Capital punishment

October 3, 2011


I’m writing this column two days after the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis.

Thanks to social media, several people provided links to our denomination’s policy statements on capital punishment.

Starting in 1959, the General Assembly, “believing that capital punishment cannot be condoned by an interpretation of the Bible based upon the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ,” called on all Christians to “seek the redemption of evil doers and not their death,” and added that “the use of the death penalty tends to brutalize the society that condones it.”

Subsequent assemblies – in 1977, 1978, and 1985 – reaffirmed our continued opposition to capital punishment.

Here’s my question, and I want to acknowledge my friend, the Reverend James Kim, of Lakewood, Wash., who first asked it of me: Why don’t we as a church mobilize on the issue of capital punishment the way we have mobilized around the issues regarding the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians, or the way we have mobilized around the issues of Israel and Palestine?

Is it because Presbyterians are, in fact, united in opposition to capital punishment, whereas we’re divided on ordination standards and Israel/Palestine? And is it because we’re divided that we spend our time and energy persuading those within the church to agree with us – leaving us with a lack of time and energy to speak to the rest of the world on issues we do agree upon, like capital punishment?

Our prophetic witness on this issue is needed now more than ever – a time when people cheer because Rick Perry says he has no qualms about the number of persons executed in Texas.

Can we provide that prophetic witness?

It is not that ordination standards or Israel/Palestine issues aren’t important. They are.

But Troy Davis is dead. And he is only one of more than thirty people who have been executed this year. Countless others remain on death row.

We have said that the use of the death penalty “tends to brutalize the society that condones it.” What can we do to stop that from happening? What will we do to stop that from happening?

Read the column in Korean. (PDF)

  1. In response to Linda's comment that if we were to boycott states with the death penalty, we'd have no place to meet -- There are 16 states that do not have the death penalty that could host our denominational meetings, including Hawaii and Alaska to the west and New York and New Jersey in the east. I am glad that my home state of Illinois and the state where I currently serve in Michigan also do not have the death penalty.

    by Helen Collins

    October 11, 2011

  2. I used to support capital punishment, but could never figure out how to witness to (and potentially bring to Christ) a dead man. Seems to me that if our mandate is indeed to "make disciples," capital punishment is little more than giving up on that mandate, deciding instead that some people just can't be saved (though I'd argue that that's not for us to decide). But the question in this particular case isn't simply about whether capital punishment is justifiable or not, but rather, is about whether in our human imperfection we have a right (or the capacity) to decide--with zero room for error--that a person is guilty of something deserving it. After following the case, it seems to me there was still at least a shred of doubt about Mr. Davis' guilt, and that, in my opinion, was way too much to have justified his murder by the state. The stakes are too high not to abolish the death penalty as a form of punishment.

    by Isaiah Chamberlain

    October 10, 2011

  3. A congregation or Presbytery is highly unlikely to oppose capital punishment because to do so would require these bodies to seek changes in laws. This would require individuals and bodies of Presbyterians to take stands. The excuse for not doing so is to say: "We should'nt mix religion and politics."

    by Glen Bays

    October 9, 2011

  4. I totally agree. But how? Articles in Presbyterians Today and Christian Century would be a start.

    by Claralice Wolf

    October 8, 2011

  5. In brief, the "mobilization" that is seen in the PCUSA is more like a mobilization of office holders in the PCUSA headquarters and several others around the country......NOT a mobilization of the whole church. Why? Simple.....because the whole church does NOT buy into the positions you state. Capital punishment is, in fact, a theologically, ethically defensible position that is held by thousands of conscientious PCUSA Christians. They are not vocal, argumentative, or desirable of yet another issue fight. They are ignored by much of the denomination's leadership and those writing articles or CE literature. Don't fool yourself; however....they are here......and they are US!

    by Rev. Don Yancey

    October 7, 2011

  6. The Ecumenical Leaders in the Central Maryland Region, working with the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council has made this their highest priority for the legislative session in Maryland. We hope to abolish it completely. Maybe other state ecumenical groups could join with their denominational leaders and work together with the NCCC to get it abolished nationwide.

    by Jack Sharp

    October 7, 2011

  7. I am active with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition that is concerned with all public policy related to incarceration. We were one of the sponsors of several program presented by Michelle Alexander "The New Jim Crow' . Her analysis of how our drug laws unfairly punish people of color. On a personal level, I have long been a supporter of Jim McCloskey"s "Centurion Project" that seeks to overturn capital sentences, with some great successes. I hope the PCUSA does become more involved with these issues.

    by Priscilla Linsley

    October 7, 2011

  8. Mark MacPhail is dead, too. Why don't we as a church mobilize our political sanctimonious selves into prison ministry where we might minister the love of Jesus Christ toward the salvation and healing of persons before they commit capital crimes? Is it because Presbyterians are, in fact, united in opposition to capital punishment? No.

    by Jim Small

    October 6, 2011

  9. I don't know the facts about the Troy Davis case, so I have no opinion about it. But I wish Presbyterians would start be as concerned with the victims as they are with the criminals.

    by Chuck Emrich

    October 4, 2011

  10. I have been wondering the same thing, Cindy. I have been opposed to capital punishment for about 60 years since I was a teenager. I have always been pleased that General Assembies have taken stands against the dealth penalty, but I think a boycott of those states that execute the most persons (Oklahoma, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Texas) would begin another part of the movement to abolish the death penalty. At least we wouldn't be supporting the economies of these states with our meetings being held in them. Unfortunately we cannot avoid every state that has the death penalty because we would have no place to meet. Let's get moving on this while the attention is still on the Troy Davis travesty! I would be willing to give some time and energy to this endeavor if I am needed. Linda

    by Linda Brebner (Rochester, New York)

    October 4, 2011

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