Executing Grace by Shane Claiborne by Shane Claiborne - Read Online
Executing Grace
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In this reasoned exploration of justice, retribution, and redemption, the champion of the new monastic movement, popular speaker, and author of the bestselling The Irresistible Revolution offers a powerful and persuasive appeal for the abolition of the death penalty.

The Bible says an eye for an eye. But is the state’s taking of a life true—or even practical—punishment for convicted prisoners? In this thought-provoking work, Shane Claiborne explores the issue of the death penalty and the contrast between punitive justice and restorative justice, questioning our notions of fairness, revenge, and absolution.

Using an historical lens to frame his argument, Claiborne draws on testimonials and examples from Scripture to show how the death penalty is not the ideal of justice that many believe. Not only is a life lost, so too, is the possibility of mercy and grace. In Executing Grace, he reminds us of the divine power of forgiveness, and evokes the fundamental truth of the Gospel—that no one, even a criminal, is beyond redemption.

Publicado: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062347367
Enumerar precios: $11.99
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CHAPTER ONE

Something Just Doesn’t Feel Right

At first I thought that I was obsessed with death. But then I realized that I am obsessed with grace.

There are some fourteen thousand books written on the death penalty, and I didn’t want to write another one of those.

One of my favorite writers once told me, "Don’t write unless you cannot not write. Make sure it is a fire in your bones, a passion that cannot be contained."

This book chose me.

Growing up, I never questioned the rightness of the death penalty. I was raised in the heart of the Bible Belt, and capital punishment seemed to be pretty clearly ordained by God. I can remember arguing a few liberals into the ground over it. On one occasion, I even argued that homosexuality was a crime punishable by death—and I had verses to back it up.

I’m not proud of that past. But it gives me some compassion for others who still feel the same way I did. Almost every day I get e-mails and letters from folks who have been passionately in favor of the death penalty and are rethinking things. I had one fellow in Texas confess to me, I want you to know, I’m a redneck. I’m a gun-totin’, pickup-drivin’, tobacco-chewin’, whisky-drinkin’ backwoods redneck. Then he went on, But I’ve been reading your stuff. And it has messed me up. Pray for me. I’m a recovering redneck now. People change. Convictions change. So I want you to know that I’m not writing this book from a place of self-righteous indignation. I’m not on a soapbox. I’m a bit of a recovering redneck myself. So don’t worry about me getting all up in your face.

I once stayed in the home of a pastor who knew I was writing a book about the death penalty, and he was interested in hearing more. Genuinely interested. I told him many of the stories in this book over the weekend, and in just days he told me he had really rethought his position, which had been in favor of capital punishment. He told me he hadn’t really thought much about it but had sort of inherited his beliefs, and truth be told, he always felt sort of conflicted inside. That pastor is not alone. Since then there have been prosecutors, executioners, judges, and victims who have written me to share that they’ve become convinced that there are better forms of justice than execution.

I’ve learned that words really do have power. And so do stories. And so does the Bible. And so do facts. So you’ll find all those things on these pages.

I also began to realize that just because we have a strong opinion on something doesn’t mean we’ve thought a lot about it. And it doesn’t mean we can’t change our mind. I’ve always been passionate. Even when I’ve been wrong, I’ve been passionately wrong.

I know that passionate people change their mind, because I am one of them.

I also know that we can believe something in our head and still have our heart push back against it. This was what happened to me with the death penalty: the stuff I thought to be true in my head didn’t jibe with the things I knew to be true in my heart.

My hope is that this book will engage your mind and your heart. And that we can find a way to think about justice, and Jesus, and killing, where our heart and mind are one.

So I should just get this out in the open: I have an agenda. It is about grace. I want to build a movement of grace-driven abolitionists—people of faith and conscience who want to put an end to death forever. I want us to make death penalty history.

There, I said it. I believe in grace, and I want you to.

I am not interested in talking about capital punishment as much as I am in talking about the ramifications of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love.

Not only do I believe in grace, but I have seen its transformative power in action.

I want you to read this book—even if you are a skeptic like I used to be—but I want you to read it with an open mind and an open heart. Otherwise, just take it back and get a refund.

The Gut Instinct

If I’m honest, even when I argued for the death penalty, there was something in my gut that just didn’t feel right. No one wants to be for death, but I just didn’t know what the alternatives were.

I remember watching a 2011 CNN interview where Piers Morgan talked with Joel Osteen. Joel is the pastor of Lakewood Church, the largest Protestant church in the United States, down in Houston, Texas. (They meet in the former Houston Rockets stadium.) He’s a televangelist with over twenty million monthly viewers in one hundred countries, and he’s the author of five New York Times bestselling books. He’s often nicknamed the smiling preacher because of how happy he is and how cleverly he avoids speaking of anything negative. It was a great interview—light, winsome, candid. And then . . .

