The death penalty in the U.S. slowly is giving way to sanity -- but far, far too slowly. The use of capital punishment -- state vengeance -- has declined in recent years, but as a public policy its continued existence shames all of us.
It is much more expensive than life in prison. It is used sloppily and inconsistently, meaning innocent people have been executed. It lowers the state to the level of the criminal. It burdens the families of victims by making them live through the horror of murder repeatedly as the courts process the case for an average of 10 years.
There is more, and Shane Claiborne, coming at the matter from a definitively Christian perspective, describes that "more" in his new book, Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It's Killing Us.
Claiborne is puzzled (as am I) about why so many Christians in the U.S. continue to support the death penalty -- a tool used against, among others, Jesus Christ himself.
He argues persuasively that the Bible does not support the death penalty and then asks "how do we explain how so many of us got this so wrong? Here's how. When it comes to the death penalty, we've put Jesus on the back burner, buried him in the closet, mistaking the things he said for good advice relevant to certain individuals but not applicable to the real world of politics. We've somehow separated his execution by the state from our contemporary context of executions. We've divorced heaven from earth, something that Jesus consistently challenged his own disciples on. That's how we ended up with the current crisis."
One of the strengths of this book is that Claiborne remembers the victims of capital crimes and is not interested just in preventing the criminals from being executed. And yet he argues that "victims and their families often provide some of the most compelling arguments for abolishing the death penalty."
So far 19 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty (a few in recent years), and even in some states with capital punishment still on the books there hasn't been an execution in years. So the trend is heading in the right direction. But the U.S. still finds itself in the company of such human rights abusers as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq as the countries with the most executions.
It's appalling, costly, barbaric and stupid. To which Claiborne adds this: "Here is a stunning fact: Over 85 percent of state executions in the last thirty-eight years occurred in the so-called Bible Belt. . .The Bible -- or, more accurately, a certain interpretation of the Bible -- has laid the foundation of the death penalty in America and the moral justification for it."
What's going on here? I agree with Claiborne that much of this is the result of bad theology -- or at least unexamined theology.
"Some of the most horrifying things in history," he writes, "have happened at the hands of Christians with poisonous theology, divorced from grace. . .And I think it's bad theology that we're using to justify execution today."
If you're looking for religious, biblical (and especially Christian) reasons on which to decide whether to support the death penalty, this is the book to read. It's way past time to change our system of retributive justice to one of restorative justice. Abolishing capital punishment would go a long way toward achieving that.
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A 'GOD IS GAY' POEM
England's poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has written a post-Orlando poem in which she says "God is gay." And a Church of England bishop likens it to the Apostle Paul writing in his letter to the Galatians that "there is neither Jew nor Greek" and "neither male nor female." And it's intriguing to imagine what people 100 years ago would have said about any of this, assuming they could talk after their heart attacks.