Shane Claiborne: Death Interrupted
What does the Gospel say to us amid the death penalty debate?

Last week death was interrupted. Duane Buck was set for execution. His execution would have been the second last week and the eleventh this year in Texas alone… and two more executions are scheduled soon. When Presidential candidate Rick Perry celebrated his 234 executions as Texas governor in a recent debate, the audience roared in applause. As a Christian I found that deeply disturbing.

There is an incident in the Gospels where Jesus is asked about the death penalty.

Here's the scene. A woman 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.

Jesus interrupts the scene – with grace.

He tells all the men who are ready to kill the woman, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." And of course he reminds us all that if we have looked at someone with lust in our eyes we are adulterers. If we have called our neighbor a fool we are a murderer. You can hear the stones start to drop, as the men walk away.

It is this dual conviction that no one is above reproach and that no one is beyond redemption that lies at the heart of our faith. Undoubtedly it's why the early Christians were characterized by non-violence, even in the face of brutal evil, torture, and execution. Of all people, we who follow the executed and risen Christ should be people who are pro-life, pro-grace, anti-death.

The last 2000 years of Christianity have been filled with those interruptions of death. After all, many evangelicals believe that Jesus' own death on the cross was an interruption ("the wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ" Romans 6:23) – according to conventional evangelical wisdom, our sin warrants the death penalty for us all were it not for Jesus. How then can we who have been spared death so quickly become people who are ready to dish it out?

Besides, much of the Bible is written by murderers who have been given a second chance – like David (who committed adultery with a woman and then had her husband killed to cover up his crime). How can we rejoice in death, even the death of a "terrorist" like Osama bin Laden when half of the new testament was written by a terrorist named Saul of Tarsus (who went door to door trying to kill the early Christians before his radical transformation), whose conversion was so radical it was as if "scales fell from his eyes" (Acts 9:18) and so fundamental that he changed his name.

The interruptions of death continue. I recently heard a friend who is living in prison tell me his story… a story very similar to that of Duane Buck in Texas. My friend, admittedly and regrettably, committed a terrible crime. But the victim's family were Christians, and so in court they argued against the death penalty. They insisted that we are all better than the worst things we do, and that no one is beyond redemption. And they knew that there is something wrong with killing someone to show that killing is wrong. Because of their persistent grace, my friend was spared the death penalty. In prison, he pondered their words, and began reading the Gospels… and became a Christian. To this day, his life is a resurrection story.

September 21, 2011

Displaying 1–10 of 36 comments


November 22, 2011  8:44pm

Death is a big thing,i believe in another chance, but that chance means nothing when you do not learn. Alot of people get the picture after punishment.(cant learn when your dead)Then theres people like me who get scared right out of it be for punishment is taken place. Now Jesus probably saw that and understood death would keep her from changing her ways.

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November 14, 2011  4:20pm

My comment would be identical to a blog I recently wrote in response to Bin Laden's death. Jesus engages us with grace and I don't think Claiborne can be noted as misinterpreting this passage anymore than you or I can. A bit ironic.

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Daniel Scott

November 14, 2011  4:03pm

Why can't we just rejoice at the fact that a life was saved, and in a way most important might I add. If you really knew my father and his son Jesus the joy you would receive from the sheer fact that a life was saved shown mercy and given a second chance at life, in which time the ex-prisoner decided to fall for Jesus and is now a Christian because of that Jesus like mercy he was shown (go figure). But instead you focus on your political-attachments to the world. You're feelings toward the death penalty that are not from God but from the violent and vendetta bent land from which you came. Stop just being products of your environment and political affiliations, surrender your pride and allow yourself to be shaped and molded by God alone as you were meant to be. in love and in truth, Daniel

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Fran G.

October 12, 2011  10:05am

I don't know if you all have read this article, but I think it gives a better perspective of the reaches of grace and the Gospel. Check it out:

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September 29, 2011  9:53pm

(cont.) I think the story of David and Absolom and the countless others like it in Scripture are there for a reason as well. Re: Dead Man Walking, the book (true story) is by Sister Helen Prejean and it has been made into an Oscar-winning film with Susan Sarandon playing Sister Helen. I read the book, but haven't seen the film. I was in favor of the death penalty (on the basis of Scriptures prescribing it) when I only knew what that meant in a theoretical way. I resisted reading the book for a long time because I didn't think it really had anything to teach me. I couldn't have been more mistaken.

