Theology From the Execution Room | Sojourners

Theology From the Execution Room

Photo of Elizabeth Bruenig by Graham Winslow Marley. Design by Tiarra Lucas/Sojourners.

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

In Sept. 2016, theologian and peace activist Shane Claiborne wrote for Sojourners that the scourge of capital punishment was on its way out.

“The death penalty is dying,” Claiborne wrote. “Most of America has moved on from state-sanctioned killing.”

In some sense, Claiborne was right: In 2016 there were only 20 executions, a stark decrease from 2005 – 2015, when the U.S. averaged more than 50 executions a year. Four states have abolished the death penalty since 2016, bringing the total to 23 states where capital punishment is outlawed. Six more states have governors who have committed to put executions on hold.

But after a steady decrease in executions during the 2010s into 2016, executions ticked upward again. The death penalty still has signs of life: Gallup polling shows that 55 percent of Americans support the death penalty for convicted murderers, around 2,400 people are currently sentenced to be executed in the U.S., and politicians like former President Donald Trump want to expand executions.

Elizabeth Bruenig, staff writer at The Atlantic, has witnessed three executions since 2020. She has written numerous essays, some of which were compiled into her book On Human Slaughter: Evil, Justice, Mercy, in her effort to report on state killings and their mechanisms.

While a number of anti-death penalty advocates rightly highlight the exonerations — since 1973, more than 195 people have been released from death row — Bruenig writes in the introduction that she prefers writing about the “confessed and admittedly guilty … since we all already agree the innocent shouldn’t be put to death.”

Bruenig writes with piercing clarity and without euphemism about the horror of state killings. Through her writing, the gruesome and torturous details of botched executions — as well as executions that are completed — are illuminated, not sensationalized.

In an interview with Sojourners associate news editor Mitchell Atencio, Bruenig spoke about the importance of these stories both for the people condemned to die and for all of us: the citizens who participate in the structures that kill. She also spoke about forgiveness and reconciliation, the crucifixion, and what can be done to finally put an end to state killings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: Why is reporting and storytelling the way that you work toward the abolition of the death penalty?

Elizabeth Bruenig: Writing and storytelling is just what I can do. I always joke that if I could draw, I wouldn’t ever need to write, because I would have what feels like a much more immediate way of putting my ideas in other people’s heads.

I’ve been a writer since I was a little kid. When I first learned to write, I liked writing so much that I wrote my name all over everything: the walls, the house, the furniture. And I guess the fervor for writing has never really faded.

[As for reporting,] I feel so grateful — and in a lot of ways unequal — to the platform that I have. Being able to place stories in magazines or newspapers or other periodicals that reach people all over the world, I always end up asking myself, “What’s the best thing I could possibly do with this platform?” I come down on trying to help people, trying to shed light that can make a meaningful difference for people.

A big theme of your work on the death penalty seems to be how secrecy and hiding are a big part of state killings. Is that secrecy something that you’re hoping to shine a light on?

Yes, absolutely. Some states have secrecy/anonymity statutes on the books, with respect to the identities and activities of executioners. There are also secrecy protocols in place for the vendors who supply the materials used in executions, like drugs used in lethal injection. All of this amounts to a part of state activity that’s really not transparent at all. It’s extremely opaque. Even if you look at people in the most reductive way possible — as taxpayers — taxpayers presumably have a right to know how the funds their state has access to are being used.

Capital punishment is an area where that kind of access is highly restricted. So for me, illuminating what’s going on with capital punishment is a huge goal, but also illuminating, as much as possible, the contours of what we don’t know.

You write in the book that when lethal injections were introduced, they “initially seemed to have solved the death penalty’s public-relations problem,” as the drugs are seen as more humane than a firing squad or electric chair. And you do a great job illuminating that lethal injections can be gruesome, horrendous ways to die. Do you think “humane” killings are a serious interest of the state? Or is it a farce?

Constitutionally, states are obligated to try to come up with methods of execution that are in line with “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” So, just on Eighth Amendment grounds, states are obligated to come up with ways of executing people that are commensurate with the times in which we live. The Supreme Court has said they wouldn’t countenance hanging anymore, but there was a time in the U.S. where we regularly hanged people. In fact, it was a very long-lived execution method.

But even the court we have now recognizes that we have moved past reliance on methods that are now viewed as barbaric … although some states are preparing for [a return to] execution via firing squad.

Morally, one part of the torture and agony of a death sentence is the awareness of the impending death. I don’t see any method as being capable of discharging that. Every method on the books is going to levy that cost on the people who are victims of [capital punishment]. I don’t think there’s any way to do away with that except to do away with capital punishment.

