When Shane Claiborne entered the Zoom call, I could see a low-fidelity version of him go in and out of clarity as we tried to get in sync with each other. He was being driven in a car. The pixelated shadows of trees made thin stripes on his shirt, making him look like he was dressed in an old jail outfit. He apologized for the less-than-ideal scenario. “If we get disconnected, just give me a call back,” he added with a welcoming southern drawl. I was on lunch at my day job in Los Angeles, sitting on a rusty divider bar in front of two cars in a parking lot. It felt like a digital rendezvous for some underground group.
Shane Claiborne is a speaker, activist, and author. He’s known for working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and founding The Simple Way intentional community in Philadelphia. As a Red Letter Christian, Shane is part of a movement of folks who are committed to living “as if Jesus meant the things he said.” His activism has led him to jail while advocating for people without houses, and to places like Iraq and Afghanistan to stand against war. His passion is now to end the death penalty and help stop gun violence, especially as it affects marginalized communities.
I spoke with Shane about the present cultural moment in the United States, using his book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and How It’s Killing Us as a jumping off point.
“How are you feeling these days, Shane?”
“Walter, I’m feeling a whirlwind, as I’m sure you are.”
Photo by Rex Harsin
TWISTING THE CROSS
We began talking about his book and Shane jumped in, straight away highlighting that 85 percent of death-penalty executions that have occurred since 1976 have taken place in the southern states of the U.S. commonly known as the Bible Belt — a characteristically white, protestant, and socially conservative region.
“Around 1950 … lynchings were turning into death penalty executions, Black folks were 22 percent of our population, but they were 75 percent of the executions,” Shane told me. His words sped up as he continued. “African-Americans are just 13 percent of the population now, but they’re still almost half of death row. They’re more than one third of the executions. That is very problematic for me as a Christian.”
Shane pointed out that many of those Bible Belt states belonged to the Confederacy and held on to slavery the longest, too. Those confederate states also gave birth to the Klu Klux Klan, which has historically claimed Christianity as its own. A leaflet circulated by the KKK in 1964 urges “sober, intelligent, courageous, Christian, American white men” to join. An active Klan website calls the American justice system “the finest system of government ever conceived by man, which is based on the Holy Bible and Christian Common Law.” A Washington post article about William Joseph Simmons, a Christian pastor who revived the KKK, remembers the cross burnings of the clan, and reminds readers that they were intended to symbolize the “light of Christ” putting out the darkness around it. These images suggest a skewed understanding of the Christian narrative, as if it has been twisted to fit like a broken pin on the country’s lapel. And “when you twist the cross,” writes Shane, “you get a swastika”
Theologian Dr. James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree that an absent connection between lynching in white American Christian conversations and thinking is “profoundly revealing especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching.” He writes, “…that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America [again]…and thereby empower people who claim to follow [Jesus] to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.”
Photo by Rex Harsin
Many white Christians would deride the Klan, but that derision is only of an extreme image of white supremacy. For Shane, participating in a justice system that calls upon the Holy Bible as its oath-making anchor, and yet publicly kills people of color––especially Black Americans––disproportionately is evidence of a new cocktail of Christianity. With so many Jesus followers in support of this new iteration of lynching, the church at large is guilty of partaking in a less extreme and more acceptable version of white supremacy.
As a note, Christians may get caught up on the words white supremacy and not feel they’re participating in it. Something familiar for Christians might be the vocabulary of the empire. Rome was the oppressive culture in the old scriptures. The ideology of Rome––the empire––is in the opposite of the ideology of the Christ. But the ideology of the empire is not a cartoonish monster like a shark. It is something more insidious. It is the water. It is the atmosphere around us that isn’t necessarily easily seen. It is the spirit of the “principalities and powers” in a culture that the scriptures mention. The ideology of the ‘U.S. empire’ is in many ways aligned with the ideology of white supremacy. Yes those with particular physical features benefit from white supremacy, but it is also important to note that the overlap of Christianity between Christians and the KKK means that Christians in general may have more in common with the KKK than with Jesus’ disciples if they do not actively oppose all of its forms ––especially any culturally acceptable forms.
