The death penalty has survived not in spite of Christians, but because of them, according to Shane Claiborne, social activist, author and pioneer in the New Monasticism Movement.
For a long time, Claiborne believed that scripture supported the death penalty: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth …
But his gut told him something else.
He believed it was not as simple as good versus evil, right versus wrong and life versus death.
“I went back to study Scripture, and I saw how complex it is,” Claiborne said during a recent visit from Philadelphia to Lincoln and Omaha, as part of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Retain a Just Nebraska -- both efforts to retain a state law abolishing the death penalty.
More than 200 people attended Claiborne’s June 7 presentations, which coincided with the release of his newest book, “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.” The book examines the death penalty from all angles: religious, moral, just and practical. Many Nebraska stories are included in the 300-page book.
Claiborne’s appearance was the first in a series of guests invited to Nebraska over the coming months to help convince voters to uphold LB268 which calls for abolishing capital punishment in the state, said Dan Parsons, spokesman for Retain a Just Nebraska.
For Christians, faith and the belief that no one is beyond redemption are reasons to end the death penalty.
But beyond Jesus’ teachings and Scripture, Claiborne argues that capital punishment is also costly, fallible, unjust and offers false promises of "closure" to the the families of victims. In fact, he said capital punishment often is treated as a sacred cow, in which the voices of victims who oppose it are squelched and in some cases punished by the courts for speaking out.
A native of Tennessee, Claiborne said he grew up in the Bible Belt.
“The Bible Belt is the death belt,” he said, noting that more than 85 percent of state executions over the last 38 years occurred in the South and Middle West, where strictly conservative Christian beliefs often prevail.
Death penalty defenders often point to Old Testament law given to Moses indicating which crimes deserve death. But as Claiborne notes, Moses himself killed, but was not put to death. Same for David and Saul of Tarsus -- killers who were punished by God, but not executed.
“The Bible is a love story -- it’s about a God who so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save it -- not condemn it to hell,” Claiborne writes in his book.
Put simply, Claiborne said: “We can do better than the death penalty.”
“Why is it a crime for individuals to kill, and it is just for the government to kill?” he asked. “The story of God’s grace is that no one is beyond redemption.”
That is not to say there is no such thing as “evil,” Claiborne said.
Evil deeds should be punished, he said.
“But we don’t rape those who rape," Claiborne said. "We don’t maim those who maim. So why kill those who kill?
“There is no doubt that we have to protect society from dangerous people. But it has become so clear there are other and better ways of protecting society than saying we’ve got to kill someone."
For his book, Claiborne interviewed dozens of people -- families of murder victims, families of murderers, killers and executioners.
“The stunning thing I discovered as I did my research was hearing from many murder victims’ families … who have not found that execution fulfilled the promise of closure and justice,” Claiborne said.
In fact, many families and executioners have said they are haunted by the murder of the killer.
Most murderers are not born killers. They are made that way, Claiborne noted. Some are mentally ill. Many have grown up amid horrendous trauma. They are broken, abused, addicted and lost.
And for the most part they are minority and poor, according to Claiborne.
“To this day, even though African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the nation’s population, 42 percent of death row inmates are black, and 34 percent of those executed since 1976 have been black,” Claiborne writes in his book.
The justice system is far from infallible -- 160 people on death row in 26 states have been proven innocent, Claiborne said. Together, they served 1,800 years for crimes they did not commit.
For every nine people executed, one has been exonerated, Claiborne said.
“We are not killing the worst of the worst,” Claiborne aid. “We are killing the poorest of the poor.”
Claiborne recalled his interview with Ron McAndrew, a former warden and executioner in Florida. McAndrew is a strong believer in “do the crime, do the time,” but overseeing executions took a toll, Claiborne said.
“The men I killed sat on the edge of my bed and haunted me,” McAndrew told Claiborne.
McAndrew was in charge of Pedro Medina’s electric chair execution. The chair malfunctioned. Medina caught fire. It took 30 minutes for him to die.
Later, McAndrew worked to replace the electric chair with lethal injection. But in the end, that was no better for him, Claiborne said.
“He is convinced there is no good way to kill someone. … We have to have consequences, but execution is cruel and unusual punishment, “ Claiborne said.
Putting an end to the death penalty is not just about following the teachings of Jesus, it’s about putting an end to a broken system, he said.
“To take a life is wrong," Claiborne said. "Yet, we reinforce the very thing we are trying to rid the world of by doing ‘legal homicide.’”