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Close Up: The death penalty - what would Jesus do?

4/1/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: "Close Up" is a regular UMNS and feature on current issues. Photographs, a map and four sidebars, UMNS stories #190-193, are available.

A UMNS and Report By Tom McAnally*

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Capital punishment has always been a difficult issue for religious and non-religious people alike. Debate over it has intensified in recent years, particularly in the United States. Thirty-eight states have the death penalty on their books. A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-119, Accompanies UMNS #189, 4/1/03

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A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin

Opponents of the death penalty rally outside the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton in this 2001 file photograph.

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Figures representing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and a Cold War-era electric chair dominate an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society Museum in this 2002 file photograph. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to aid the Soviet Union. Capital punishment has always been a difficult issue for religious and non-religious people alike. Debate over it has intensified in recent years, particularly in the United States. A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin. Photo number 03-121, Accompanies UMNS #189, 4/1/03

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J. Taylor Phillips, a state court judge from Macon, Ga., calls a decision by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to empty that state s death row ridiculous. It is possible that some of the inmates should have been exonerated because of questions regarding their cases, he says, but there was no question about the guilt of others. Phillips, a United Methodist, spoke during the 1980 General Conference against a resolution that opposed the death penalty. The resolution was adopted. A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-120, Accompanies UMNS #189, 4/1/03

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Thirty-eight states have the death penalty on their books, though not all of them have imposed it. As of Jan. 1, the states in purple have had no executions since 1976 -- the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was constitutional. The map is based on data from the Death Penalty Information Center. A UMNS graphic by Laura J. Latham. Photo 03-123, Accompanies story #189, 4/1/03
Capital punishment, legalized killing by the state, has always been a deeply troublesome issue for religious and non-religious people alike.

Debate on the issue has intensified in recent years, particularly in the United States, where an unprecedented number of people have been executed. Most church groups officially oppose capital punishment, but individual support has increased following such horrendous events as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, high-profile child abduction cases, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and last fall's chain of sniper killings in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia area.

Well-meaning people of faith weigh in on both sides of the debate. Some argue the death penalty deters crime and protects society. Others contend that it has not proven to be a deterrence, is biased against the poor and African Americans, and isn't something Jesus would "do." The death penalty is currently legal in 38 U.S. states.

The United Methodist Church, in its Social Principles, officially opposes capital punishment and urges its elimination from all criminal codes. The church's General Conference, a delegated body representing members around the world, meets every four years and is the only entity that can take official positions for the denomination. Those statements are included in the church's Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. On many issues addressed by the church, individual members hold a wide range of viewpoints, including outright opposition to denomination policy.

'I must act'

The late Harry Blackmun, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and an active United Methodist, is most widely known for authoring Roe v. Wade, the controversial decision that 30 years ago legalized abortion in the United States. He also held strong convictions about the death penalty. In a dissenting opinion for the Callins v. Collins case Feb. 22, 1994, related to the pending execution of Bruce Edwin Callins by the state of Texas, Blackmun declared, "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."

Nearly a decade later, another United Methodist, Illinois Gov. George Ryan, referred to that statement from Blackmun as he announced Jan. 11 his decision to commute all Illinois death sentences to prison terms of life or less, the largest such emptying of death row in history.

In the Callins decision, Blackmun wrote, " ... (The) inevitability of factual, legal and moral error gives us a system that we now must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution." Blackmun, named to the Supreme Court in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, also served as a board member for the United Methodist Publishing House.

Ryan, a Republican, announced his controversial decision to commute the sentences of all death row inmates just 48 hours before the end of his term as governor and one day after he took the extraordinary step of pardoning four condemned men outright.

He made his announcement at the Northwestern University School of Law in Evanston, Ill. Since the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois in 1977, 13 men have been exonerated and released from death row, a 4.9 percent rate that stands as the highest percentage of exonerations in the nation. Staff members of the school's Center on Wrongful Convictions have been involved in nine of those 13 exonerations.

Referring to the state's capital punishment system, Ryan said, "The legislature couldn't reform it, lawmakers won't repeal it, but I will not stand for it. … I must act."

United Methodist News Service tried unsuccessfully to reach Ryan. However, Dave Urbanek, former director of communications for the governor, said that Ryan had shared in previous interviews his struggle with the death penalty issue and how he and his wife had frequently prayed about it.

"He did consult his pastor and other religious leaders," Urbanek said. "Earlier, he was pro-death penalty, but the facts of the death penalty in Illinois rattled his confidence in its fair administration. That is what set him on this course."

The governor and his wife kept their membership in Asbury United Methodist Church in Kankakee, Ill., when they moved to the capital city of Springfield, according to Paul Black, assistant to Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, leader of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference. In Springfield, the Ryans attended First United Methodist Church.

Ryan is now seen as the nation's leading proponent of changing capital punishment, though his successor, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was quoted as saying the blanket clemency was a "big mistake." While friends and family members of the death row inmates rejoiced, the family of victims expressed anger, shock and disbelief.