Christians in general may be in danger of not really being able to truly sing the lyrics of the old hymn ‘on Christ the solid rock I stand’ if they are still swimming in the water of white supremacy. To be disgusted with the water one is swimming in, and yet remain swimming in it is strange. Which is why for both Dr. Cone and for Shane, it’s strange for Christians not to see the shape of Jesus when the empire flexes its power by killing marginalized people. Rome did this and arguably lynched the central figure of the Christian faith: a marginalized thirty some-thing named Jesus.
Photo by Rex Harsin
In Executing Grace, Shane reminds readers how the Roman Empire used crucifixion as a way to humiliate, incite fear, and flex the violent power of Rome to anyone who would oppose it. The dominant religious groups of the time participated in the public killing of Jesus as they stood by watching and even encouraging it. Lynchings, too, were public killings intended to incite fear, and they, too, intended to flex the violent power of white supremacy and the power of whites over the Black community to anyone who would oppose it. The US historical narrative places many in the current dominant religious group (Christianity) and anyone swimming in the ideology of the empire (white supremacy) in the camp of the people who were crucifying, rather than in the camp of those being crucified.
Spending nearly a decade inside church ministry makes me well acquainted with the fact that when Christians read biblical texts, the Roman state is seen as the villain of the stories, and Jesus as the hero. A central symbol of Christianity is the gruesome picture of Jesus crucified on two perpendicular planks of wood in order to clearly show who the villain is: those in the story who support the public killing of this marginalized transient.
Christians who support the updated version of lynchings –– death penalty executions–– may either knowingly or unknowingly in support of a system killing Black, Indigenous, Queer and People of Color. This seems to be acting more like the Roman empire and following another Jesus – rather than the Jesus of the scriptures. This version of the Christian mind doesn’t seem to remember the old Biblical prophet Ezekiel when he laments that “The people of the land oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.”
There seems to be a difference between the one who identifies as a Christian and remains in the hot tub of the empire, and the one who identifies as a Christian and gets out of the water of the empire. Before one can get out of the water, one must realize they are in it. The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian group Sojourners suggests that “Without confession of the sin of white racism, white supremacy, white privilege people who call themselves Christians will never be free.”
Shane writes in his book, “I find it particularly troubling when the cross is used as a weapon to justify violence, bloodshed, and vengeance—the very stuff I’m convinced Jesus came to heal the world of.”
The most popular form justice is the kind of justice system America uses, called retributive justice. It asks questions centering around the following: What laws have been broken? Who broke them? What punishment do they deserve? But this form of justice seems to only pay attention to the offender, and that’s only half of the picture. There is also the healing of the victim that is decentralized and ignored. Healing is assumed for the victim when death is finally dealt. But the world that retributive justice creates is a world where cycles of breaking continues—the life of the offender is destroyed and then the lives of the surrounding community are broken. But the life of the victim remains destroyed; nothing is healed. In that sense what is added to the world is death, and no hope for one that grows life is in this view. It says so long as wrongdoers are punished then, adding death to the world is justified. But Shane and many others who imagine a much more life giving world have an alternative: Restorative justice.
Photo by Rex Harsin
Restorative justice is rooted in the Jewish idea of shalom. “It envisions true justice and true righteousness in the world as holistic rightness between a person and all the aspects of their life,” Shane says. It is about wholeness between a person and God, wholeness between a person and other people, and wholeness between a person and the physical tangible spaces they occupy. Since its focus is wholeness for the person and the world, it makes sense that if one person has wronged another, part of the consequence is to try to make right what was wronged ––to restore what has been broken. Restorative justice asks questions like: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Who is part of the situation and what can be done for all involved to repair the damage?
Shane mentions Rwanda and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that came out of the Rwandan genocide where an estimated 600,000 Tutsi deaths came by the hand of the Hutu ethnic extremists. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee was assembled in South Africa authorized by Nelson Mandela, and founded by Desmond Tutu in 1994. Trials began in 1996 and the mandate of the commission according to author Jeremy Sarkin-Hughes was to “bear witness to, record, and in some cases even grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes of heinous human rights violations, as well as offering reparation and rehabilitation to the victims.” A register of reconciliation was also established so that ordinary South Africans who wished to express regret for past failures could also express their remorse. “It’s like people got burdened and tired of death, and they came up with a way for the people who had committed these human rights violations [to] make things right by rebuilding what they destroyed,” Shane says.
