Peter: Shane, you and I are speaking together outside the US Supreme Court building, where you’re part of a four-day vigil calling for an end to capital punishment. That’s also the focus of your latest book, Executing Grace, which argues that abolition should be a priority for US Christians. Why this issue now?
Shane: When some people hear me say “death penalty” they go, “Ooh, sounds like debate class in high school!” I get that. But what sets this issue apart – what makes it so disturbing – is that we Christians are the biggest champions of executions in this country. In fact, the regions where the death penalty has flourished are precisely the areas where Christians are most concentrated. Eighty-five percent of all executions since 1976 have happened in the Bible belt. Other studies confirm that the group that supports capital punishment most fervently is evangelical Christians – much more so than secular people.
For followers of Jesus, other life issues, including abortion, remain very important. But what’s unique about the death penalty in the United States is that we Christians own it. Without our support, it probably would no longer exist.
Why do Christians love the death penalty?
There are many reasons. But the most troubling one stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of why Jesus died. Since I started talking about this issue, I have gotten emails from people asking, “How can God be against the death penalty when God used it to save humanity through Jesus’ execution?” So Jesus’ death is used as a reason to kill people.
As you point out, the early Christians would have been appalled at that kind of thinking.
The Christians of the first three centuries had a consistent ethic of life – they spoke out against all killing, without exception, including war, abortion, and the death penalty. They asked: Why do we call it murder when one person kills another in private life, but call it killing if it’s done in war or through execution? Two thousand years ago they were already naming these contradictions.
An overwhelming majority of Americans actually know this. In a recent Pew poll that asked people whether Jesus would support the death penalty, only 5 percent said yes.
Your book discusses the history of American racial violence, particularly of lynching. What’s the link between this history and the death penalty today?
A lot of the new research was initiated by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. He’s found that it’s exactly the places where lynchings were carried out a hundred years ago in which the death penalty flourishes today, in states like Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Obviously, there’s a complicated story here. Yet there does seem to be continuity between lynching – which, let’s remember, often involved torture, mutilation, and burning in front of audiences of thousands – and what the Equal Justice Report calls “a more palatable form of violence” in the form of the death penalty after World War II. In 1950, African Americans made up 22 percent of the population but 75 percent of those executed. Today, African Americans are 12 percent of the population, yet make up 34 percent of folks executed and almost half (43 percent) of those on death row.
Writers like Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates have highlighted the massive racial disparities in the US criminal justice system, which affect millions. Meanwhile, conservatives like Heather MacDonald point out that for young African-American males, the greatest risk of being killed is through violent crime. With these problems unresolved, is focusing on the death penalty a distraction?
The death penalty is a gateway to talking about the broader issues of racial justice, because what’s true for capital punishment is true for them too. For instance, statistically the biggest determinant for who gets executed is not the atrocity of the crime but the race of the victim. When the victim is white and the defendant is a person of color, he or she has a much higher chance first of being sentenced to death, and then of actually being executed.
One in three African-American boys born today can expect to go to prison. This has everything to do with our history: we haven’t spoken the truth about slavery and racism, and we haven’t done the necessary work of repentance and reconciliation. The United States accounts for 5 percent of the global population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. There are more people of color in US prisons today than there were slaves in 1850. Slavery did not end, it just evolved.
These facts should cause us all to stop. In recent years, 156 folks have been released from death row after proving their innocence. In most cases, these exonerations only happened because of the work of students, volunteers, activists, and nonprofits. It’s not the case that the criminal justice system is working.
But don’t the victims’ families deserve justice too?
Yes, and that is why I start my book by telling about the victims of violence. These murder victims’ families are heroes of mine, people like SueZann Bosler. She and her dad, a pastor, were attacked by a church intruder who killed her father and almost killed her. At the trial, when given the chance to make a statement, she spoke against the death penalty. Despite the fact that she was the crime victim, the judge silenced her and actually threatened to hold her in contempt of court, with the chance of a fine or jail time. Voices like SueZann’s are powerful in reminding us that violence is not the solution to violence. We’ve heard similar messages from families after the Boston Marathon bombing and the shooting at AME Emanuel Church in Charleston.
You’ve called yourself pro-life from womb to tomb. What does that mean?
Whenever we destroy life, we’re working contrary to the Creator – we’re squashing part of God’s image in the world, as Cardinal Bernardin wrote back in 1982 when he called for a “consistent ethic of life.” That means being pro-life from cradle to grave.
It’s unhelpful that the term pro-life has come to mean only anti-abortion. In my neighborhood in Kensington, Philadelphia, to be pro-life means that I’ve got to figure out how to support a fifteen-year-old girl when she gets pregnant. These aren’t just “issues,” they’re human beings.
That’s why I love Mother Teresa so much. She used to say to young women in that situation, “If you don’t know how to handle this, I’ll help you.” It’s not just about picketing abortion clinics, it’s about protecting life by supporting folks in really hard situations.
On June 27, the US Supreme Court dramatically reaffirmed the constitutional right to abortion in the ruling Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. How should consistent pro-lifers respond?
When I was in India in the 1990s working with Mother Teresa, I got to know two kids who were basically homeless. So I found a family in the United States that was ready to adopt them. When I asked Mother Teresa about it, though, she was adamant that she didn’t want Indian kids going to the United States so long as our laws continued to make abortion so easy.
For those of us who are pro-life, the current state of affairs really puts a burden of responsibility on us to help bear the weight on people’s shoulders. We need to be helping provide support groups for women who’ve had abortions and for women who are considering abortions. Because abortion has created a sort of national trauma.