Shane Claiborne

August 17, 2016

Actually Shane Claiborne, Christians Should Support Capital Punishment

Social Justice Activist Shane Claiborne – a progressive Christian who runs Philadelphia’s Simple Way community, and an author who published Executing Grace earlier this summer about the death penalty – was recently interviewed by Relevant Magazine about what he claims is the Christian obligation to reject capital punishment.

Claiborne seems sincere in his religious opposition to capital punishment but his reasoning (in this piece but also his book) to support abolition are in conflict with biblical justifications for the death penalty, and don’t make much sense.

For example, Claiborne says:

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… pro-life has come just to mean anti-abortion… But it’s not the only life issue.

…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.”

This is a bit convoluted and attempts to hide moral relativism posing as, but distorting, Christianity.

“Violence in all forms?” So murder, rape, and punishment for both are all morally equal – comparably defined as violence? How? Based on what functioning ethical system? The Bible and Christian orthodoxy are clear that gradations of violence, sin, and punishment exist precisely because of the morality attached to them.

The idea that one has to reject capital punishment to maintain pro-life ethical consistency is a false dichotomy, completely ignoring biblical teaching on the matter.

In my opinion – and based on the Bible – to be pro-capital punishment is to be pro-life.

It’s why the divine injunction of capital punishment is the only command repeated in each of the first five books of the Bible. It rightly roots out the evil in our midst, preserving the lives of the majority. Those who commit the most grievous of crimes and worthy of the death penalty are killed, preventing them from re-committing their heinous acts, which violate the safety and security of other people.

Claiborne’s petition that no one is “beyond redemption” doesn’t factor in the dispute against capital punishment. The argument is that no person – regardless of the moral depravity evidenced in the actions s/he has committed – is beyond repentance, spiritual conversion and redemption. As such, a person shouldn’t be condemned to death via capital punishment, but should be spared and given opportunities to be spiritually rehabilitated and saved.

Unfortunately, there are some people who’re simply beyond spiritual repair. History is chock-full of examples of people who committed atrocities against others who never repented of their evil acts. History also testifies that many people sentenced to prison for a determined length of time – up to life in prison – didn’t express remorse or realize spiritual restoration.

The redemption of the felon on death row is between the felon and God. It’s up to God to have mercy on him/her; we on the other hand, have to do what’s right and necessary for the preservation of civil society by protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty. Sparing the condemned doesn’t do that. It sends exactly the wrong message about life’s sacrosanctity to other violent criminals that have yet to be brought to justice. Abolishing the death penalty shows preferential treatment for the murderer at the expense of the murdered.

But the Christian “beyond redemption” appeal as a religious protest misses a couple key points.

God works on his time – not ours. The potential of the condemned being redeemed isn’t predicated on his exemption from capital punishment – as if God needs as much time as possible to transform and save the lost.

What if the guilty rejects redemption? Life imprisonment, rather than death for the possibility of redemption is a huge moral gamble that doesn’t make sense.

Since the time-sensitive potentiality of the condemned being redeemed is considered why isn’t the alternative? Rather than giving both God and the condemned inmate ample time to get to know each other, why don’t Christian opponents of capital punishment contemplate the prospect that the spiritual conversion of death row inmates might increase if the death penalty was more efficient and accelerated?  Increasing the urgency of death could prompt a change of heart that 30 years on death row can’t.

To the point, being spiritually redeemed doesn’t revoke earthly punishment.

Claiborne continues:

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.

This is dishonest and Claiborne either knows it, or at the very least, he should know since he wrote a book about capital punishment.

Claiborne completely ignores the severity of the crime(s) committed – the reason(s) why a person is on death row – and implies that the disproportionate numbers of blacks on death row and their executions are primarily the result of racial and economic factors, not (im)moral ones. Christians who share this position of disparate impact completely ignore or excuse the violent acts committed by black felons deserving of the death penalty, which are readily available from the FBI or the Bureau of Justice Statistics/Department of Justice.

Intentionally excusing blacks from human moral obligation and agency isn’t benevolence; it’s condescending racial paternalism.

Absolving blacks from moral standards and expectations that everyone else is subjected to might qualify as “compassion” or “justice” in the morally superficial world of social justice activists. In the real world of cause and consequence, the majority of people on death row are there as punishment deserving of the crimes they’ve committed. If Claiborne is concerned about the disparate impact of capital punishment on black lives, he should instead focus on highlighting and condemning the contributing factors that facilitate the disproportional participation of blacks in violent criminality – the causative factor(s) which qualifies black felons for the death penalty.

Extending leniency to murderers as compensation for their evil guarantees the acts of evil – including murder – will increase.

Sparing the life of the murderer doesn’t demonstrate compassion; it devalues it.


  • Aaron

    Wow, I hope this is intended to be something of a difficult-to-discern-but-still-sarcastic “Modest Proposal” sort of article. Aside from containing serious logical blunders (If pro-life, then pro-capital punishment), no serious theologian could affirm this argument, even if he/she were in favor of capital punishment.

    Since when did the Torah officially take precedence over the fullness of revelation of Christ? God entered into a culture in the ancient near east that was by no means complete. He worked within the conquer-or-be-conquered world, where Israel stood out as being highly unique but by no means ideal. That Genesis 1-2 are utterly devoid of violence of any kind should give us pause for concern when it comes to capital punishment, especially after Christ has offered himself to be violently slain as the scum of the earth rather than strike his enemy.

  • Rob Arner

    Claiborne is absolutely correct in that the ancient Christian church before Augustine and Ambrose in the 4th century, DID reject killing in all circumstances, from womb to tomb, as incompatible with the life of the Jesus follower. For documentary proof of this, see Ron Sider’s recent book, The Early Church on Killing- https://www.amazon.com/Early-Church-Killing-Comprehensive-Sourcebook/dp/0801036305/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1471483835&sr=8-1

    Or George Kalantzis’s Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service https://www.amazon.com/Caesar-Lamb-Christian-Attitudes-Military/dp/1608992535/ref=pd_sim_14_13?ie=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=PFTP00291VTE72H4SKNT

    Or my own Consistently Pro-Life: The Ethics of Bloodshed in Ancient Christianity https://www.amazon.com/Consistently-Pro-Life-Bloodshed-Ancient-Christianity/dp/160608612X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1471484093&sr=1-1

  • Heddrick Steel

    Getting away with murder says the life of the victim wasn’t worth very much, not sacred at all. On the other hand, capital punishment must be administered only in cases of ‘absolute certainty’ that a murderer is being executed. “Beyond a reasonable doubt’ is not a sufficient standard for execution.

  • Brian

    It’s worrisome that some people take this character seriously, also worrisome that the formerly orthodox Christian writer Tony Campolo is completely taken in by his nonsense.

  • maxine

    I am against the death penalty for one reason and that is the dishonesty we find in all parts of government which includes the judicial system. Too often people are cleared of crimes years after being incarcerated. What if they were death penalty cases? I believe the Bible allows for capital punishment but I could vote for it only if there were inescapable pieces of evidence including eye witnesses. Even then I would wonder who or if anyone was lying; who could be trusted; etc. I guess I wouldn’t be chosen for a juror on a murder trial.