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September 29, 2011  9:39pm

Tim, have you ever read "Dead Man Walking?' I recommend it to all thoughtful Christians on this issue. I don't think any Christian truly understands what it means to support the death penalty until they see it in its concrete human reality. I once heard a preacher assert that even though stoning to death was the commanded punishment for disobedient children in the OT, there is absolutely no evidence in the text of Scripture itself (or the archeological evidence?) that this particular commandment was ever actually carried out in Israel. On the other hand, we do have examples like King David's with his rebellious son, Absolom (where there was not just rebellion, but also betrayal and treason). And the Scripture describes King David as a man after God's own heart.

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September 29, 2011  7:57pm

I have zero confidence in our justice system. Or rather I should say the justice system for poor people. The justice system for people with money works much better. We have two justice systems in our society, just as we have two systems for health care, political representation, education and many other things. The one you get depends on the wealth you have. I sincerely doubt that all the unexecuted murderers in the nation consume as many of my tax dollars as Big Oil. If you are concerned about the costs associated with living expenses for people who kill other people, then the best place to cut that is to get us out of the Middle East.

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September 29, 2011  10:30am

"Do you have a basis for me that says I should believe everything the world says that is anti-death penalty or that suggests someone going there is innocent?" I've read, and re-read your post, and to narrow my response, this is what I'm saying: I am in total, and complete disagreement with your world view. But... I thank you for responding, and I now understand your thinking a lot more.

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September 28, 2011  7:02pm

Sheer "You do know that the system you speak so highly of regularly sends innocent people to jail, or to death…" Regularly? Based on what? I don't believe every alleged report on the web or media about innocence on death penalty cases. I have a lot more confidence in our justice system then the web or media - all of whom speak with great inaccuracy, and direct lies. And all of these people love having millions of babies murdered simply for convenience and cover up sexual orgy, all the while lying about "safe" sex. With this world view, just how much can you trust them? I examine where the info comes from and judge it accordingly. Does that make me a follower of the world? I don't like innocent people being charged and I also don't like guilty people going free. Both happen in our system. Death penalty cases get far more appeals and benefits of slim doubts then they deserve imo. There are probably hundreds of obvious convicted cold blooded murders in California living off my tax dollars and sucking them away from the needy. I am not okay with that. This is mostly due to a few folks who can deceptively manipulate the laws that call for their death. "Whom, Tim, do you follow, G-d, or the world?" If I followed the world I would be believing what they say about all the falsity in the courtroom. I would not question the horrendous views these folks have about life and death. I would take it all in. But I don't. I gave you scripture from the New, not the Old Testament about the authority God has given men to avenge evil doers. You have not said a word about that. I believe that grace and mercy includes freeing victims of horrendous crimes and society as a whole from being forced to pay for food, lodging and every need of evil doers. Do you have a basis for me that says I should believe everything the world says that is anti-death penalty or that suggests someone going there is innocent?

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September 28, 2011  11:32am

Tim, I'm going to take this opportunity to rephrase because I was quite surprised by what you, this is what I am thinking as I reread your previous post...and to be honest...I reread it five times...each time reassessing my reaction to find why I was surprised and curious at your response... _____________________________________________ You do know that the system you speak so highly of regularly sends innocent people to jail, or to death even though the evidence contradicts statements of the State and of witnesses, with often times, later on unfortunately, it being too late to set things tell me, how do you square this statement "...and not for their moral claim that the death penalty is good for society and their fight against those who smear, corrupt, and lie about it." With that fact? Who am I, you say, but the question is, how is it you can be so certain of your "moral" claim when the evidence of falsity in the Courtroom is not an abberration, but a common occurrence? And now, my perspection... Whom, Tim, do you follow, G-d, or the world? That Tim, is what I see overwritten on your post, and by association of my own curiosity, why I find it fascinating because you are a first for me... passionate about G-d, and yet seemingly slaved to a world system/view that at best should be mistrusted, and at worst, patiently forgiving of it's failures...because, as I see it, the world does what it does because it knows no other way, and yet with you, as I said, seems to me, the only way. Too me, and this is what comes through in your writing...that you are cemented in old-testament legalism, and yet tenderly trying to massage the Grace and Mercy of Y'shua into your world view so that you can enjoy the benefits of grace and mercy yourself while still reserving the right to throw down the gauntlet of Law on those you deem needing a little old school correction without concern of actual guilt or innocence. Part of me refuses to believe that anyone can be so callous, and yet my experience with people has often, disappointingly, disabuses me of my disbelief. I am hoping that, yes, there is a misunderstanding...on my part...of your thinking. I prefer to be wrong on this, than right.

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