Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Chris Haw, of Jesus for President. His newest book is Executing Grace: Why It is Time to Put the Death Penalty to Death.
Posts By This Author
The Gospel of Kelly Gissendaner
Georgia clergy just delivered 500 signatures of faith leaders and 40 boxes of names from around the world — calling for a stop to tonight’s execution of Kelly Gissendaner. And there are more than 55,000 folks on the Groundswell petition that launched just yesterday, and more than 1,000 new names are coming in every hour.
But some suggest it is like speaking into thin air — that there is no chance the governor or the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole will listen. After all, Georgia has already executed two people this year, more than any state other than Texas.
But there’s a Georgia case that would suggest otherwise, that all this may not be in vain — that of Billy Moore.
After 17 years on death row for a murder he openly confessed to doing, Billy Moore’s execution was stopped — by a groundswell of support from faith leaders (including Mother Teresa), people of conscience, and even the victim’s family. And it was the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole that stopped his imminent execution. In fact, they eventually decided his rehabilitation was so complete and compelling that he was eligible for parole a year later.
So thousands of Georgia citizens and folks around the world are hopeful. Tonight there is an opportunity — not to be “soft on crime” or to ignore wrongdoing, but to bear witness that redemption is possible. Tonight Georgia leaders have a chance to recognize that people can be healed, rehabilitated, restored — and that they do not have to be forever held hostage and defined by the worst decision they made.
Interrupting Death: Women and Capital Punishment
Only 15 women have been executed in the U.S. since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. For two death penalty cases involving women to make the news in the same week is unprecedented – but it’s happening.
One is Jodi Arias, convicted of killing her ex-boyfriend in 2008, whose sentencing trial was this week. She could face the death penalty in Arizona.
The other is a lesser-known case in Georgia — Kelly Gissendaner, convicted in a 1997 Atlanta murder plot that targeted her husband. Though sentenced to death, it is clear that with a little better legal coaching, Ms. Gissendaner could have plea-bargained for her life. That’s exactly what her husband’s killer, Gregory Owens, did. And now he’s behind bars as she counts down the hours to her death. It just doesn’t feel like your life should depend on how well you play the legal cards, but it sure seems to.
Kelly Gissendaner was supposed to die Wednesday night — but there was an interruption.
Executions Are Down and Abolition May Not Be Far Behind
It looks like the death penalty may be on life support.
January was set to be the deadliest month for U.S. executions in 2015, but nine of the 15 executions were stopped. In an unprecedented wave, three of the deadliest states stopped executions planned for last month — Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. February has just begun, but nine of its 12 scheduled executions have been halted.
Last year was not a good year for the death penalty, either, as death sentences hit a 40-year low and executions were at a 20-year low.
There were botched executions such as that of Clayton Lockett, who writhed in pain for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack, with the Oklahoma prison warden calling it “a bloody mess.”
Then there were the exonerations, such as that of Ricky Jackson in Ohio, who spent 39 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, convicted solely on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who recanted.
Injustice Has Many Names
There is power in a name.
One of the things happening in our world right now is that people are “naming” injustice. No longer are we just talking about statistics, numbers and data. We are lifting up the names of the victims of a failed justice system. And there is something in a name that humanizes and personalizes the issue, and wakes us up: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice.
The numbers have names.
They remind us of the collateral damage of a failed system, and the urgency of this moment. We can’t make injustice history until we make injustice personal.
For many people of color, the victims of injustice have had names for a long time. Emmett Till helps us know how far we have come; Eric Garner reminds us how far we still have to go. But now these names are being talked about in homes and around dinner tables all over the world.
Every name of a life lost is an image of God. When we lost them, we lost a little piece of God’s image in the world. They are friends, sons, sisters, fathers and neighbors.
How to Build Authentic Community
I’ve often told young college shoppers: Don’t just consider how strong the academics are, or how good the football team is, or even how you like the campus or the town. All of those are good questions, but make sure you also ask: “What do you pay your housekeeping staff?”
One of the true tests of a good college is how they treat their workers, and certainly a decent indicator of that is how the lowest paid workers fare in contrast to the highest paid administrators. A good question of any college president is if he or she would be comfortable exchanging salaries for a year with the janitor. After all, both are just as valuable in the eyes of God.
So it was a great privilege this month to be invited to chapel at my alma mater, Eastern University, for “Housekeeper Appreciation Day.” Celebrating the unsung heroes of the campus is becoming a beloved tradition, and it is a wonderful one.
In the presence of the president, deans, administrators, and hundreds of students and faculty, dozens of campus workers were put into the spotlight and celebrated for their tireless work to keep the campus alive and beautiful. There was a genuine love thick in the room – hugs, tears, and I caught glimpse of a fist-pound or two. Then they were given a certificate of appreciation and a paid vacation day, because more than 200 students committed to pitch in so they could take off.
