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Georgia Bishops And The Death Penalty

June 2, 1980
by the Catholic bishops of Georgia and the Episcopal bishop of Atlanta

Four years ago the restoration of the death penalty by the Supreme Court prompted a joint statement of opposition by us. Now, in the face of its looming actual use in the case of the prisoner, Jack Potts, we protest it in practice.

We acknowledge that Christians of equally serious moral concern disagree on the issue. Our intent is to honor personal freedom in Christ to exercise moral discernment and come to different conclusions. Still, we feel compelled to bear witness to our views and ask the citizens of Georgia to give us heed.

The death penalty might be justified as the lesser of two evils if it could be shown conclusively that, by inhibiting violent crime, it served as a significant protection to society. However, the weight of sociological research strongly suggests the reverse that lawful violence may actually encourage criminal violence. Since the sociology of crime and punishment is an inconclusive guide, we rely principally on theological considerations in opposing the death penalty. Four points of conviction persuade us firmly against its use.

First the holiness of human life. This revolutionary value is implicit in the Judeo-Christian revelation and emerges into political visibility with the systems of justice that bestow the right of equal protection of the law to all persons. At a more primitive level in history this is the value underlying the ancient commandment that forbids the deliberate killing of another human being.

Second, we hold that the Christian purpose of punishment is reformatory and retributive, not vindictive. Vengeance is morally inadmissible on Christian grounds. Our scriptures are explicit in declaring vengeance to be God's prerogative, not humanity's. And because Jesus Christ warned of God's judgment in terms of God's love, we hold the meaning of vengeance in God's use of it to be redemptive.

Third, the violent taking of one human life to serve notice on other lives is decidedly cruel. It has led to gross discrimination in actual practice, violating our equal value as persons. The victims are almost invariably from among the poor, the oppressed or the disadvantaged. Moreover, it cannot be anything but counterproductive as public education. If, as we commonly hold, the most persuasive instructor is the power of example, then it must be clear that killing teaches only the permissibility of taking human life, not the value of preserving it.

Finally, in theological terms, we hold that the divine law of love relates to humanity as a lure and a goal. We have made our way slowly toward more just and compassionate treatment of one another in the human family. In our social history the structures of compassion have emerged gradually, but they have emerged. The abolition of the death penalty seemed to us such a forward move. Its restoration is a backward step. Its actual use in our state demeans us all. It reduces our shared dignity as human persons and violates our professed respect for human life.

That there should be punishment of crime, we hold to be self-evident. That the punishment should fit both the crime and the criminal we hold to be the steadfast aim of our courts of law. If the law of the land should mature to the point of forbidding the retaliatory violence of punishing crime by killing the criminal, we would hold this to be a triumph of God's redemptive sovereignty in human affairs.

 

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