The Evangelization Station
Pray for Pope Francis
Scroll down for topics
This letter is intended to shed light, to stimulate discussion, and to encourage moral discourse among Christians. It is limited to a single topic: the increasing use of capital punishment as an instrument of public policy. It is addressed to a particular constituency: the members of churches in Florida.
We have the greatest respect for those attorneys, legislators, judges, criminologists, and social theorists who have written and spoken on the subject of capital punishment. Many of them are members of the religious communities we ourselves represent, and we have examined their findings with care and appreciation. Our own perspective is theological, scriptural, and pastoral in character.
A moral consensus in opposition to the death penalty has developed within the leadership of our communions. Statements of power and grace have been made by both national and international leaders and governing bodies of the churches for which we are profoundly grateful. Our responsibility is to bring to bear upon this problem of major consequence in Florida the moral teaching of the wider Christian Community.
In this letter, we are especially mindful of the relatives and loved ones of the victims of murder, including those who seek relief in the execution of the perpetrator, and those who have forgiven him or her. Also in our hearts are the families of the perpetrators, who also suffer the consequences of those crimes.
I. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN FLORIDA
The census on Florida's death row has, for the past several years, stood at well over 300 souls. Our state has placed more people on death row than all but two states in the Union. As of October 1, 1994, 33 executions have taken place at Florida State Prison.
The acute poverty rate of practically all death row inmates has necessitated the appointment of a Capital Collateral Representative with adequate staffing, and the enlistment of volunteer attorneys to represent the inmates in the appeal process. The high number of cases involved, the complexities of proceedings, and the inordinate demands upon the time and energy of attorneys have made qualified volunteers harder and harder to recruit.
Considerable national and international attention therefore has been directed to the State of Florida, which is seen by many as the regional focal point of a global issue of historical significance.
Thus we urge the Christian people of Florida, and all other residents of Florida, to reflect with us on the moral consequences of the present course of action in our state. Everything set forth in this paper is offered in the spirit of our loving concern for Florida and for every Floridian.
II. A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE ON HUMAN LIFE, VIOLENCE AND VENGEANCE
We hold that capital punishment is not necessary to any legitimate goal of the state, and that its use threatens to undermine belief in the inherent worth of human life and the inalienable dignity of the human estate. Our belief in the value of human life stems from the worship we offer to the Creator of human life, and from the teaching of scripture that each human is created in the image of God.
We affirm that the value of human life is not contingent on the moral rectitude of human beings or human institutions. It is grounded in the sovereignty of God, who alone vests His creatures with the dignity of personhood. In our theological deliberations, we have come to the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty is inconsistent with our efforts to promote respect for human life, to stem the tide of violence in our society, and to embody the message of God's redemptive love. In times when life is cheapened and threatened on all fronts, the value and uniqueness of every human life merits profound respect, strong reaffirmation, and vigorous proclamation.
In time, the use of capital punishment will harden and debase our life together. It institutionalizes revenge and retribution, which are the enemies of peace. It gives official sanction to a climate of violence. It is precisely because of such longer-range concerns -- especially our passionate concern for the brutalization and victimization of children and women and men -- that we raise the question whether the death penalty makes citizens safer.
Research suggests that the death penalty aggravates the level of violence in society instead of diminishing it. The abolition of capital punishment, which we favor, would nurture the public hope that the cycle of violence can be broken.
It is, after all, a part of our ministry to comfort those whose injury or whose bereavement are the result of violent crime. It is in the midst of such tragic circumstances that we become aware of the moral trap in which we find ourselves: that a commitment to wrathful retribution compounds and extends the horror of human violence, rather than subduing it.
III. SCRIPTURE AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for a wide variety of offenses. Many of them have been committed by respected members of the citizenry: adultery (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22 ff.), idolatry (Exodus 20:3-5, Deuteronomy 13:1-10; 17:2-7), false prophecy in the name of God (Deuteronomy 18:20-22), laboring on the sabbath (Exodus 31:14-15, 35:2), striking or cursing or rebelling against a parent (Exodus 20:12 ff, 21:17, Leviticus 19:3, 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18 ff.), prostitution, or harlotry, under certain circumstances (Leviticus 21:9, Deuteronomy 22:20-21), sorcery (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27), cursing God (Exodus 22:28), incest (Deuteronomy 27:20 ff.), sodomy and bestiality (Leviticus 18:22 ff., 20:13 ff.), disobedience of religious authority (Deuteronomy 17:8-13), and, of course, murder (Exodus 21:13, Numbers 35:16 ff., Deuteronomy 19:11 ff.), among others.
These offenses should be regarded with the utter seriousness which their gravity demands. But the prescription of stoning (or, in some cases, burning) the offender to death must be seen in historical and theological perspective. Rabbis have concluded that the Law, the Torah, leaves open the possibility of more appropriate punishment in new historical circumstances.