Restorative justice has been viewed as such an intelligent and superior form of expressing justice that currently, in 2020 , the New Zealand Government utilizes restorative justice services which are run by community-based groups contracted by the government’s Ministry of Justice. In California, the Fresno Unified School District has implemented a Restorative Response System Procedure for students needing immediate action. These are just a small sample of places where a restorative approach to justice is flooding the imagination of policy makers. In these places, a new form of justice is taking shape, one not rooted in racist systems. Restorative justice can bring healing to grieving victims and requires perpetrators to confront the damage of their wrong doings, not in thought, but face to face. As seen in all the above successful, modern, real-world cases. In doing so, this form of justice also works to rehabilitate and restore the lives of the offenders rather than becoming the violence it intended to punish.
In true Christ fashion, restorative justice challenges us—both the oppressor and the oppressed, the victimizer and the victims. It challenges the traumatized to work toward healing for ourselves while also working toward life and healing for our oppressors. This is something that many marginalized groups are still learning to imagine and work for. In the same spirit of Jesus, restorative justice works for the good of all humanity right in the middle of real-world disparities.
Photo by Rex Harsin
A PERSON YELLS LOUDER WHEN THEY AREN’T HEARD
Thinking about the people who are understandably angry about the historical and present unjust police killings of Black Americans, and are showing it in the streets, I asked Shane, “How can white Christians participate in restorative justice and begin to heal the wounds they’ve created, even if they’re afraid?”
Shane replied after a longer-than-usual pause. “I think white people like me would do well to listen to people of color. I mean really listen. We’ve got to listen right now to our [siblings] who are asking us, ‘Do our lives matter to you?’”
He added, “With the three-fifths human rule and the Dred Scott Case, we keep saying that Black people don’t have rights and white people have to acknowledge we’ve done that. We can’t get our future right if we can’t get our history right. The question I think white Christians should ask themselves is, ‘What are we not hearing?’”
“I’ve heard it said that a person yells louder when they aren’t heard,” I said.
“That’s right,” he nodded. “I also think white people can purposefully create environments where they are the minority.”
Then he mentioned other people of color whose work inspires him. People like Reverend Dr. Barber in North Carolina who is the president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, and recently addressed the nation in the midst of police killings and protests. Leslie Callahan was another inspiration Shane cited who has recently written on Philly as a hub of religious innovation and seeing Blackness as the gift and promise of Philadelphia. Alexia Salvatierra – has written about Faith Rooted Organizing. He seemed to be inspired by so many on the-ground innovators and leaders. Both his eyes were wide open, looking for the kingdom of God to happen around him through the people around him and for the people around him.
In Executing Grace, Shane reminds readers that the old “eye for an eye” way of justice originally came from a way to limit the violence returned to wrongdoers. He writes that it really should be remembered as “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… and no more.” For Shane, observing Jesus’ life, crucifixion, and vision for restoration in the world shows us the evil of using killing to try to bring real justice and the wholeness of shalom to the world. Gandhi, also inspired by the life of Jesus, declared “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.” In the scriptures Jesus reminds us that if a blind man leads a blind man they will both fall into a pit.
“Limiting violence was a good place to start,” writes Shane, and abolishing it—especially in the death penalty, and systematic use of police force—“is a good place to end.”
If anyone were to look in on my conversation with Shane from the outside, they might have only seen a spotty digital rendezvous between a white Christian activist with a southern drawl and a Filipino/Japanese immigrant in the middle of his lunch break. But if they stuck around and paid attention, they would notice the static clear. They would see two different humans on opposite sides of the country come together in solidarity. You might notice a small vision of a unified world in the middle of a parking lot. It is the Central figure of the Christian faith, Christ himself who has centralized the marginalized person, Christ who flips tables at their exploitation by the the dominant religion, and Christ who says “No one can serve two masters; a worker will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
It is necessary to note that though the seeds of a life giving form of justice have been planted, in order to grow tangible fruit the vision must be watered, and cultivated not only by the ideas of our imaginations and the words of our prayers, but also by the work of our own hands. Christ said that anyone who hears his words and does them will be like the wise builder founding a house on solid rock. But anyone who hears these words and does not do them is like a fool––building their house on the sand. These are sobering words, but I am hopeful that there are followers of Jesus like Shane who —like we mentioned at the start—are committed to living “as if Jesus meant the things he said.”