From “Executing Grace”

Shane Claiborne’s latest book, Executing Grace, is his most original one since the Irresistible Revolution.  Unlike Irresistible Revolution, however, Executing Grace is a book that is focused on one issue in relation to the Christian Faith, the Death Penalty.  One might wonder how a writer such as Claiborne, who often focuses on and utilizes personal stories, might fare in taking on an issue as tough as the death penalty, and one might find that Claiborne does remarkably well.  Rather than using his own personal stories in this book, Claiborne uses the stories and experiences of other people.  Furthermore, Claiborne does not just use a few stories from one or two different groupings of people; he utilizes the stories of many people in many different situations.  He tells the stories of family members who have experienced the murder of a loved one, family members of people who have committed murder, people who work on execution teams, prison wardens, people who have been working to abolish the death penalty, lawyers, people living on death row, and stories about people who were executed and then later found to be innocent.  Claiborne obviously thought through the writing of this book very well, coming at the issue of the death penalty from several different angles, several different vantage points.

Executing Grace

Claiborne does not just tackle the death penalty as an issue in this book.  He puts theology into the book rather early in order to show more of the foundation for his opposition to the death penalty.  It is about God, and it is about people; both are important for Claiborne.  In one of his major theological sections of the book, he looks at “an eye for an eye” theology, which amounts to people using the Old Testament law in order to justify their support of the death penalty.  Claiborne demonstrates, quite well and very convincingly, with the help of Jesus and the example of His life, that the intent of the law was the preservation of life.  “An eye for an eye” was meant to put limits on revenge and destruction.  Thus, instead of retribution building and escalating, there were to be limits to violence.  One could take no more than one lost.  Then, in the example of Jesus, we see the law furthered, the law fulfilled.  Jesus tells us not to seek retribution; Jesus wants people to turn the other cheek, to forgive seventy times seven.  Take no more than you lost becomes do not take but rather end violence.

Afterwards, in another chapter, Claiborne turns to atonement theory, to show how it is that Jesus makes atonement, which can best be described as at-one-ment or reconciliation.  Claiborne ends up playing around with several different atonement theories, and concludes by saying that no one theory encompasses everything, that together they form and point towards a gracious mystery.  It is very interesting to watch Claiborne, who is more apt to use stories, tinker with academic theology, and he does so pretty well.

Following his work with atonement theories, Claiborne then goes on to demonstrate that the first three-hundred years of Christianity completely oppose violence.  One could not be in the business of killing if one was an early Christian convert; one simply would not be baptized if one were in such a business.  In this chapter, there are several quotes from the early church fathers.

These chapters conclude the explicitly theological chapters, though theology is woven throughout the book, and we continue on with more stories.

The next set of stories and informational pieces largely pertain to race, since people of color are disproportionately executed in this country.  Here, Claiborne makes good use of the work of James Cone and his The Cross and the Lynching Tree.  This section is powerful and heartbreaking.  The history of lynching is convicting.  Following this section on race and the death penalty, Claiborne continues onward with more stories from various perspectives and positions.

Towards the end of the book, he endeavors to drive the point home that we could be very close to ending the death penalty for good.  He wants us to put the death penalty to death.  He offers up an alternative form of justice here, restorative justice.  Whereas Criminal Justice seeks to punish, Restorative Justice seeks to heal and restore.  Whereas in Criminal Justice the State is to do the work of determining blame and punishment, Restorative Justice involves victims, the community, and the person/people who have committed the injustice in the process of figuring out how to make the situation just and how to facilitate healing.  While the ideas presented here are not necessarily new, their presentation in this book is a good introduction for people who are unfamiliar with them, and it could be good to have a popular writer such as Claiborne present them.  The book ends with a major push for the reader to be a part of making the death penalty history.  There are ideas on how to do this, such as making the death penalty personal, by giving it a face or faces, such as those who are presented throughout the book at the end of every chapter.  Stories, people’s real lives, are the substance that will course through the veins of the death penalty and ultimately end it in favor of the force of life.

Executed Grace is a fine, new work by Shane Claiborne.  It is timely and heartfelt.  Some of the stories that are recorded in the book are hard on the heart, but we can be grateful for Claiborne’s passing them along to us.  It is an accessible work, one that can be picked up by a wide range of people and read.  Shane’s major gifts, using the casual register to relay information and his amazing storytelling ability, make this work strong.  There may not be much that is original in terms of theology, sociology, or justice theory, but such originality does not seem to be his purpose here.  He simply wants to end the death penalty, because it goes against the will of the God who desires abundant life for people, because it is a solution that is as bad as the problem that it is trying to solve, and because it harms human beings regardless of where they stand in the system.

Leave a Reply