Death penalty: Resources for study

Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede


Nebraskans will be voting this fall on whether to retain our current law that abolishes the death penalty in our state. The Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes both Kansas and Nebraska, passed a resolution at our June meeting asking all congregations to study the death penalty.

What follows are some resources that I think would be suitable and helpful for congregations anywhere in the United States, not just Nebraska and Kansas.

"Christian Reflections on the Death Penalty: Discussion Guide." Published by Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, this four-page discussion guide is found under the “resources” tab on the their website,, or by clicking here:

The discussion guide includes scriptures from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and provides questions for reflection related to the scriptures, which are grouped into thematic areas, such as “An Eye for an Eye,” “Redemption, Compassion, Mercy,” and “Jesus’ Teaching.” Statements from faith groups on the topic of the Death Penalty and a current fact sheet about the death penalty are also included.

I think this guide could be used as a single-session class, or split into two to three sessions if your group is one that enjoys a longer conversation. Because it is available online, it could also be shared via social media on a congregation’s website or Facebook page for those who are unable to attend a small group conversation.

"Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption," by Bryan Stevenson, 2015 Spiegel and Grau (division of Random House). New York Times bestseller, available in paperback, and listed as a “bonus book” in the 2016 United Methodist Women’s reading program list.

Would you believe I read a book about the death penalty while I was on vacation at the beach? The topic was sobering, but this non-fiction, first-person narrative was so compelling I had a hard time putting it down. While the book is broken into 16 chapters, and Stevenson shares about many different cases and many different laws that relate to the death penalty, he weaves the stories together in such a way that I think this book would be best discussed as a whole or perhaps in two sections, allowing for a check-in at the halfway point and then a full discussion after everyone in the group has completed the book.

I think this is the kind of book that could be shared: as a book review in a Sunday School class, church newsletter or UMW group; in a one- or two-time discussion for people who have already read it or listed to the e-reader version; or as a promoted book for the UMW reading program.

There is another option: the accompanying (Common Core-approved) world’s most thorough book discussion guide, which is found on the author’s website, I regret not finding this until after I had read the book, as I might have benefitted from checking in after each chapter to see the discussion guide overview and related questions.

"Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us," by Shane Claiborne, 2016 HarperCollins.    

I met Shane for the first time when he visited the church I pastor, South Gate UMC, in Lincoln, Nebraska, on the second day of his tour for this book. I wondered out loud, “Why would he be coming to Nebraska to launch a book tour?” and finally realized that it was on purpose. He’s committed enough to ending the death penalty and current enough on national politics to know that the Nebraska fall ballot initiative is significant for the lives of many. 

Claiborne's book has 14 chapters, which can be read in order, out of order, or individually. This means it is well-suited for a weekly study group that may have members that are unable to attend every week; a class that plans to focus on just one chapter for one meeting; or for a group that either hears a book review or reads the whole thing and gathers to discuss the book in its entirety. I find this flexibility attractive for local churches, as discussion leaders may be able to focus on a particular chapter that they think would be of the greatest interest to their congregation as a way of introducing the topic (or the book) to a group. 

The website that goes with the book is found at and includes a video interview of Shane, a resource page, and other information. A study guide is also available from Harper Collins. 

Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede is pastor of South Gate United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. She serves as chair of the Justice for Women Committee for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and has served in leadership roles with the South Central Jurisdiction's Women's Leadership Team, School of Christian Mission, Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska, Wesley House Omaha and the Big Garden.