Photo: January Series
Photo by January Series

For a time in his early years of college, activist Shane Claiborne supported the death penalty, in part because of how he read the biblical phrase “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” in Exodus 21:24.

At this week’s January Series 2018, Claiborne said that phrase has always bothered him and has been hard to sort out. But today it doesn’t get in the way of his all-out opposition against the death penalty in the United States.

“There are those who believe that the moral justification of the death penalty is ordained by God because it has its roots in Scripture,” said Claiborne, adding that there are more than 80 accounts of executions in the Bible.

But in Claiborne’s opinion, the execution of one man — Jesus Christ — showed the triumph of grace and mercy over death and wiped away any good reasons for killing another person as a means of serving justice. “Grace has the last word in the Bible,” argued Claiborne, the author of several books and a speaker at more than 100 events every year.

“Jesus in the end shows us that the framework for justice that allowed for an eye for an eye” doesn’t work, he said.

In fact, Claiborne said, it’s important to point out that Jesus himself repudiates “the eye for eye” axiom in Matthew 5:38-39: "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

In stating this, Claiborne said, Jesus was making clear that the old law described in the Old Testament no longer applied. It had been fulfilled in Christ, who was teaching the new way of ‘‘Don’t return harm for harm. Take the high ground and hold out hope that every person who has harmed someone else can be healed.”

As a peacemaker and activist on a range of issues, Claiborne has worked in many regions of the world, including Rwanda and the West Bank, and has been part of peace delegations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Along with evangelist Tony Campolo, he heads up Red Letter Christians, a movement of Christians committed to living out the lifestyle prescribed in the gospels. He is also the founder of The Simple Way, a faith community in inner-city Philadelphia.

His most recent book is Execution of Grace, in which he tells the stories of victims of violent crimes, survivors of death row, lawyers, experts, and even an executioner who, Claiborne said, became overwhelmed by the deaths he saw and brought about

“Even after he was taught to use a lethal injection as a more humane way for an execution, he came to realize there is no humane way to take a life.”

In his new book Claiborne explores the contrast between punitive justice, such as the death penalty, and restorative justice, which seeks to restore relationships and bring about healing between victims and perpetrators.

“Restorative justice takes a look at what harm was done and how to heal from the wounds of it,” he said.

In this book Claiborne keeps going back to the Bible because, he said, the death penalty has succeeded in America not in spite of Christians, but because of Christians.

“There are Christians who have gotten behind it” because of passages in the Old Testament, he said. “But that is changing, especially among Christian millennials, as we work to become a moral voice in this.”

Above all, he keeps bringing the story in his book back to Jesus because Christ, he said, “was the interruptor of violence, which is so obvious in the story of the woman caught in adultery.”

Recounted in John 8:1-11, this story describes the teachers of the law and the Pharisees bringing to Jesus a woman caught in adultery and reminding him that the law called for her to be stoned to death.

Bending down, Jesus wrote something in the dirt, and then said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

This is at the heart of Christ’s message. Claiborne stated, “None of us are above reproach, and no one is above redemption. I believe the closer we are to God, the less we want to throw stones at other people and we see how mercy triumphs over judgment.”

In Jesus, said Claiborne, we worship an executed Savior who “was like water poured on the electric chair and short-circuited the whole culture of death.”