Shane Claiborne — The Full Interview

Below is our full transcript from our talk with Shane Claiborne. It has been edited for readability.

R: First off, it’d be helpful if you told us about you, your background, your work, The Simple Way, and your message.

S: Absolutely. So, I’m a Tennessee boy. I grew up in East Tennessee most of my life, then came up to Philly to go to college and fell in love with this city, and particularly, my neighborhood on the north side of Philadelphia. 20 years ago, a group of homeless families had moved into an abandoned Catholic church building and were living there, and that sparked the real movement on our college campus, and really, all over our city in bringing attention the urgent crisis of homelessness among moms and children. We got involved in that and never left. So we moved into the neighborhood shortly after that, and we were really inspired by the Early Church in the book of Acts were it says everyone shared all their possessions, and met in each other’s homes, worshiped God, and took care of each other, so we set out to do that and we’ve been doing it for 20 years now.

So, we’ve got a bunch of houses on the same block and murals, and gardens, and wild kids jumping in fire hydrants and it’s been a good time. All the other stuff that has come out of that, like our concern for gun violence, Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, and inequities in the education system, this recent work around restorative justice and the death penalty — it all kinda bubbles up out of our relationships here and living in close proximity to those injustices and my love for Jesus.

R: That’s actually a perfect segue into my next question which is about your newest book, Executing Grace. So, you sort of hinted at it just then with the proximity to those injustices around you, but talk a little bit about why you felt compelled to talk about the death penalty.

S: For sure. So, I said in the beginning of the book that I felt like the book chose me. Because what really happened was — well frankly, when I wrote my first book 10 years ago, I started giving my books away to people living in prison. In just made sense, you know? I wasn’t going to send them an invoice or something. I started giving my books away, and I began meeting a lot of men and women — especially men — on Death Row. I found that the death penalty — and I’m not a hot-button issue person, you know, I’m not a single issue person — but what I think drew me to the death penalty is because it raises some very deep, fundamental questions like: Is anybody beyond redemption?

Aside from all the other things we’ll talk about, like racial inequities, a broken system, that so many folks have been exonerated after proving their innocence hours before their execution, really, in the end, one of the questions it [the death penalty] raises is: Is anybody beyond redemption? When you look at the Bible, and I read the Bible very seriously, for a lot of my life, I believed the Bible ordained the death penalty, and the Bible seemed to be very clear about that. But the more I look, the more troubled I became because it’s not that simple. In the Bible, there’s some 30 death-worth crimes, like working on the Sabbath, or disrespecting your parents. [Laughs] Are we that fundamental that we should bring back that death penalty? Yet, I did see this idea that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the more I look at that scripture, the more I knew it was very clear that it was to stop the spiral of violence and make sure that no one did more harm than the harm that was done to them. So, it wasn’t a license for revenge but a limitation, actually, of how much you can retaliate. Then it makes total sense when Jesus comes and says “You’ve heard it was said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I tell you there is even a better way.” Just because you can poke someone’s eye out legally doesn’t mean you should and that it’s right. It teaches us a more perfect justice.

The other thing about the death penalty that is very unique is that the death penalty has succeeded in America, not in spite of Christians, but because of us. The Bible Belt is the Death Belt. Wherever Christians are most concentrated is where executions are happening, and that’s deeply troubling to me.

R: Right. And actually, my next question was why do you think the death penalty has such a strong hold? In your book you specifically mention the Bible Belt. And I, you know, we’re in Arkansas, so I get that. Why do you think it’s had such a grip on Christians today?

S: Well, a couple things. One, is that I think we’ve misinterpreted some of the scriptures to justify the death penalty. So whereas a lot of folks in our country feel like we can do far better justice — it’s more expensive to do the death penalty than the alternatives — there’s so many reasons that people come to the conclusion to abolish the death penalty. But Christians still have an overarching trump card of scripture — well, maybe not a trump card — it’s kind of been something that has superseded some of those other things. Even in the United States, in the early colonies, it was a capital crime in New York to strike your parents in the 17th Century. The Salem Witch trials, witchcraft, because it was in scripture, it was a capital crime. There’s history that’s there.

What’s also troubling is that these are the same places that were the Confederacy in many cases. It’s impossible to separate our contemporary practice of the death penalty from our history around race and slavery, and specifically, lynching. Where lynchings were happening 100 years ago is where executions are happening today. And that’s a haunting and eerie thing. It’s very important as we see places like Texas, Georgia, these are some of our biggest executions states, Alabama, the Carolinas, Florida — those were where the lynchings were happening and where slavery continues in many ways to leave a very terrible legacy for us.