What do you make of the de facto abolition of the death penalty — and its return — in the 1970s?

I think of that resurgence as a product of its time. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that there were lots and lots of laws passed during that time period oriented toward “cracking down on crime.” People felt like crime was out of control.

There were lots of laws passed that would have lasting effects on the death penalty in the United States. I think we’re still dealing with the fallout of those periods, because a lot of the guys coming up for execution now were convicted and sentenced in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s interesting to go to death row these days, because it’s like a nursing home. A couple of years ago Texas executed a guy in his 70s — Carl Wayne Buntion.

(Buntion was executed in 2022. At 78 years old, he was the oldest person ever executed by the state.)

What would it take to abolish the death penalty?

What’s very important to me, when I think about how to actually affect that, is that the most expedient, easiest, fastest way to have an impact on the death penalty in the United States at this moment would be for President Joe Biden to commute the sentences of everyone on federal death row.

At the end of his term, [then-President] Donald Trump executed 13 people in about six months. This was a project of Trump and [then-Attorney General] Bill Barr. It was hugely successful because the Supreme Court was willing to rubber stamp these executions one after the other. Since we still have the same court in place, and because it’s possible things tip back over into GOP control, having those people protected via commutation of their sentences would be extremely helpful and guard against another big spike in American executions.

Biden can also support legislation that would end the federal death penalty, stop federal sentences from being handed down. He could instruct Attorney General Merrick Garland to stop pursuing capital sentences in court. Garland declared some kind of moratorium on capital sentences being handed down federally, but his AG’s office has still pursued capital sentences that were already won.

The rest of the story is going to go one of two ways: It’s going to involve the Supreme Court, which could make it nationally illegal — I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Second, [some activists have gotten] red states to rethink capital punishment. Their reasons are a little bit different than my reasons: budget concerns — the cost for small counties or localities in pursuing these capital sentences; innocence — the potential for posthumous exonerations. That’s not what I focus on, but I think they’ve done a really great job in convincing some red states, like New Hampshire, to rethink their capital punishment laws. That’s really where I put my hope right now.

For those red states, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the case that legislation outlaws capital punishment. The only thing that has to happen is more district attorneys decide they shouldn’t pursue capital sentences to begin with. The reform prosecutor movement has been very helpful in that respect.

What are the arguments that you find persuasive, if we are going to convince more people that it’s bad to pursue the death penalty?

It’s interesting, in countries and states where the death penalty is banned, people stop supporting it. And that makes a lot of sense. You’ve come to an agreement as a democracy and that decision impacts the way people think.

The arguments that I find persuasive against the death penalty have to do with a universal regard for human life. And I know those arguments don’t work for everyone, or they don’t like the implications of those arguments. But to me, it really comes down to whether it’s ever good or justified to take the life of someone who is not a direct threat. Killings out of vengeance, they don’t fulfill that necessary provision of the person being a direct, imminent threat. For that reason, I just feel like we have to respect human life, the right to live, and the right to have some quality of life.

I’ve heard you say in the past that societies need to keep alive the possibility of reconciliation. What does reconciliation look like in these cases where capital punishment is being pursued?

One thing I happened to notice in my reporting is that there have been several people who wanted to reconcile and forgive their family member’s killer.

In Joe Nathan James Jr.’s case, the family of Faith Hall — who was Joe Nathan James Jr.’s victim — didn’t want him to be killed. They said that’s not what she would have wanted, she would have wanted them to forgive him. They found it an insult to her memory that the state was going ahead with that execution anyway. In the case of James Barber, he had met and reconciled with the family of his victim, Dottie Epps, and had developed quite a close relationship with them. They did not want to see him executed.

I tend to think, what could guys do if they had more time? I think you would have a lot more reconciliations.

When you talk about reconciliation and forgiveness, you’re talking about a return to normal terms following this rupture. Establishing those kinds of bonds is totally possible and I don’t think it’s a pipe dream because I’ve seen it happen. Things would be much better for victims’ families if the overall goal of the criminal justice system was forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than just vengeance sponsored by the state.

I suppose it says a lot about two elements of our society that one of my existential fears is dying in a mass shooting and my murder being used to justify the death penalty.

One of the interesting things about mass shootings is that you have a lot of victims and a lot of victims’ families, just by nature of [the crime]. There’s some who want a death sentence and some survivors and victims’ families who don’t.

We don’t weigh those things equally in society. If a family member of a victim wants a death sentence, we take that very seriously and feel that should influence the criminal justice system. But if another victim’s family, or a survivor of the attack, doesn’t want a death sentence and very emphatically protests a death sentence, that’s not something we think should affect the criminal justice system.

