Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with social justice pioneer, Shane Claiborne. His latest text, “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us”, challenges Christians and non-Christians to abandon the death penalty and adapt a plan of true justice.
Then Time magazine’s Rana Foroohar joins us to talk about her new text, “Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Shane Claiborne and Rana Foroohar coming up right now.
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Shane Claiborne to this program. The social justice pioneer challenges Christians and non-Christians to abandon the death penalty and adopt a plan of true justice in his thought-provoking new text.
It’s called “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us”. When a book like this with a title like this comes across your desk, you have to talk to the author. So, Shane, good to have you on the program.
Shane Claiborne: Good to be with you, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start with the story of the moment where the death penalty is concerned. That would be the case of Dylann Roof, the unrepentant killer in that South Carolina church just over a year ago.
So the Obama administration asked for the death penalty in this case, which I think caught some people off-guard. I wasn’t so surprised. I kind of expected that they’d ask for it, but the irony is that a year ago President Obama and so many others were so taken by the grace…
Claiborne: Singing “Amazing Grace” down there, yeah.
Tavis: He was singing “Amazing Grace”. He’s singing “Amazing Grace”, they’re talking about grace and the dignity of these families and how these families had already forgiven Dylann Roof for what he had done. Fast forward a year later, they ask for the death penalty. What do you make of the tale of two stories on that?
Claiborne: Well, first of all, I think that we have to identify with victims of violence, so the lament, the solidarity, the nation like grieving on what happened in Charleston and Orlando . To be anti-death penalty doesn’t mean we’re anti-victim. That’s why I start the book by talking about victims that have found better ways forward than killing to show that killing is wrong.
And that’s what happened in Charleston. You know, we saw a faith-rooted community voicing that there were other ways for–they wanted forgiveness. They wanted repentance. They didn’t want to ignore what had happened, but what happens, I think, to us when we pursue the death penalty is we stoop to the morality of the very people that have done such evil.
So in the end, I think there’s lots of victims of violent crimes that say we can do better than the death penalty, and we need to. I mean, we don’t rape people who rape to show how wrong it is to rape or maim people who maim. Like we can do better than that. So we can do justice and the death penalty isn’t the only form of justice.
Tavis: What have you learned where justice is concerned–what have you learned from or about families who pressed for, wanted the death penalty initially, and years now later are rethinking whether or not they got anything out of it?
Claiborne: Yeah. Well, there’s lots of those . The people that I interviewed in the book, folks like Bill Pelke who lost his grandmother in a violent crime. I mean, she was stabbed like 33 times by a group of teenaged girls. Initially, everybody wants consequences and retaliation for that, justice for that.
But then he started thinking about his grandmother and she was a woman of deep faith like these folks in Charleston. He said, “I thought about the gospel that she taught these girls that were in her bible school and about Jesus.” He said, “Forgiveness became the only way forward.”
Because what not forgiving did to him, he said, “It wasn’t about the person. It was about myself and it was rotting me out from the inside.” And what I’ve seen from some victims of violent crimes that have actually gotten an execution, they still can be held hostage to the anger and the fear and the resentment.
And there’s people like so many of the folks I interviewed in the book, Murder Victim’s Families for Reconciliation, Journey of Hope, these groups of victims of violent crimes and their surviving family members that have found better way forward and they are incredibly healed from that. Sometimes they’ve even built relationships with the folks that have done that over many years, you know.
But there’s cases like Billy Neal Moore who’s become a friend of mine. His innocence and guilt weren’t in question. He took someone’s life and he was so haunted by it, he wanted to kill himself. He tried to kill himself in prison. He said, “If I could push the button on my own execution, I would have done it.”
And the victim’s family were Christians and they reached out to him and they said, “Listen, we hate what you did. We will grieve that the rest of our lives, but we believe as Christians in redemption. We believe that this doesn’t have to be the end of your story and God wants to do something with your life.”
They argued against his execution and became his family through all of that, and he became a Christian through that. He was released and now he’s a pastor. And I look at that and, to me, there’s healing in that story.
Not every story ends well. There are people that are not repentant, but I think at the end, one of the questions raised by the death penalty is not just does someone deserve to die, but do we deserve to kill? And what does it do to us when we kill others and stoop to that kind of morality?
Tavis: I want to ask you, Shane, about whether or not we’re making progress. That is to say, whether or not the tide is turning in the country against the death penalty, and I think it is. We’ll talk about that. But let me preface that question with a question about a place like Boston, for example.
In the State of Massachusetts, the death penalty is illegal and yet, because after the Marathon bomber, that incident, the federal government comes in. It’s a federal case now. So the federal government asked for the death penalty.
Like what do you make of a situation like that where, in the state, they wised up, so we’re opposed to the death penalty in Massachusetts, but the federal government comes in and asks for the death penalty? Like kind of an interesting dichotomy there.
Claiborne: Well, we are conflicted as a country and I think states feel that too. What’s happening right now is we’re almost as divided as we’ve ever been where a majority of the people of the United States are against the death penalty when they’re offered alternatives to it like life in prison.
But you have states–almost every year, a new state abolishes the death penalty. Last year, Nebraska became the first conservative-led state in like 40 years to abolish the death penalty.