So, when we really began executions rather than lynchings, black folks were 22% of our population in 1950, for instance, but they were 75% of the executions. Now, African-Americans are 13% of the population, but they’re still almost half of death row, and over a third of the executions. 34% of the executions are black folks. So, like, I mean, things like the race of the victim is one of the biggest determinants of who gets executed.

My friend, Dwayne Buck, whose case is before the Supreme Court in Texas now for sentencing around capital cases, one of the things that is argued is this idea of future dangerousness. In Dwayne’s case, an expert witness argued that black folks are more likely to be violent than white folks. I mean…mind boggling that that was allowed in defense. 6 other cases, that was the case too. All of those were overturned, and there was a new sentencing trial. But, Dwayne Buck still faces execution despite the fact he’s been in prison for like 20 years with not any offense, much less a violent one. One of the things he was sentenced to die for was that he was considered a future danger. He’s a deeply committed Christian now. He became a Christian in prison. The prison warden calls him a “light in the darkness”, all his friends know him as “Preacher Buck.” These are real names and faces, and that’s why in the book it’s really about stories and people and not just a skilled debate. You know, I think a lot of people view the death penalty as a debate class or something. The cost and whats at stake is really, really a big deal.

R: Absolutely. By the way, you’re doing a great job of leading into the next question, so thanks for that.

S: [laughs]

R: So, sort of a big part for me — I finished the book 3 weeks ago — a huge part of it for me, and what you just hinted at, was these huge gaps by race. A lot of that plays into what’s going on around us and I know from talking and reading that a lot of Christians who are sympathetic to movements like Black Lives Matter, or see these discrepancies in race of the criminal justice system — they don’t know where to start. They don’t know how to get their hands dirty and do what they can to help. What would you say to people that are sort of searching for an end there?

S: Well one of the the most important contributions I think of what I tried to do with it was to connect some of these powerful groups and websites and resources and books that are out there cause I think the more people — a lot of people they end up going “I haven’t really thought about the death penalty. I think I’m for it. You know people do really bad things; there should be a punishment for the most heinous crimes.”

Then the more you look at it, that’s where you see that we’re actually not killing the worst of the worst. We’re killing the poorest of the poor. Where actually one of the biggest determinants of who gets executed is how many resources they have to defend themselves. So, I think the more people look at it the more troubled they become, so that’s why just having access to information and stuff like the death penalty information center — which all of that we’ve tried to hub on But those [people] are like… you see this in folks who maybe haven’t thought about it… “Well, you’d feel differently if it happened to you.” And actually that’s why I love to introduce folks to Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and the folks (like so many of the great stories that I tell in the book) [from] Journey of Hope where they have murder victims’ family members alongside execution — er uh — folks that were executed, their family members, and they’re together. There’s so much power as they unite their voices to say no to all violence — to legal and illegal killing and to say all we’re doing is creating a new set of victims as we perpetuate this idea that we can kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong. I think that’s where these voices have so much credibility because they have experienced deep trauma, and no one is saying that we need to ignore horrendous crimes, but we are saying that we could do better than the death penalty when it comes to true justice and true healing. And a lot of it is about closure for families, and a lot of families that have gotten an execution don’t have a sense of healing or closure. And some of the most incredible gospel stories I have ever seen are these families that have experienced the worst things I can even imagine and yet have ensured that grace gets the last word, and that they try to find better ways forward than the death penalty.

And you know some of that should come from human stories like Bud Welch I tell in the book. His daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing he wanted Timothy McVey to fry, he said “I would have killed him myself if I could,” but then the spirit of God really started to work in his heart and he saw Timothy McVey’s dad on the news. And Timothy’s dad was weeping and he said “Those — I recognized those tears.” It was like looking in the mirror, you know. And he said that those are the tears of the dad and he realized, like, um, I’m going to get to remember my daughter as the wonderful woman she was like — -but — -forever stigmatized. And now, to see him executed creates even more trauma and pain, so he got to know Timothy’s dad. And he said “When I hugged Mr. McVey, I never felt closer to God than in that moment,” and they had this friendship that developed and he was one of the people who was most outspoken against the execution of Timothy McVey. There’s so many stories like that, you know, and I think we’ve gotta tell those stories 16:27.

And they’re stories of a deeply committed Christian, and so many of these folks are. I think really what you stake all this to is the gospel, and frankly, I believe you know Jesus said “a doctor doesn’t come to the healthy, but the sick, and it’s not the righteous but the sinners that I’ve come for,” so I think that that’s the scandal of God’s love and grace that no one is beyond redemption, and we can see that all through scripture, you know. David, Moses, Saul of Tarsus, these were all people who did terrible terrible things — they were murderers. The Bible would be a lot shorter without grace. So, I’m thankful for Jesus and I’m thankful for stories like the ones I’ve had the privilege to get to know through writing the book.

