Complete shock. That’s how I felt when I first heard that 82% of executions have happened in the Bible Belt.
“The death penalty has succeeded in America, not in spite of Christians, but because of us. The Bible Belt is the Death Belt,” Shane Claiborne, Christian activist and author, said. “Wherever Christians are most concentrated is where executions are happening, and that’s deeply troubling to me.”
I first heard Claiborne speak at the No Need Among You conference held in Waco, Texas, in the fall of 2018. I cannot help but share his sentiment: It is troubling to me that where the most Christians are populated in the U.S. is directly correlated to the most executions.
That statement should shock us all.
“Aside from all the other things we’ll talk about, like racial inequalities, a broken system – that so many folks have been exonerated after proving their innocence hours before their execution – Really, in the end, one of the questions [the death penalty] raises is, ‘Is anybody beyond redemption?’” Claiborne asked in a 2016 interview.
This is the question we as Christians should be asking ourselves when considering the death penalty: Do we really want to claim that we know if someone is beyond redemption?
It is important to understand our history as a country, and our history of the Bible Belt.
“What’s also troubling is that these are the same places that were the Confederacy in many cases. It’s impossible to separate our contemporary practice of the death penalty from our history around race and slavery and, specifically, lynching,” Claiborne said. “Where lynchings were happening 100 years ago is where executions are happening today. And that’s a haunting and eerie thing.”
We cannot talk about the death penalty and not also state the fact that the race and economic status of an individual highly influences whether or not someone will be put on death row.
The death penalty was a way for racist ideologies to continue lynchings in a “justified manner” without consequences, which immediately led to the criminalization of people of color, specifically, the criminalization of Black men.
A 2017 Equal Justice Initiative report concluded “the death penalty’s roots are sunk deep in the legacy of lynching.”
Along with the wrongful criminalization of Black men came the wrongful convictions of Black men.
Over and over, we see a trend of Black men being found guilty of crimes that had little to no evidence against them, but because of the color of their skin and their financial limitations, they were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Since 1973, 172 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of all charges related to the wrongful convictions that had put them on death row.”
Of these 172 exonerated prisoners, 90 were Black. And we still do not know how many innocent people are still sitting in prison with a death sentence that should not be theirs.
There is a great need for us to go back to each case of a death row inmate and honestly evaluate if there were unjust realities that influenced their sentences.
Innocent victims are not the only people we are called to stand up for as Christians, which is why a Christian response to crimes committed should never result in taking someone’s life away.
The Bible does not teach us that the penalty for murder is death; Scripture teaches that the response to murder (or any wrongdoing for that matter) is restorative justice.
“God’s justice is restorative, so it’s not as interested in those same questions of ‘What did they do wrong?’ and ‘What is the punishment for that?’ It’s more about ‘What harm was done?’ and ‘How do we heal that harm?’ and that’s a much more redemptive version [of justice],” Claiborne writes in his book, Executing Grace. “So, it definitely doesn’t turn a blind eye to harm, but it does say we want to heal the wounds of that.”
Can you imagine what our world could look like if we went to the people in our communities who have committed horrible crimes and showed them compassion and an honest attempt to see their wounds?
Those who commit crimes can still be held responsible for their actions without their lives being taken away from them. When we make that choice, we are saying we are confident there was no room for redemption in their lives.
Do we really want to say that about the God we know and love? Why not make space for restoration and redemption?
It is our responsibility to put an end to executions. If we are to make any progress in our communities, we desperately need to evaluate our broken systems.
I recommend reading Claiborne’s book and watching the documentary “13th,” which explains the history behind our justice system and how systemic racism has had its hands in our justice system since its beginning.
If you are still feeling as though the death penalty is needed, I beg you to ask yourself, “Would I want someone else to decide that I am so far gone that God cannot redeem me?”
Abolishing the death penalty will not abolish our justice system, but it will aid in bringing justice back into the system itself.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit their article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A second-year MDiv student in the George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, Glen hopes to pursue the dual degree program and also receive a MSW from the Diana Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She is passionate about social justice and hopes to work as a licensed social worker with a nonprofit after she finishes graduate school. Glen looks forward to living out her faith by being an advocate in her community.