It's time to break some guns
If we’re going to defeat the death penalty, we need to get Christians on board
Two summers ago in the woods of western North Carolina, some people set up a forge and an anvil and started hammering guns into gardening tools.
Shane Claiborne, an affable instigator with a thick Tennessee drawl, had asked his new friend the Rev. Sharon Risher if she would be interested in swinging the hammer a few times during a demonstration at the Wild Goose festival.
Rev. Risher had lost her mother, two cousins, and a childhood friend on June 17, 2015, when a white supremacist opened fire inside Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church with a semi-automatic handgun. Claiborne had only met her recently at the time of the festival, and he knew she had a shared passion for ending gun violence, but he didn’t want to pressure her into joining a strange ritual.
He still cracks up when he recalls the reverend’s response:
When a blacksmith pulled a glowing piece of gunmetal out of the furnace and placed it on the anvil, Risher swung the hammer with abandon.
“I hit this, Mama — I hit this for you,” she shouted. “I hit this for Tywanza. I hit this for Cousin Susie and all the others that died in that church.”
Christians read the Bible with varying degrees of literalness. Spend time with people who are fighting against gun violence, the war machine, and state executions, and you will probably hear this prophecy from Isaiah 2:4:
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks
The verse has been an inspiration to folks like the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the Catholic peace activists who broke into a nuclear submarine base in Georgia in April 2018, pounded on a display of a Tomahawk missile with a hammer, and poured their own blood on the base’s official seal. In their own gentle way, Claiborne and Rev. Risher were following in the same prophetic tradition.
I had the pleasure of meeting Claiborne, Risher, and other activists this weekend in Columbia, S.C., at a house meeting organized by the group Death Penalty Action. Some of the people I met had been fighting the death penalty since long before ex-President Donald Trump’s lame-duck killing spree of 2020-21. Others, like me, only became active after South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill in May to resume executions by electrocution or firing squad.
We met in the parlor of a historic house, where our host played “Amazing Grace” on her piano to settle the crowd of a couple dozen people. Rev. Risher spoke first.
I knew from news coverage that the reverend, a former hospital chaplain, had dedicated her energy since the Emanuel shooting to fighting the proliferation of guns and gun violence in the U.S. I knew less about her anti-death penalty stance.
Dylann Roof, the man who killed Risher’s mother, has been sentenced to death but is just beginning a round of appeals six years after the attack. The hearings have done anything but bring her peace.
“It pulls the scab off of that hurt and pain. It brings you back to all of those feelings,” she said. “I forgave Dylann Roof because in my heart, I had no other choice — because if I didn’t, I would continue to have a holy rage inside of me that pulled me down physically and mentally and emotionally.”
Risher said she hadn’t given the death penalty much thought until after the church shooting. At first, she said she wanted Roof to die.
“I wrestled with forgiveness. It was not something that I was prepared to do,” she said. “But the more I wrestled with that, the more I wanted him dead, the next second the Holy Spirit would say, ‘No, you’re not gonna do this.’ The more I read, the more I prayed, the more I knew that forgiveness would only benefit me.”
As you read this newsletter, the state of South Carolina is preparing to kill two men by electrocution in the month of June. The states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma are trying to figure out how to build gas chambers. The state of Arizona is trying to recreate Zyklon B, the lethal chemical employed by the Third Reich at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The fight to abolish the death penalty is a legal and political fight, but some of the death penalty’s most devoted fans are members of Christian churches. As Claiborne pointed out this weekend, the death penalty wouldn’t stand a chance in the U.S. if not for its strong support among Christians.
I have been thinking about that damning fact since he mentioned it. Henry McMaster and Donald Trump both profess to follow Jesus, and they have loyal followings in the church.
This line of thinking brought to mind one of the grim details from South Carolina’s 1944 execution of George Stinney, a wrongfully convicted Black 14-year-old. Stinney’s frame was too small for the electric chair, so the executioners had to improvise a booster seat to fit him into the adult-sized instrument of death.
For symbolic or practical reasons, they used a Bible to prop him up.
In the parlor of that old Columbia house Friday night, Claiborne asked, “Do we believe that anyone is beyond redemption?” That’s the sort of question we’ll need to ask our Christian neighbors if we’re ever going to kick the spiritual prop out from under the death penalty.
I remain stunned by the testimony of Rev. Risher. I asked her how she handled conflict within the church, and she shared that she had disagreements with her own family members who wanted to see Roof dead. She made peace there too.
“Forgiveness is a hard, complicated thing because you might feel one way one day, and the next day you’re full of rage,” she said. “Allow yourself the time to really dig into your heart and to be convicted about forgiveness, because forgiveness, if you’re doing it, is not a shallow thing.”
If you would like to get involved with the campaign to end the death penalty in your state or at the national level, visit deathpenaltyaction.org.
Rev. Risher wrote a powerful piece for Religion News Service yesterday titled “Overturn Dylann Roof’s death sentence — for me, not for him.”
For a thorough Christian argument against the death penalty, I recommend Scot McKnight’s “The Death Penalty and the Christian” or Shane Claiborne’s book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.
Secular arguments against the death penalty are numerous, but one strong argument is Albert Camus’ 1957 essay “Reflections on the Guillotine.” (PDF link)
On a local level, Charleston DSA has a short summary of the racial and class injustice of the death penalty in South Carolina that you can read here.
Four members of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 are still serving sentences in prison, home confinement, or halfway houses. You can write to them here.