I had students tell me about how housekeeping staff tutor them in Spanish. And I had housekeeping staff tell me how students had been there for them during really hard times.
Wheaton College Tackles the Death Penalty with Jesus in Mind
On Nov. 6, Wheaton, “the Harvard of Christian colleges,” is hosting a forum on the death penalty. But it’s not just any forum. It has potential to reshape the way evangelicals in America think about the topic.
In addition to Wheaton’s own ethicist Vincent Bacote and Mercer University scholar David Gushee, the panelists include Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent eight years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Also on the panel is Frank Thompson, former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary who witnessed executions. And finally, there is Gabriel Salguero, who heads up the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and is also a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, a Christian powerhouse representing 45,000 congregations from over 40 denominations.
This is big.
I’ll admit, part of me wished this monumental death penalty event was happening at my alma mater, Eastern University. After all, Eastern is well-known for its social justice edge, its progressive faculty — folks like Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. One Eastern alum, death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson, was recently called “America’s young Nelson Mandela” by Desmond Tutu and interviewed in Time magazine and The New York Times.
After I pouted a little while, I realized the significance of this forum.
Welcoming the Stranger (Even If It’s Against the Law)
There is a nonviolent uprising around immigration happening in Philadelphia and a dozen other U.S. cities. Philadelphia faith leaders announced that they will welcome immigrant families even if it is against the law. They are building a movement of "sanctuary congregations" and have dreams that the U.S. will one day be a sanctuary nation.
We join them in insisting that we must obey the laws of God over the laws of our government — and that means "welcoming the foreigner as if they were our own flesh and blood." (Exodus 22:21, Lev.19:34, etc., etc.).
Jesus says that when we welcome the stranger we welcome him. When God asks: "When I was a stranger did you welcome me?" (Mt. 25) we are not going to say: "Sorry God, Congress wouldn't let us."
We know that sometimes divine obedience can mean civil disobedience.
As St. Augustine once said: "An unjust law is no law at all."
A Nonviolent Uprising
Dr. King said: a “riot is the language of the unheard.”
What happens when folks do not feel like their voices are being heard?
They shout louder.
Rioting is what almost happened in Ferguson, and all of us who live in fragile neighborhoods with a backdrop of deep racial injustice need to pay attention.
In Ferguson, a close-knit community was devastated by yet another injustice. They wanted to be heard. But as peaceful marches began, they were met with unprecedented force.
Tears were met with teargas.
It was as if authorities were putting their hands up over their ears. So the people shouted louder – and the world began to pay attention.
At a fragile moment when emotions were running high, the people of Ferguson had to choose between rioting and nonviolent direct action in the streets. A very small group (many of them arguably out-of-state activists) resorted to some forms of property damage. And it caught the media’s attention.
Some might say it hijacked the headlines.
But that is not how I will remember Ferguson.
Give Us New Eyes
It’s been said that our politics are often shaped by what we see out the window.
Twenty years ago, if you would've asked me if I thought police treat people fairly regardless of race, I would have confidently said, “Yes” — just like 70 percent of white folks in the recent Pew survey. In fact, 30 years ago, if you would've asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I’d have said “a policeman.”
I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, which was still very segregated. Growing up, we knew the police officers by name. On more than one occasion, the police saved the day, and countless news stories celebrated the heroism and courage of police officers.
My mom and I used to go on walks together in a park, and I always looked forward to bumping into the officer who patrolled the park. She was tough as nails but always greeted me with an enthusiastic smile and a big bear hug. At the age of ten, she appointed me a “Junior Officer,” and she gave me a “real metal badge.” I felt like I was at the top of the world, and on my way to be officer of the year.
And then my window changed.
Marching Through Death’s Desert
It’s 93 degrees in Texas today. And Rev. Jeff Hood is walking 200 miles across the state. What would compel somebody to do that? He wants to end the death penalty … and he is not alone.
Rev. Jeff Hood is a Southern Baptist pastor, deeply troubled by his denomination’s stance on capital punishment. And he is troubled because he lives in the most lethal state in the U.S. Texas has had 515 executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 – the next state in line is Oklahoma with 111. That means Texas is responsible for 37 percent of the executions in the U.S. Jeff has been a longtime organizer and board member for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a movement that is gaining some serious momentum these days.
A growing number of Texans — and Americans in general — are questioning the death penalty. A recent ABC poll shows we are over the tipping point, with more than half of Americans being against the death penalty and in favor of life in prison, putting death penalty support at a new low. For some it is the racial bias – in Texas it is not uncommon for an African American to be found guilty by an all-white jury. In fact, in considering “future dangerousness,” a criteria necessary for execution in Texas, state “experts” have argued that race is a contributing factor, essentially that someone is more likely to be violent because they are black – prompting articles like the headline story in the New York Times about Duane Buck: “Condemned to Die Because He is Black.”