So we are seeing changes and especially in young people, young Christians. There’s just a sense that we can do better than that. So death sentences are at a 40-year low. Executions are at a 20-year low. So even though we do have the death penalty in our country…
Tavis: We are making progress, though.
Claiborne: We only have like a few states, four states, this year that are actually pursuing executions.
Tavis: You come to this subject in your belief in your view, the way you see this. You’re anti-death penalty stance is born in part of your Christology and you’ve used the word Christian two or three times in this conversation now. Does one have to be a Christian to have a moral ground on which to stand in opposition of the death penalty?
Claiborne: Absolutely not. In fact, some of the folks who have been the biggest advocates for restorative justice and other forms of punishment have not been Christians. The troubling thing for me as a Christian is that the death penalty has survived not in spite of us, but because of us. 85% of executions are in the Bible Belt.
As one of my friends says, “The Bible Belt has become the death belt.” So we look at where we are executing and wherever Christians have been most concentrated is actually where executions are happening, places like Texas and Georgia and Alabama. You know, New England and places like that are actually the places that have abolished it.
Tavis: Well, the irony of that, given your subtitle, is that you expect Christians to understand what happens when you crucify people [laugh ]…
Claiborne: Right. Well, I mean, in Tennessee, my state, Tennessee, they brought me an electric chair back during Holy Week right before we remember Jesus’s violent execution. So, yeah, it’s troubling when I think we lose track of Jesus, first of all, because Al Mohler and other folks from the Southern Baptist Convention have argued for the death penalty.
But they don’t mention Jesus very much or the gospels. But we have, you know, the Old Testament that we’ve used to justify the death penalty, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
But when you look closer, it gets really troubling because there’s like 30 death-worthy crimes in the Old Testament, like disrespecting your parents and witchcraft. You know, like all these different things. So we don’t really believe in the biblical death penalty, bringing it back, I don’t think.
Tavis: I don’t want to get too deep into the Herman & Nudix of the text [laugh], but…
Claiborne: I didn’t think I’ve used that word, but…
Tavis: Well, I think you’ll take my point here. The reason I use the notion of Herman & Nudix is because I wonder what your take would be for those Christians who say, yes, we have abhorred the fact that they crucified that first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus who we serve. We abhor the fact that they…
Claiborne: Come on, Tavis.
Tavis: We abhor the fact that they crucified him, but we abhor it because he did no wrong. Even Pilate said, “I find no fault in him.” Jesus was faultless, he was blameless, and they crucified him anyway. That ain’t the case for Dylann Roof.
That ain’t the case for these persons that we want to put to death. They did something that is unacceptable, that’s just hard to imagine that a human being could do that to other human beings. So they’re not like Jesus. They’re not faultless or blameless. Your response?
Claiborne: Right. Well, first, starting with Jesus, I think it really is important to understand Jesus as one who was executed, you know, who died on a tree. So many folks during the struggle to end slavery and racial oppression said he was a lynchee. There was a sense of divine solidarity that happened in Jesus.
And yet, if we don’t get that, I get emails from folks who say, “How can God be against the death penalty when he used it to kill Jesus and save humanity?” So I think we got to do good theology because the other theology is toxic. But what I see Jesus…
Tavis: Herman & Nudix [laugh].
Claiborne: Herman & Nudix. But what I see Jesus doing is actually exposing the whole system of death like water poured on the electric chair. You know, short-circuiting that system, exposing it, triumphing over it in love, dying forgiving those who were killing him, right? So that’s Jesus, and he’s got folks on his left and on his right that are also victims of the death penalty. So that’s important.
But now when I think about other folks, this is part of the point for me. Jesus died to save us from death. The end of the story for Christians is that even someone who has done tremendous evil is not beyond God’s grace.
I mean, that gets pretty scandalous, but when you look at it like one of the first murderers in the Bible is Moses, and David killed Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. Like there’s stories of murder. Saul of Tarsus went door to door trying to kill Christians. He oversaw a brutal execution of Stephen. So the story is about grace and the Bible would be a whole lot shorter without grace.
Tavis: So let me close on this note. The best argument or arguments, plural, for those who happen to be atheist or agnostic, but are entertaining the notion that the death penalty might be wrong, they perhaps are reexamining their own assumptions about why we kill people in this country, for those who, again, are atheist or agnostic, the best reasons to be opposed to the death penalty are what?
Claiborne: Even if we believe in the death penalty in principle, the way that it’s practiced is so broken. We are not killing the worst of the worst. We’re killing the poorest of the poor. As my friend, Brian Stevenson says, “We got different forms of justice and you’re better off being rich and guilty in America than poor and innocent.”
One of the biggest determinants of who really gets executed are things like the resources of the defendant to defend himself or herself and also the race of the victim and the geography of where you do the crime. So you do the same thing in California as Texas, you get different penalties for that.
And in the end, like the real question is not like should these things go unpunished, but what does real justice look like? What does it look like to restore and heal the harm that was done? I think there’s a lot of folks coming together to say that we can do better than killing to show that killing is wrong.
Tavis: The new book from Shane Claiborne is called “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us”. Love the title, love the book. The timing of its release, given what the country’s talking about, could not be more propitious. Shane, good to have you on. Congratulations.
Claiborne: Great to be here, brother.
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