Shane Claiborne: Why Christians can't support the death penalty

'We who follow the executed and risen Christ should be people who are consistently pro-life, pro-grace and anti-death.'

Published 13 May 2014  |  
Shane Claiborne

Following the botched execution of Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett on April 29, social activist, bestselling author and leading member of the New Monasticism movement Shane Claiborne has offered his thoughts on the death penalty.

In a blog for RedLetterChristians.org, Claiborne cites "the nagging problem of Jesus" as "the greatest obstacle for pro-death penalty Christians".

"There are plenty of other problems with the scriptural manoeuvring used to justify the contemporary practice of the death penalty with a few verses from the Bible, in the same way that a few verses were misused to justify slavery," he writes.

"Setting aside other compelling arguments against the death [penalty] such as the fact that the determining factor for execution is often not guilt but economics and race...and that 144 folks have been exonerated with recent studies showing 1 in 25 folks sentenced to death are likely innocent...all that aside, I want to focus on Jesus."

Claiborne notes that those Christians who support the death penalty fail to look to the teachings of Christ, instead choosing to focus on Old Testament passages, before Jesus came into the world in flesh and grace entered the equation.

He points to the blog written by R Albert Mohler for CNN earlier this month.

"I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense," Mohler wrote.

"In the simplest form, the Bible condemns murder and calls for the death of the murderer. The one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life.

"Christians thinking about the death penalty must begin with the fact that the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary, but should be exceedingly rare. The Bible also affirms that the death penalty, rightly and justly applied, will have a powerful deterrent effect.

"In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence," Mohler concluded.

Claiborne, however, contends that this understanding does not sit well with the way Jesus approached those who had sinned in the Gospels.

He highlights such teachings as "judge not lest you be judged"; "I did not come for the healthy but for the sick, not for the righteous but for the sinners" and "you've heard it said 'an eye for an eye' but I tell you there is another way" as indicative that Christ relentlessly stood for mercy, favouring forgiveness over punishment.

"There is an incident in the Gospels where Jesus is asked about the death penalty...A women has been humiliated and dragged before the town, ready to be killed. Her execution was legal; her crime was a capital one. But just because it's legal, doesn't make it right," Claiborne writes.

"Jesus interrupts the scene – with grace."

In the passage in question, found in John 8, Jesus challenges the mob ready to stone an adulterous woman; famously declaring, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone" (v 7).

"The only one who is left with any right to throw a stone is Jesus – and he has absolutely no inclination to do so. We can see that the closer we are to God the less we want to throw stones at other people," Claiborne writes.

"It is this duel conviction that no one is above reproach and that no one is beyond redemption that lies at the heart of our faith."

He concludes with the assertion that, "Of all people, we who follow the executed and risen Christ should be people who are consistently pro-life, pro-grace and anti-death.

"We dare not forget the story – of a God who so loved the world that Jesus was sent, not to condemn the world but to save it. We must not forget that much of the Bible was written by murderers who were given a second chance. Moses. David. Paul.

"The Bible would be much shorted without grace," Claiborne adds. "And our churches would be empty is we killed everyone who was deserving of death."

The State of Texas is today preparing to execute the first US prisoner since Lockett's death. Robert James Campbell, convicted of murder, filed a final round of appeals yesterday.

"Every execution is a mistake," Claiborne tweeted last night.

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