September 21, 2011
Shane Claiborne: Death Interrupted
What does the Gospel say to us amid the death penalty debate?
Last week death was interrupted. Duane Buck was set for execution. His execution would have been the second last week and the eleventh this year in Texas alone… and two more executions are scheduled soon. When Presidential candidate Rick Perry celebrated his 234 executions as Texas governor in a recent debate, the audience roared in applause. As a Christian I found that deeply disturbing.
There is an incident in the Gospels where Jesus is asked about the death penalty.
Here’s the scene. A woman has been humiliated and dragged before the town, ready to be killed. Her execution was legal; her crime was a capital one. But just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right.
Jesus interrupts the scene – with grace.
He tells all the men who are ready to kill the woman, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And of course he reminds us all that if we have looked at someone with lust in our eyes we are adulterers. If we have called our neighbor a fool we are a murderer. You can hear the stones start to drop, as the men walk away.
It is this dual conviction that no one is above reproach and that no one is beyond redemption that lies at the heart of our faith. Undoubtedly it’s why the early Christians were characterized by non-violence, even in the face of brutal evil, torture, and execution. Of all people, we who follow the executed and risen Christ should be people who are pro-life, pro-grace, anti-death.
The last 2000 years of Christianity have been filled with those interruptions of death. After all, many evangelicals believe that Jesus’ own death on the cross was an interruption (“the wages of sin are death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ” Romans 6:23) – according to conventional evangelical wisdom, our sin warrants the death penalty for us all were it not for Jesus. How then can we who have been spared death so quickly become people who are ready to dish it out?
Besides, much of the Bible is written by murderers who have been given a second chance -- like David (who committed adultery with a woman and then had her husband killed to cover up his crime). How can we rejoice in death, even the death of a “terrorist” like Osama bin Laden when half of the new testament was written by a terrorist named Saul of Tarsus (who went door to door trying to kill the early Christians before his radical transformation), whose conversion was so radical it was as if “scales fell from his eyes” (Acts 9:18) and so fundamental that he changed his name.
The interruptions of death continue. I recently heard a friend who is living in prison tell me his story… a story very similar to that of Duane Buck in Texas. My friend, admittedly and regrettably, committed a terrible crime. But the victim’s family were Christians, and so in court they argued against the death penalty. They insisted that we are all better than the worst things we do, and that no one is beyond redemption. And they knew that there is something wrong with killing someone to show that killing is wrong. Because of their persistent grace, my friend was spared the death penalty. In prison, he pondered their words, and began reading the Gospels… and became a Christian. To this day, his life is a resurrection story.
Our Gospel is a Gospel of grace, in spite of how scandalous grace may be, and in spite of all the ways we Christians have forgotten that grace.
When Duane Buck got the news last night that the execution had been stayed, these were his words: "Praise the Lord Jesus. God is worthy to be praised. God's mercy triumphs over judgment, and I feel good."
This is the good news – mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Death has been interrupted by grace. No one is beyond redemption – no one – not King David or Saul of Tarsus, not Duane Buck, or you or me.
Their stories, and our own, remind us that we should never write any one off. God’s grace is bigger than our mistakes. Death thou art dead.
May the interruptions of death continue. And may our lives become a part of the interruption.