R: Man, yeah absolutely. Those stories at the end of each chapter were incredibly moving. So, just this last weekend, I was getting dinner with a friend of mine and I was talking about this book. And the premise of course. And he said, well if not the death penalty, what’s the alternative? So talk for a minute about restorative justice, because I know that’s a term that not a lot of people have encountered. But I think it’s a pretty appealing concept.

S. Yeah. Well, here’s an important question because there are people who are dangerous, and evil is real. We look at Dylan Roof, who shot our African American brothers and sisters in Charleston. And uh, as I know, it seems he’s pretty unrepentant about that, and yet we heard this incredible response of grace, and some of those folks have really become public about opposing the death penalty for him. So, there are alternatives and this is where the Catholic position has become even more firmly established, and the Pope has been very vocal on this. The Catholic understanding has been that the death penalty has been become, like, outdated because in industrialized countries. We have other ways of protecting societies from dangerous people without killing them. And in fact, it’s important to remember that much of the world has done away with the death penalty.

This is the company we keep when it comes to the death penalty: China, the number one executing country; Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, those are the top 4, and number 5 is the US. And those are not countries that are known as champions for human rights, you know. {laughs}

R: Yeah, the irony.

S: So I think we can — we definitely can, and we must do better. A lot of the world looks to the United States, whether we like it or not. We’re sort of the pioneer, so I think that restorative justice is what God is about — this idea that same word for righteousness and justice is in scripture. And we think of justice sometimes as getting what you deserve, you know — what crime was committed and what is the punishment for that crime. That’s how a lot of the criminal justice works. But God’s justice is restorative, so it’s not as interested in those same questions of “What did they do wrong?” and “What is the punishment for that?” It’s more about what harm was done and how do we heal that harm, and that’s a much more redemptive version. So, it definitely doesn’t turn a blind eye to harm, but it does say we want to heal the wounds of that.

There’s places, New Zealand, a really great example of that — it created a beautiful model of restorative justice. But you even think of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and Rwanda after some of the most horrific events in recent history — things like the Rwandan genocide. Well, Rwanda came out of that going like “Death was the problem, not the solution.” There was kind of a death fatigue, so no one wanted more death. But they created ways that the people who had done these atrocities could repent and be a part of rebuilding the world that they destroyed. And there’s amazing stories like the Forgiveness Project — and so many others that I mention in the book — of the healing that’s come out of that, some of the darkest places in history like the Rwandan genocide, have now become places where you can see what restorative justice looks like. You can see redemption and healing. It’s interesting because South Africa is another example of that. After the fall of apartheid, one of the things they did away with was the death penalty. They said the sanctity of life means we don’t want a government that kills. That was also a part of the old world, that they were a part of during apartheid. But even after the holocaust, folks had the deep sense that [killing] was the disease, not the cure, so there aren’t any cases of execution even after these. There are some — called ‘death fatigue’ — people who just grow so tired of death, so they don’t want to keep perpetuating death and creating more victims and more anger and more pain. They want to heal from that, and I think that’s exactly what God wants to do. And, interestingly enough, that’s part of what God’s original law was doing with the ‘eye for an eye’ thing. It was actually to limit the patterns of retaliation and then to begin to heal from that. So, even with things like Cain and Abel, Cain wasn’t killed. Cain was exiled. But he was allowed to build a city and was even marked so that he would not be killed — but be protected, his life would be protected at least. [Cain] goes on to have a family and build a city. So I think in the end, God’s justice is redemptive, it’s restorative, it’s about giving life, not taking life.

The problem is we’ve spent so much energy and money maintaining a broken system that we haven’t had a ton of extra energy and money to pioneer some of these new models. I think we can do better. It’s unilaterally true that it costs more to maintain the death penalty than the alternatives to it, and we can leverage more resources to victims families. We can do all sorts of creative ways of healing the pain that people have done by channeling the energy and resources to other more redemptive forms of justice. One of the examples [that I tell in a book] was a drunk driver that had a pattern of drunk driving, and he killed a young woman. But in the end, after much healing, he ended up going and speaking alongside the family of the young woman he killed and using his voice to try to prevent other drunk drivers. Think of the power of what he was doing — it’s like one thing to hear a parent that lost their kid to a drunk driver — and it’s also powerful to hear someone who has made that mistake and taken someone’s life and what that did to them — that he lives with that for the rest of his life. So, I think that’s a way we can look at it: not turning a blind eye at all to folks who do wrong but allowing them to be a part of the healing and to prevent further harm. You know, it doesn’t do anything to take their life. It doesn’t do anything to take their life except create new wounds.

R: Yeah, sure. And also, I think that a key component of restorative justice is — especially in the case of the drunk driver — is that it’s also restorative for that driver, right? Like, its…you know, there’s no way that he sits in his cell and be okay with what happened. So he or she gets to take an active roll is making things right, which, you know, I think is reflective of a greater harmony of sorts.