Piers daringly asked Joel about the death penalty. Joel dodged the question with his characteristic sincere smile, saying that issues like the death penalty are way out of his league, and politicians would need to figure that one out. That was unacceptable to Piers; he insisted that since millions of people look to Joel for moral guidance, that answer wasn’t good enough, especially from a pastor in Texas, the most deadly state in the country when it comes to executions. Even the governor of Texas has visited Lakewood Church.

So Piers kept pushing. It was clear that Joel wasn’t going to be able to avoid the issue. Eventually, he shook his head somberly and said:

It’s a complicated issue, Piers. I haven’t thought a whole lot about it, but of course I’m for second chances and mercy. . . . It’s hard for me to say, Yeah, let’s just kill this person because he’s so bad.

Like many of us, Joel hadn’t thought a lot about the death penalty and wasn’t sure what to say about it. But I could tell, watching the interview, that something in his gut just didn’t feel right about killing someone.

There are lots of folks like Joel, who seem to be shaking their heads and saying in their gut, Something about it just doesn’t seem right.

While opinions are dramatically shifting, and more and more folks are coming out against the death penalty, there are still plenty of people who support it, especially among Christians. But even among these supporters, there seems to be a quiet group of people—perhaps even a quiet majority—for whom something just doesn’t seem right. Something in the gut says there must be another way.

Grace and Disgrace

Violence is contagious. Violence begets violence. A rude look is exchanged for a cold shoulder. A middle finger for a honked horn. Hatred begets hatred. Pick up the sword and die by the sword. You kill us and we’ll kill you. There is a contagion of violence in the world; it’s spreading like a disease.

But grace is also contagious. An act of kindness inspires another act of kindness. A random smile is exchanged for an opened door. Helping someone carry their laundry or groceries makes them nicer. Randomly paying someone’s toll in the car behind you invites them to pay it forward. A single act of forgiveness can feel like it heals the world. Grace begets grace. Love rubs off on those who are loved.

But there is a war in the world around us. Both hatred and love seem to be trying to take over our world. The contagion of violence and the contagion of grace are spreading like invasive plants in the garden. The quicker you rip them up, the quicker they spread.

This battle is raging inside every part of our society, and even inside our own souls. We can feel grace and vengeance at work inside us.

There’s nowhere you can see the battle of grace and disgrace waged more vehemently than in the criminal justice system. When it comes to words like justice, people can say the same thing and mean something completely different.

Grace is also contagious. An act of kindness inspires another act of kindness.

Capital punishment offers us one version of justice. There is a sensibility to it: evil should not go without consequence. And there is a theology behind it: An eye for an eye . . . a tooth for a tooth.

Yet grace offers us another version of justice. Grace makes room for redemption. Grace offers us a vision for justice that is restorative, and dedicated to healing the wounds of injustice. But the grace thing is hard work. It takes faith—because it dares us to believe that not only can victims be healed, but so can the victimizers. It is not always easy to believe that love is more powerful than hatred, life more powerful than death, and that people can be better than the worst thing they’ve done.

These two versions of justice compete for our allegiance. One leads to death. The other can lead to life, and to healing and redemption and other beautiful things. For me, the death penalty has come to represent the battle of all battles in the war between good and evil.

It is the eye of the storm, if you will. The death penalty raises all sorts of other questions about race, theology, economics, and inequality. We’ll get to those. But at the heart of all of this is a question: When we kill to show that killing is wrong, aren’t we reinforcing the very thing we want to rid the world of?

The cure is as bad as the disease.

Death closes the door to any possibility for redemption. Grace opens up that door.

The stories in this book show us humanity at our worst as well as humanity at our best.

Evil is real—and you will hit it head-on in this book. Evil will slap you in the face.

But grace and mercy are real, too—not just slippery things, dangling in space like ornaments on a Christmas tree. We will see grace in action, mercy on the move.

It’s been said, "Mercy is not getting what you do deserve, and grace is getting what you don’t deserve." Both are beautiful, but both can also seem like a betrayal of justice. That’s why justice can’t just come out of our heads, but it also has to flow from our hearts. Grace and mercy are things, just like forgiveness, that exist in the context of evil—and in contrast to it. When all is well, grace and mercy are hard to notice. But when things are rough, they are hard to ignore. They shine brightly. Just as light shines in darkness, grace is radiant next to evil.

We live in a grace-starved world.

The stories you’ll hear are not fairy tales in which there’s a villain and a hero; life’s way too messy for that. It may very well be that there’s a villain and a hero inside each of us, and each day we have a choice of who we want to be.

If we look closely, we can see ourselves in the people we read about here: we can see the evil we are capable of, and we can see the good we are made for.

In the end, one of the questions we must answer is this: Is any person beyond redemption?

Could it be that every time a life is taken from us, we lose a piece of God’s image in the world?