The fact that we speak from a distinctively Christian commitment and perspective in no way lessens our gratitude for the wisdom of our Jewish colleagues on the subject of capital punishment. We remain in dialogue and in harmony with them.
For Christians, however, there are significant insights to be gained from the Gospels on the subject.
At the time of His own execution Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, imputing to His executioners a lack of knowledge, of understanding (Luke 23:34). There can be no doubt that the execution was unfair, but the forgiveness prayed for by our Lord extended beyond that to the violence of the act itself. Jesus offered His disciples an alternative to violence, a new way: "You have heard the commandment, `An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' But what I say to you is: offer no resistance to injury. When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other." (Matthew 5:38-40)
Jesus enunciated another theme of relevance to the present discussion: God's boundless love for every person, regardless of human merit or worthiness. This love was especially visible in His ministry to outcasts, in His acceptance of sinners, and in His parables. In His parables of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-14) and the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) God deals with undeserving people not out of strict justice, but out of limitless love and mercy.
Another emphasis of the Gospels is the imperative of reconciliation. Reconciliation, in Matthew 5, becomes the point of connection between ethics and worship. "If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-26)
In the Gospel according to John, Chapter 8, verses 3-11, there is a remarkable story that conveys the force of Jesus' attitude toward what was, in His day, a capital crime. A woman was about to be stoned to death in the Temple courtyard for adultery. Jesus asked her religiously orthodox accusers which of THEM was without sin, and invited that one to cast the first stone.
The seventh chapter of Matthew opens with a warning that we ourselves are subject to a judgment as severe as the judgment we impose upon others. The point is not that there is no final judgment on human sin and error, but that the ultimate judgment rests with God (Matthew 25:31-46). St. Paul warns, "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay." (Romans 12:19)
Jesus was not casual about iniquity, nor "soft on crime." What He did was to shift the focus of judgment in these matters to a higher court; a court where there is absolute knowledge of the evidence, of good deeds and of evil, of faith and of the works of faith, of things private and things public--a court in which there is both wrath and tenderness, both Law and grace.
IV. A CONCERN FOR HEALING AND A RESPONSIBILITY TO VICTIMS
The state bears responsibility for the protection of its citizens, and merits our fullest support in the exercise of that function. The complexities and ambiguities of violent criminal behavior, especially its psychological and sociological origins, lie beyond our present capacity to understand them. Nonetheless, we believe that society has the right and the duty to prevent such behavior including, in some cases, the right to impose terms of life-time imprisonment.
A belief in God's love as redemptive and restorative compels us to seek even for those who have taken a life the opportunity for a personal transaction of penitence, restoration, and a new beginning -- even though imprisoned. The institutionalized taking of human life prevents, eclipses, and foreshortens the potential fulfillment of the commitment on our part to seek the redemption and reconciliation of the offender.
The wrong-doer bears responsibility to God for the infinitely valuable life of the victim, and for the suffering of the family and friends of the victim. The term of indebtedness on the part of a convicted offender is life-long. During imprisonment the offender has certain duties to God, among them to seek religious counsel and the grace of the Sacraments; to participate willingly in therapeutic and rehabilitative activities; to pray regularly for those against whom the offense has been an injury; to practice constructive attitudes of community life; and to practice restitution, however inadequate or symbolic, as a serious attempt toward reconciliation with the persons to whom he has caused a life of suffering.
The fundamental issue here is the restoration of peace; peace in the hearts of the broken, peace in the hearts of the violent, peace in the hearts of all members of the community. This peace rests in the confidence that God will judge fairly and mercifully. It removes from the hands of those who govern the stain of what is at best a morally ambiguous death policy. It constitutes, in our opinion, a constructive venture in faith toward that peace which surpasses all human understanding, and which the world can neither give nor take away.
It is our conclusion that the use of capital punishment in Florida must be discontinued. We seriously question that it does any good, and we are deeply convinced that it does a great deal of harm.
With a reverent and humble intention, we submit this conclusion to the churches of Florida for their consideration. We speak out of love for all people. We do not "unchurch" those who disagree with us. We do not here argue statistics or deterrent effects or ideology. We have written you as Christian brothers and sisters to speak our mind in Christ.
The response for which we hope is one of dialogue and study in the light of the Faith, and in the light of our common discipleship. May God bless and illuminate our minds as we reconsider our witness as Christians on this crucial moral issue for our State and for all its people.
African Methodist Episcopal Church
Catholic Church of the Antochean Rite
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Church of the Brethren
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Florida Council of Churches
Florida District of the Unitarian Universalist Association
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Religious Society of Florida
Roman Catholic Church
United Church of Christ