimizers, the executioners and the innocents wrongfully put to death—give context to the “justice” of the capital punishment system. In helping his readers expand their imaginations, Claiborne creatively uses different adjectives to describe the “justice” given in a story, such as “cheap justice” (28) or “violent justice” (32), ultimately calling for “restorative justice” (33). That is justice that reconciles, justice that brings shalom (the Hebrew word for peace); Claiborne states plainly that “the goal of justice is shalom” (101).
This idea of shalom as the goal of justice is at the center of Claiborne’s second method to expand his readers’ imagination of how Christians view God and sacrifice. This is important, because as Claiborne notes, the death penalty has its strongest support, and is almost exclusively practiced, in the area of the country known as the Bible Belt. First, he demonstrates that although many people use scripture as justification for capital punishment, this argument is almost always built on Old Testament laws and stories that have very few similarities to the current practice of the death penalty. And even in the Old Testament, these laws were not enforced without question. But Claiborne develops this argument even more, insisting that Jesus himself serves as the end of the sacrificial system, not just the sacrifice of animals, but of any blood shed in the name of justice.
Today, Jesus’s sacrifice is often viewed as a type of financial transaction, but this falls short because debt forgiveness is a one-time transaction and limits the scope of forgiveness to the size of the debt; Claiborne asserts that when we view the crucifixion as such, “We run the risk of cheapening the work of restoration at the heart of the cross” (107). Instead, if we view Jesus’s work on earth and on the cross as an ongoing healing act, the way in which Jesus spoke about himself, then we see sin, and death, as a disease that Jesus’s work continues to heal and restore. This means that more death, even death in the name of justice, does not fix anything, but only contributes to the broken world we are seeking to restore. Boldly, Claiborne insists, “Any time we rejoice in death, we disgrace the cross” (103).
Claiborne certainly creates an atmosphere for his readers to reconsider their typical understanding of justice. Because the structure relies so heavily on stories, although true and documented, some border on sentimental. And although each chapter is full of stories and examples that demonstrate the frequent unjust practice of the capital punishment system, rarely do these stories connect to or support Claiborne’s arguments in that given chapter. Finally, some of Claiborne’s stories are more demonstrations of gross negligence or an insatiable sense of vengeance; therefore, he never addresses cases where the death penalty seems more justifiable.
Despite these shortcomings, I found myself defending grace and life when, as I was reading the book, the state of South Carolina announced it would pursue the death penalty for the Charleston church shooter, Dylan Roof. I even spoke up, engaging friends, reminding them and myself, “Jesus shed HIS blood, and that is enough.” Claiborne has once again delivered a challenging text that forces his readers to consider the role their faith in Jesus plays in the way they live in and interact with this world. This book is not only a work against the death penalty, but a challenge to imagine new ways in which we, as the church, can pursue new forms of justice and shalom.
Douglas Graves is currently participating in graduate studies at the University of Tennessee preparing to teach high school English. He and his fiancée, also an English teacher, are a part of a church body intentionally seeking the peace of Knoxville. They love books (obviously), coffee, and adventure.