As you read the stories in the chapters to come, lean in and look for the image of God in every person—victim, murderer, executioner, warden. There is a lot at stake. Life and death, of course, but maybe even more than that.

What may also be at stake is the good news of Jesus. I learned to memorize a scripture passage in Sunday school as a kid in Tennessee that went like this: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

It wasn’t until much later that I learned the next verse: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.

The wages of sin is death. But the gift of God is life.

Sin and evil are real and terrible things.

But grace gets the last word.

The Faces of Death and Grace

Let me tell you two stories to get us started. First, I want to show you what death looks like.

George Junius Stinney Jr.¹ Have you ever heard that name?

I hadn’t heard of him until I started researching for this book. Now I can’t forget him, even when I want to. George Junius Stinney Jr. was the youngest person ever executed in the United States; he was fourteen. He walked to his execution by electric chair carrying a large copy of the Bible under his arm.

He was accused of killing two white girls in the Jim Crow South. His trial lasted less than two hours. No witnesses were called, no defense presented. There is no record of a confession or of any physical evidence. And the all-white jury deliberated for a mere ten minutes before sentencing him to death.

In one of the quickest executions in history, George Junius Stinney Jr. was killed eighty-one days after being arrested. One of his last meals was ice cream with the officers who would later kill him. His skinny five-foot-one, ninety-five-pound body was so small that his head didn’t reach into the metal helmet of the electric chair, and so he had to sit on the Bible to make it work. He sat on the Bible. When the first jolts of electricity hit him, he flinched and the head mask fell off, revealing the terror in his eyes and the tears streaming down his cheeks. Only after several more jolts of electricity did he finally die.

I was so disturbed by George’s story, when I first encountered it, that I couldn’t stop reading about him. I thought maybe his execution had happened in the 1800s, but it was in 1944. Some of his family is still alive. Part of me wishes his execution had occurred hundreds of years ago so that I could write it off to those less civil days and dismiss it by thinking we’ve come a long way since then.

But no: it was 1944.

The case of George Junius Stinney Jr. is one of the greatest travesties of justice in American history. But his story raises many important questions. And while it is extreme, it is not exceptional. There are many George Stinneys.

Some things have changed since 1944. But what’s also striking, as we will see, is how little has changed since 1944.

Now I want to tell you another story, one that shows you what grace looks like.

It’s a story very different from George Junius Stinney’s story. His story shows us what it looks like when death wins. This story also starts with horror, but it ends with grace.

In 2006 a troubled gunman named Charles Roberts entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He shot ten girls, ranging from six to thirteen years old, killing five. Then he turned the gun on himself and killed himself.²

As always, the shooting massacre immediately became the breaking news story of the day, and of the week to follow. If it bleeds, it leads, as the old journalism adage goes. So it went.

But what quickly began to steal the headlines was the way the Amish responded. With a distinctive commitment to nonviolence, the Amish families put their faith into action as they built a bridge to the shooter’s family and went to visit them—Charlie’s widow, children, and parents. They were neighbors. In fact, Charlie was a milk truck driver who delivered to the Amish farms, and he had three children of his own. One of the Amish men massaged the shoulders of Charlie’s sobbing father for an hour as he wept.

The response stunned the world.

People from around the globe, moved by compassion, began to send the Amish gifts and money . . . and the Amish used that money to create a fund for the family of the shooter. As the funerals rolled around, the Amish attended service after service of their own children who had died . . . but then they went to the funeral of Charlie Roberts, the man who had killed their kids, so they could grieve with his family and hold hands with them as they found a way forward together.

Marie Roberts, Charlie’s widow, wrote an open letter to the Amish community, thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need, she wrote. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.³

I was in Australia speaking when the shooting happened, and I will never forget one of the front-page headlines in the Australian newspaper. It read: Amazing Grace: Why Would the Amish Do What They Did? Though this was not a capital case since the killer committed suicide, you can imagine how things might have unfolded had the man lived. Undoubtedly, the Amish would have refused to create another set of victims by seeking the death of Charlie Roberts.

The incident morphed from a horror story to a grace story, inspiring books such as Amish Grace. I got a chance to talk with one of the authors of Amish Grace as I researched this book.⁴ He explained to me that the willingness to forgo vengeance is a core value of Amish culture. This grace does not undo a tragedy or pardon a wrong, but it becomes the first step toward a more hopeful future.⁵

The grace and love extended by the Amish to the Roberts family not only touched people around the world. It moved the Roberts family themselves to action. Check this out.