Has writing about the death penalty caused you to rethink other elements of the legal system, about prisons or incarceration generally?

I think a lot about the conditions people are subjected to in our prisons and the absolute misrule of so many departments of correction in this country. Alabama’s Department of Corrections is so bad and so manifestly out of control that they were sued by Trump’s Justice Department.

Alabama has not necessarily convinced the federal government that they’re in control of what’s happening in their prisons. I think that’s a constant problem, especially across the South. Even just knowing, quite well, guys who are in prison has made me reflect very differently — in a way that I hadn’t had a direct reason to contemplate before. It’s made me really reconsider what I think about prisons and prison conditions for sure. I don’t know if I feel like I’ve done the reporting to speak confidently on what I think ought to be done with our prisons. But [have I] seriously questioned the good and the intentions of mass incarceration? Yeah, I think I have some very very strong feelings about that.

Is the state even capable of effecting the goal of reconciliation and forgiveness?

I don’t think the state is A) particularly empowered to encourage those kinds of changes or B) interested in effecting those kinds of changes. I don’t think the state sees that as its role in most cases. The organizations that do have an interest in … helping people reconcile with the families of their victims, they are mostly run by religious organizations that are acting inside the prison. The state farms out those responsibilities, outsources them to religious organizations and nonprofits.

Has witnessing an execution affected your faith — your understanding of forgiveness, or of the cross, for example?

There are some women — and the apostle John, at least in his telling of the story — who stay with Jesus as he’s crucified. The fact that there’s a role for witness — just bearing witness to what’s happening — that’s attested to in Christianity, [it] makes me feel pretty secure in what I’m doing and makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing. Being that close to the humanity of an execution, knowing the person who’s being executed, knowing their story, etc., has made the reality of the crucifixion that much more intimate for me.

I feel like I have a much better understanding of what someone goes through when they’re to be executed, which has illuminated the entire narrative of Gethsemane through the resurrection. What I find interesting about the crucifixion story, in terms of capital punishment, is the last thing Jesus is doing before he dies on the cross: asking God to forgive his executioners. This speaks volumes of the correct Christian orientation toward capital punishment.

Are there things about forgiveness that feel harder or easier to explain, having spoken with men on death row?

We think of forgiveness as being something you do for yourself, right? If you’re going to forgive someone, it’s really not something you’re doing for them; you’re doing it to help you move on or to normalize your feelings about the offense. And there’s a place for that. Forgiveness does help people move on or reframe what happened to them in a way that’s conducive to living a happier and healthier life.

I don’t think that’s inconsistent with the perspective that we should be forgiving. But the perspective that we should be forgiving doesn’t require forgiveness to be especially therapeutic. For Christians, the expectation of forgiveness isn’t really linked to the expectation that forgiveness is going to unburden your heart and lead you to live a happier life.

It’s still totally possible to forgive someone and be quite affected by what happened. I don’t think those are mutually exclusive at all. Should we be teaching people that if forgiveness doesn’t make you happy, it’s not right to offer it? I don’t think so. Not as Christians.

Instead, forgiveness is a kind of charity in Christianity. It’s something you do for another person that restores them to equal moral dignity with you by discharging that bad thing that harmed them morally.

When you do bad things, it harms you morally. Forgiveness is in some sense for the person who’s doing the forgiving, and I believe in those effects, but in the Christian framework, forgiveness is something you do for the other person, and it is a good work to do for them.

Can you forgive somebody without reconciling with them?

Yeah, it’s possible to forgive without reconciling. Sometimes, forgiveness is going to be the sort of last act you ever bestow on someone. It’s totally possible to say, “I forgive you; I release you from this burden and any obligation to me, but I don’t want a relationship going forward, and I don’t want to reconcile and reestablish a relationship that was ruptured by the wrongdoing.”

At the same time, for goal-setting reasons, it’s totally possible to try to focus on forgiveness and reconciliation as goals for ourselves, when we think about people who have wronged us.

It’s hard for me to separate the forgiveness of God from the reconciliation of God, and therefore hard for me to imagine doing so as a Christian.

In the Catholic Church, we have the “Sacrament of Reconciliation,” and this is confession. But there’s more that happens there than forgiveness, because you’re given a penance to do. You carry out your penance, and that makes the totality of the sacrament of reconciliation.

It’s not just being forgiven. It’s reestablishing a relationship that was ruptured, in this case, by sin. Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation, but reconciliation is not necessary for forgiveness.