I recently graduated from seminary, bringing my career as a student to a close (at least, for now). This has brought about a flurry of changes, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what life looks like post-education. But all of it has been positive. I’m really excited about the ways in which my life is different now than it was when I was in school, and one of my favorite changes might surprise you. I’m really happy that I now get to choose the books I read instead of having them assigned to me.
I’ve had a pile of books on my shelf for ages that I’ve been meaning to read, and that pile has gotten larger and larger with time. But always at the top was Shane Claiborne’s latest book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. Shane has been a powerful voice in my life for years, ever since I read his first book The Irresistible Revolution, and when I heard that he was writing a book on the death penalty, I couldn’t wait to read it. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been soaking in Shane’s words on the issue, and I think I’m now to a point where I can process and write about them coherently. This is my review of Shane’s book, as well as some of my own thoughts about the controversial topic that the book tackles.
The book begins with a basic premise: Regardless of one’s views on the death penalty, whether they be based in politics, religion, morality, or something else, we can all admit that the idea of someone dying under any circumstance just feels wrong. No amount of logic or reasoning can change the fact that our hearts sink when we hear that a human life has been taken. We may try to rationalize certain types of death (such as state-sanctioned executions or war casualties), but in the end, our hearts will never be completely overruled by our heads. Shane’s book begins with a call to reconcile the two, and this is the call the reader must live up to as he or she continues through the book.
Executing Grace proceeds to cover a multitude of issues that crop up around the death penalty: the victims’ points-of-view, the Bible’s statements about the issue and how they’ve been used (and misused) throughout history, the effects of the death penalty on those forced to carry it out, the role that race has played in the history of the death penalty, and the inevitable fact that the entire Christian faith is centered around the most famous execution of all time: Jesus’ crucifixion and death at the hands of the Roman government. In each chapter, Shane takes an honest look at these issues from multiple angles, slowly building a wholistic, Christ-centered view of this heavy topic. Along the way, Shane is informative, heartfelt, and brutally honest about the reality of the death penalty and its effects.
No one who picks up the book is going to be surprised by where Shane lands on the issue. He makes it pretty clear from the start that he is adamantly anti-death. But that doesn’t mean that the view put forth in the book isn’t nuanced, well-supported, and ultimately an attempt at constructing a Christian response to the questions raised by the death penalty. The book is meant to be read by anyone who is willing to approach it with an open mind, even if the reader has a different view than Shane does. He’s not interested in being heavy-handed or disrespectful towards anyone, only to make his case, something he does very well. I think that Shane’s take on the death penalty as put forth in Executing Grace is more faithful to the Bible and to the teachings of Jesus than any other I’ve encountered, and his message has certainly convicted me, influencing my view on the issue in the process .
But just as compelling as Shane’s argument is his deep sense of concern and urgency. Throughout the book, he weaves in stories of people who have been affected by death and the death penalty in one way or another. You can tell from Shane’s words that these are people and stories that he’s spent a great deal of time with. These stories have affected him and the way he views the death penalty. These have been transformative stories for him, and he presents them in such a way that they can be transformative for the reader as well if one is only open to it.
Ultimately, Executed Grace is not so much a logical argument as it as a call to action. On an issue as important as the death penalty, it is not enough for us to form our opinions and simply agree to disagree. It is not enough to hear these amazing stories and go on with our lives as usual. This book calls us to take a stance, to stand firm in it, and to allow it to affect how we live our lives day-to-day. It is a call to care. It is a call to act. It is a call to resist death in Jesus’ name, and that’s a call that I want to answer.