Charlie’s mother, Terri Roberts, began to visit with one of the Amish girls that her son had shot and almost killed.⁶ The girl, Rosanna, was six at the time of the incident. She survived the shooting but is not able to enjoy life as it was meant to be lived. She’s in a wheelchair, eats with a feeding tube, and is unable to talk. But she is not unable to love and be loved. Terri visits Rosanna regularly; she helps bathe Rosanna, and reads to her, and sings to her. Spending time together helps to heal the wounds of this tragedy. Every time Terri visits with Rosanna, she is forced to confront the damage her son caused. But she is also reminded that violence does not have to get the last word. We don’t have to be held hostage by the worst moments in our lives. Healing is possible even when the wounds are deep.

Grace gets the last word.

Stories like this have the power to change the way we think and the way we act. I’m convinced that one of the things we suffer from when it comes to the death penalty is imagination. And the Amish captured our imagination for a moment.

It’s hard to miss, even from the two stories above, that there is a dark, evil finality when it comes to death and killing, and there is something spectacular about the possibilities opened up by grace.

Bad News and Then Good News

Before we dive into the darkness, one bit of explanation. I remember hearing the evangelist E. V. Hill speak before he died. We were at a conference together, and I’ll never forget his words. He spoke about how we all love the good news but sometimes need to hear the bad news first. He told a story about a charismatic woman in his church who always sat in the front row. Her nickname was Eighteen Hundred, because she was so elderly that everyone said she must have been born in the 1800s. Seen as the matriarch of the congregation, she was beloved.

But the problem was, she wanted to hear only the good news—perhaps because she had lived through so much bad news. She wanted to hear about Jesus, resurrection, life. At first glance, this might not seem like a problem, but here’s what happened. Every Sunday old Eighteen Hundred would sit in her usual spot in the front row. As Pastor Hill started preaching, she’d begin muttering, Get to the good news, Pastor; get to the good news. And her commentary would get louder and louder as the sermon progressed. The longer he talked, the louder she got. He’d be talking about how Jesus died on Friday, and she’d yell back, Don’t leave him there. Get to the empty tomb on Sunday! He’d be talking about how hatred, sin, and racism are still alive today, and she’d shout back, Move on, Pastor. Get to the good news! Eventually he would get to the good news, and she would shout Amen! at the top of her lungs.

It’s one of those preacher stories that, if it isn’t true, should be.

Old Eighteen Hundred reminds us of something important. In the end, the gospel, the story of Jesus, is good news. It’s not okay news, not bad news . . . it’s good news. But E. V. Hill was right. We must take a plunge into the darkness before we can fully appreciate the light.

The good news is also the story of a God who hears the suffering of people, who enters into that suffering, who experiences the pain and suffering of our world.

In Jesus, we have a God who dies. Enduring the most famous execution in history, he turned one of the worst symbols of violence, the cross, into one of the greatest symbols of hope.

And he died with love on his lips, forgiving the people who were torturing and killing him. Every week, every day, every moment, we who follow Jesus identify with a grace-filled, forgiving victim of violence. That alone should change everything for us, reorient us, cause us to pause and reconsider how we think about death—that is, in light of God’s grace.

In writing this book, I initially started out with a lot of really heavy, dismal bad news and was saving the good news until the end. But I kept getting stuck. It felt so dark that I wasn’t sure anyone would be able to read this book all the way through and make it to the good news. In fact, I couldn’t make it through my own book without tears streaming down my face as I reread it.

As I often do when I get stuck, I went for a run—miles and miles, like Forrest Gump. As I ran I prayed, and I had one of those all-too-rare experiences (for me anyway) in which I felt a clear whisper from heaven say, in effect, Jesus deserves more than a chapter. Jesus is the thread of hope that connects it all. Don’t leave Jesus until the end.

So you will see that I have woven Jesus throughout. Jesus is present in the lynchings. Jesus is present in the section on innocence. Jesus is there when we talk about those who have been executed. Jesus is there when we think about the victims of violence. This is the good news—not just that Jesus rose from the dead, but that Jesus is with us, in death and in the triumph of grace. So for anyone reading this book who, like old Eighteen Hundred, can’t wait to get to the good news . . . you won’t have to wait long.

CHAPTER TWO

Let’s Begin with the Victims

The death penalty has failed victims’ family members in virtually every way, and many of us—including many who support the death penalty in principle—have come to support its end.

—Vicki Schieber, whose daughter Shannon was murdered in Philadelphia¹

Nearly every time I write or speak about the death penalty, one of the first questions to surface is: What about the victims? Thank God it is. I believe in a God who cares deeply about the victims of violence and injustice. Whether we care about victims of violent crime should never be in question. The real issue is how we care, and what we can do to best care for the victims of violent crime. The victims are front and center, as they should be. That’s why we are going to start this book with them.

What about the victims? is not just a fair question; it is an essential question.²

As we will soon see, most people (including representatives of our courts) make the assumption that those who are the victims of violent crime support the death penalty. While that is indeed sometimes the case, victims and their families often provide some of the most compelling arguments for abolishing the death