S: Yeah!

R: So, I’ve just got a couple questions left.

S: Yeah man!

R: In a practical sense, how can people like us help people like you put the final nail in the coffin, no pun intended, in the death penalty?

S: That’s a great question, and the good news is that we’re making tremendous progress. I’m kind of new to the game on some of this too, and so part of what we can do is that we can completely spotlight and amplify the voices that are out there. So groups like Journey for Hope and Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, these groups are out there speaking all the time. They’re on tour in Nebraska right now because it’s on the ballot in November. There are two states in particular that are softball pitches when it comes to this: California and Nebraska will be voting to repeal the death penalty in November. So I think we can create some really healthy, viable conversations in those states. But, in our country, there’s a national movement to abolish the death penalty because death sentences are at a 40 year low, executions are at a 20 year low… we really only had two states that are actively executing this year, and that’s been Texas and Georgia. There’s a few others that execute from time to time, but like, the death penalty is on it’s way out. There’s only a few kind of strongholds for it, and so I think we can really rally that energy.

Almost every year a new state abolishes the death penalty. Nebraska is the state that did it last year, and the governor put it back on the ballot to keep the death penalty in place. But I think that that’s happening almost every year, and so there’s gonna be some vigils — I try to alert people whenever there’s an execution. I think we’ll also have some prayer vigils and some actual demonstrations at some of these. But a lot of that is about having conversations, ’cause I think we gotta win the hearts and minds of people on this issue, and the good news is that like…its an old school form of justice. So, when you poll snake person Christians, Christians born after 1980, it’s like 80% of them are against the death penalty. It’s not because they’ve thrown out their faith, but it’s because of their faith they can’t reconcile the death penalty with Jesus and their commitment to Jesus. So, it’s an exciting time, but I would love to see the Church on the right side of history. It’s not that hard to say slavery is wrong after we’ve abolished it, you know? [laughs]

And there’s folks that are not against the death penalty for the same reasons that I am, and there’s tons of folks that are against the death penalty that are for it in principle, but against it in practice. Folks like, oh what’s his name from the Southern Baptist Convention? Oh geez. Well, there’s a number of voices that have spoken out because of how broken the system is. Like, conservatives concerned about the death penalty as a movement around the country with folks who say “You know, we don’t believe in big government, we don’t really trust the government that much.” A lot of times people say whatever the government touches, they don’t do that well, so why would we trust them with the power over life and death? Do we really believe the system is that perfect that it won’t make any mistakes? You can’t reverse these mistakes. I think there’s a whole lot we can do even just with folks issuing statements of concern for denominations, for churches. The United Methodists had a great statement. The NAE, on of the biggest coalitions of evangelicals, the National Association of Evangelicals, revoked their pro-death penalty statement a year or so ago, which was crazy because that had been in place for like 3 or 4 decades since like the 70’s. So even though they’re not explicitly against the death penalty, they did say they’re going to support christians who oppose the death penalty. Those are huge stances. One of the largest Latino coalitions made a unanimous statement against the death penalty. So even evangelicals, traditionally, that have been one of the backbones for the moral justification of the death penalty, so that’s unravelling, and I’m excited we can be part of making the death penalty history.

R: Sure, absolutely. Ok well, this last question is sort of zooming out in scope a bit. But it’s something we ask everyone we interview. So our blog is focused on narrative and story and how we can extract the the gospel from the things we see around us. And so, this last question is: What non-biblical story whether it’s a novel, actual history, a movie, a TV show, a painting, whatever it may be, would best summarize or represent the gospel to you?

S: Hm. Well I sure like the story of Jesus but I guess that’s like the — I gotta come up with something else, right?

R: [laughs] The ONE stipulation.

S: [Laughs} Yeah. No, I think, well, there’s a man that’s written his own story and you can catch him online, too. I tell this story in the book, his name is Billy Neal Moore. He’s still alive, and his story is a resurrection story. It’s totally a gospel story. You can hear him tell it in his own words online, or in the book, which I’ve got listen there in the back. It’s a powerful story. You know, because people know “dead man walking,” there’s a lot of stories out there when it comes to the death penalty. I would say checking out Billy Neal Moore and hearing him online. I’ve got to preach with him a few times and his guilt wasn’t in question, I mean, he was responsible for a man’s life being taken. He was so haunted by that that he wanted to kill himself. He faced the death penalty, but then the victim’s family reached out to him with forgiveness and sort of became a surrogate family for him and the victim’s family. He became a christian through that. In rare form, he was released from prison, and today he’s a pastor. So everything about that just smells like Jesus and shines the gospel redemption story.

R: Man, absolutely. Well Shane, that’s my last question.

S: Cool, man. Thanks for doing this, man.