Ethics

400+ Catholic and evangelical leaders want to kill the death penalty

People throw flower petals during the Palm Sunday procession of the "Estudiantes" brotherhood in Oviedo, northern Spain on March 29, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Eloy Alonso *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-DEATH-PENALTY, originally transmitted on March 31, 2015.
People throw flower petals during the Palm Sunday procession of the "Estudiantes" brotherhood in Oviedo, northern Spain on March 29, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Eloy Alonso *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-DEATH-PENALTY, originally transmitted on March 31, 2015.

People throw flower petals during the Palm Sunday procession of the “Estudiantes” brotherhood in Oviedo, northern Spain, on Sunday (March 29, 2015). Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Eloy Alonso
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-DEATH-PENALTY, originally transmitted on March 31, 2015.

(RNS) Holy Week is used by many Christians to reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, and now more than 400 Catholic and evangelical leaders are using Jesus’ state-sanctioned execution to call for an end to the death penalty.

“When they look at Christ on the cross, it’s a reminder of how very many millions of people have been executed by government in history and how grotesque it really is and, often, how unjust it is,” said David Gushee, an evangelical ethicist at Mercer University in Atlanta.

David Gushee is distinguished professor at a prominent Baptist university and co-author of one of the most popular Christian ethics books of the last 25 years. He’s also now an LGBT ally. Photo courtesy of David Gushee

David Gushee, evangelical ethicist at Mercer University. Photo courtesy of David Gushee

Gushee is one of the signers of the statement, as are two former presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston and William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash.); Miguel Diaz, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See; and Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian group Sojourners.

The letter urges governors, judges and prosecutors to end the death penalty, which the letter calls a “practice that diminishes our humanity and contributes to a culture of violence and retribution without restoration.”

Other signers include death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking” fame; Lynne Hybels, wife of Willowcreek megachurch founder Bill Hybels; the Very Rev. Timothy P. Kesicki, head of all Jesuit priests in the U.S. and Canada; and Richard Cizik, a former vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

The letter follows a similar call by the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, which recently became the first national evangelical group to publicly call for an end to capital punishment, and Pope Francis, who called it “inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”

(RNS2-FEB08) Sister Simone Campbell is executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic  social justice lobby. For use with RNS-CAMPBELL-COLUMN, transmitted Feb. 8, 2008.  Religion News Service photo courtesy NETWORK.

Sister Simone Campbell of Network: A Catholic Social Justice Lobby, said that although she isn’t a leader in this movement, the moral obligations are too strong to not stand up and support the ending of the death penalty. Photo courtesy of Network

As more groups are speaking about the issue, the letter also notes that it is “shameful” that the United States is one of the few developed nations that continues to execute convicts. According to Amnesty International’s 2014 report, about a third of the world has the death penalty but only nine nations regularly use it, including the United States, Iran, China, Sudan and North Korea.

Sister Simone Campbell of Network: A Catholic Social Justice Lobby, said that although she isn’t a leader in the death penalty movement, moral obligation requires speaking out against capital punishment.

“In a nation that values the dignity of all people, we must act out of that dignity as a society,” she said. “And societies do not kill people. Period.”

The letter also points to recent cases around the United States that the signers believe are unjust, including a case in Missouri in which a prisoner with brain damage was executed and a bill in Utah that revives the use of firing squads if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

As a federal jury in Boston is poised to consider the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, should he be convicted in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Gushee thinks life in prison without parole is a fair punishment. He said this allows for the possibility for release in cases of wrongful conviction — a factor that has helped chip away at public confidence in the fairness of capital punishment.

To supporters of the death penalty, Gushee said he would “ask them to look at the arbitrariness of our death penalty system, the bias along the lines of race and class, the manifestly random way in which a small number of murderers are punished by death, and agree that the system is broken.”

KRE/MG END ADAMS

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Heather Adams

19 Comments

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  • Most welcome initiative. All of us opposed to the death penalty of whatver faiths or beliefs, or lack thereof, stand together with Christians in calling for end to murder sanctioned by states.

  • “Men without chests” — a good line from Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man.” I think it was a chapter, too.

    Agreed…..

  • Actually, if these people are really Christians, they believe in vicarious atonement. They believe that Christ got precisely what we deserve. And to the extent that involves dying, it arguably points to the justice, not the injustice, of the death penalty.

    So the fact that Christ died unjustly only argues against the death penalty if you don’t believe the Gospel story and believe this is just one of many cases throughout history of a human being put to death for doing nothing wrong. If you do believe the Gospel story, the answer is far less clear and even seems to point the other way.

  • I’ve been ambivalent about the death penalty for years. On the one hand, I think that the New Testament, through Paul, clearly implies the power of the state to exact the ultimate consequence for lawbreaking. Still I hate the thought of anyone, however heinous their crime, the opportunity to repent at a later date (While still incarcerated, of course). I’m willing to strike a bargain. I will vote for the repeal of the death penalty in my state, when the state repeals the death penalty for the innocent unborn.

  • What?? I’m no theologian but I think the atonement only applies to Jesus only – he died for us. The idea that Jesus was executed does not somehow make execution right.

    You were right when you said there are many, many cases of humans being put to death for the wrong reasons. Too much killing and death! All the more reason to convert death sentences to life without parole. Society is made safe, and we don’t perpetuate a culture of violence.

  • After all, Jesus was executed. Nothing wrong about that. He had it coming, being the vile criminal he was. 🙂

  • “On the one hand, I think that the New Testament, through Paul, clearly implies the power of the state to exact the ultimate consequence for lawbreaking.”

    And how did Paul die? Executed by the state by beheading. Irony runs heavy when Christians discuss capital punishment. One would almost think they want innocent people executed because it is paying homage to their savior and followers.

    Too often the death penalty is meted out to cases where it does not merit it. Its application is far too broad. Sorry but felony murder or even the death of a cop in the line of duty is not on the same level as serial murder, contract killing, or torture/murder.

  • It’s pre-meditated murder any way you look at it, so right off the bat it’s wrong.

    In addition, often, those executed were convicted on circumstantial evidence, or false testimony, sometimes from the real killer, or testimony that was coerced by cops. Some were tried, convicted on faulty evidence, then denied retrials because their court appointed lawyers didn’t file in time. In some states, it has even been determined by the state supreme court that even though there was sufficient evidence to possibly prove a person’s innocence, that that evidence wasn’t presented to the court “in time”.

    The overwhelming victims of these oversights are poor, and persons of color. Poor white people have also been victims of this system.

    If there is any shred of doubt as to a person’s guilt, there is even more reason not to execute, but this has not historically been a deterrent to going through with an execution. Anyone with a conscience could not be OK with this.

  • Please study the history of Romans and in what context Paul is speaking. Although that scripture is quoted by Christians in an effort to justify the Death Penalty ( which is very unbelievable to me, and a real shame) that is not the case. I recommend that you read some historical background of those times and time and circumstances which Paul wrote the letter.

  • As a child brought up in a Roman Catholic boarding school in England for 14 years I believe I have a very high knowledge and understanding of its principles. As a child I was asked to write letters in my spare time to women and men on death row, as a twelve year old child I wrote how God loved them and they deserved repentance and forgiveness from a benevolent father, I blindly wrote those letters, they were checked over and corrected by teachers and it was not until I was older I began to feel uneasy about writing those. Not because I believe in the death penalty, quite the opposite I believe it should be abolished however asking children to write letters to people upon death row has become common practice, yes it is a choice however I believe that if a person is not legally old enough to purchase alcohol, vote in an election or buy a pack of cigarettes then they should not be put at risk at an impressionable age to write to convicts, some of which may have been incarcerated for…

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