Late Thursday, Brandon Bernard was executed for his role in a double murder that took place when he was 18 years old. President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr were apparently unmoved by a high profile push for clemency that included several of Trump’s supporters like Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz, along with several jurors who said they had changed their mind, justice reform activist Kim Kardashian-West and even the prosecutor on Bernard’s case.
Bernard was the second of six inmates scheduled to be executed since election day, ending a 130-year-old tradition of halting executions during the lame duck period.
Publicly, the case raised old questions about the role the death penalty should play in cases where the defendant is young. But for Christians, the issue looms even larger, given the Christian tradition’s historic opposition to the death penalty. Bernard’s case is a dramatic example, but it doesn’t have to be. The message of the death penalty is that you can do something so bad that your life has no value and should be taken away from you. The message of Jesus Christ is that every single person is of infinite value, no matter what that person has done.
Shane Claiborne, an activist and author who runs the Simple Way community in Philadelphia, published a book earlier this year about the death penalty. In Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and It’s Killing Us, Claiborne argues that all Christians should oppose the death penalty in the United States. For him, to be pro-life means to be anti-death in any form.
Recently, we talked with him about why — and we discussed the moral, spiritual and even political implications of capital punishment.
There are so many Christians who see the pro-life ethic as fundamental to their values. But there seems to be a lot of debate in Christian communities when it comes to capital punishment. Why did you want to address that in the form of a book?
The consistent life ethic is beautiful. It says, “We are uncompromisingly going to stand for life.” The early Christians did that; they unilaterally spoke against violence in all forms. But what’s happened I think in our culture is pro-life has come just to mean anti-abortion. I really believe abortion is an urgently important issue.
But it’s not the only life issue.
This idea that we want to be pro-life from the womb to the tomb, from the cave to the grave, is so beautiful. That leads me to care about Black Lives Matter. It leaves me to care about gun violence and the death penalty.
The more that I looked at the death penalty the more I saw Pandora’s box: It opens up a whole lot of other important issues like race and economic inequity and how the death penalty is applied—even things like the role of government. How much do we trust our government with an irreversible power over life and death, considering our history of slavery and racial injustice in our country?
The death penalty raises one of the most fundamental questions of our faith which is: Is any person beyond redemption? At the end of the day I think there are a lot of reasons to be against the death penalty, but for a Christian who believes that Jesus died to spare us from death and this idea of grace or as Scripture says “mercy triumphs over judgement.”
But one of the problems, and I saw this when writing the book, is that the death penalty has succeeded in America not in spite of Christians but because of us. We have been the moral and theological background for it. And where Christians are most concentrated is where the death penalty has flourished.
You mentioned the racial inequity in the application of the death penalty. I think a lot of people who haven’t looked into the issue might not be aware of this. Can you explain?
This is important because there are folks who are for the death penalty in principle, but they’re against the death penalty in practice (because they look at how broken the system is in our country.)
After the period when lynchings were prominent, we evolved lynchings into a more palatable way of killing, which was legal, state-sanctioned executions. In 1950, black folks were 22 percent of the population but they were 75 percent of the executions. Today, black people are about 13 percent of the overall population, but they’re 34 percent of executions and 43 percent of death row.
We like to say it’s about the most heinous crimes, but really the biggest determinants in capital punishment are the race of the victim and the resources of the defendant.
Our philosophy of justice is more punitive than rehabilitative. Do you think, in addition to the eventual abolishment of the death penalty, the justice system needs further reforms?
Those of us who are Christians have a unique opportunity to bear witness to God’s vision of justice. When you look at Scripture, God’s justice is asking different questions than I think we do in the contemporary criminal justice system. It was more about what harm was done and how can we heal that harm, and how the person who was a part of creating that harm can be a part of that healing. That’s what folks say is restorative justice. It’s not about just punishing but it’s about healing and restoration.
Part of the problem is that we spend so much energy and resources trying to maintain a chronically broken system, that we’ve limited some of those resources.
Across the board, it’s true that it costs more to maintain the death penalty than to create alternatives to it, even alternatives like life in prison. It would even allow us to leverage a lot more resources toward victims and better forms of justice.
For people who may not live in a state like Nebraska where it’s a ballot issue, but still feel passionate about ending the death penalty in the United States, how can they get involved and be active and let their voice be known?
There’s a couple things. One of them is to hook up with some of these national networks. There’s groups like Equal Justice USA and the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty and these groups, almost every state has a grassroots death penalty group that’s working to abolish the death penalty.
The second thing we can do is engage really important conversations. Not beat people over the head, but there is so much at stake. So let’s talk about it.
The voices I’ve found particularly helpful are groups like Journey of Hope. They have families of the murdered with families of the executed and they stand side by side to speak against all violence. It’s so powerful to say, “killing is the problem not the solution.” We need to listen to the victims.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.