"He just pushed us off to the side," Katy Salhani told the Los Angeles Times. Salhani had brought Ryan 3,500 letters from friends and neighbors, all pleading to keep her sister's killers on death row. "I want justice, not in a vindictive way, but I want them to be put to death," she said.

J. Taylor Phillips, a state court judge from Macon, Ga., who is widely known in United Methodist circles, called Ryan's decision "ridiculous." It is possible that some of the inmates should have been exonerated because of questions regarding their cases, he said, "but there was no question about the guilt of others." He expressed concern that convicted murderers would eventually be free to murder again.

When delegates to the United Methodist General Conference met in 1980, they approved a resolution against the death penalty. Phillips was the only delegate who spoke against it when it reached the floor of the international assembly. In the legislative committee that brought the resolution to the floor, 69 members supported it, nine opposed it, and one abstained from voting.

"I objected," said Phillips, "because I thought it was inconsistent. On one hand, the delegates said they were in favor of abortion that could take the life of an unborn child for no reason. On the other hand, they said we shouldn't take the life of another person, an adult who had forfeited his right to live because he wouldn't follow the rules of a civilized society." Phillips currently serves on the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration.

The official policy of the church, as reaffirmed by the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland, supports the right of a woman to choose abortion, but not when it is used for birth control or gender selection. Delegates to that conference added their opposition to late-term abortions known as dilation and extraction or "partial-birth abortions."

The substantial statement on capital punishment has been retained, with slight revisions, by each subsequent conference since adoption in 1980. The statement opposes the use of capital punishment in "any form or carried out by any means" and urges its abolition. United Methodist agencies and committees are urged to work to change policies that permit executions.

Church's impact on society

John and Charles Wesley, brothers who founded the Methodist movement, worked energetically among the poor and with prisoners, but according to the Rev. Charles Yrigoyen Jr., staff executive for the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, there is no documentation that they condemned capital punishment. John did write a short tract, "A Word to a Malefactor," addressed to those about to be executed.

Do official resolutions from groups such as the United Methodist Church make any difference? Do they influence legislative decisions or the behavior of members? Do they contribute to the wider debate in society?

Kenrick Fealing is program director for civil and human rights for the denomination's Board of Church and Society, with offices in Washington. "Many people in the pews are not aware the Social Principles even exist," he said. "That is a big concern of our staff, and we are trying to do something about it."

Just before talking with United Methodist News Service, Fealing said he and other staff members were meeting with a group of United Methodist leaders from across the country who had come to learn about the board's work and how the church seeks to witness to Jesus Christ in today's world.

"I carry with me a copy of the church's Book of Resolutions and Social Principles," Fealing said. "I want people to know that we as staff don't speak out on issues because we individually might have a particular ideological or theological bent. The bases for our witness are these official documents of the church."

The current Book of Resolutions, adopted by the 2000 General Conference, includes 863 pages and addresses hundreds of issues. "These are attempts to put our faith in action and to witness to our commitment to follow Jesus Christ's ministry," Fealing said. "It is a big book, but the church is a part of the larger community where there are many concerns and issues. Members and people in general look to us for direction. They want guidance as to how to deal with real-life issues. We need to be relevant to the everyday needs of people. If we aren't relevant to their needs, we have no reason to exist."

In 2001, the denomination's Boards of Church and Society and Global Ministries filed an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court opposing the death penalty for the mentally disabled. Action alerts, press statements, legislative tracking and tips for advocates are available from the Board of Church and Society at

Bishop Kenneth Carder, who leads the church's Mississippi Area, affirms the value of official church statements as important resources for education and dialogue within congregations and the larger society. However, he said, "we have fallen short (in) sharing the church's position and the theological and ethical rationale for that position."

People are not changed by arguments or carefully crafted statements as much as by relationships and personal involvement, Carder said. "What is missing most in our efforts on behalf of authentic justice are relationships with both victims and perpetrators. We are transformed by people more than propositions. I know my position on capital punishment has been influenced by visiting persons on death row as well as the families of murder victims."

Most of the major Protestant groups in the United States have formal statements opposing capital punishment, with the notable exception of the 11 million-member Southern Baptist tradition. Messengers to the 2000 Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Fla., overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming capital punishment "as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death." The Baptists said the penalty should be used only in cases of "clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt." It should be "applied as justly and as fairly as possible without undue delay, without reference to the race, class or status of the guilty."

That concern about fairness is great among opponents such as Harmon Wray, a United Methodist who has fought capital punishment for more than 25 years. The profile of a death row inmate, he says, is a person of color who is poor, mentally ill or brain damaged, and who is charged with killing a white victim. Wray had directed the United Methodist Office of Restorative Justice, which closed last year because of budget cuts.

Views from outside U.S.

The Rev. Peter Storey, a leader in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, also affirms the value of churches speaking out against capital punishment. Storey was Nelson Mandela's prison chaplain and a close associate of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the church's anti-apartheid struggles. He is teaching the "Practice of Christian Ministry" at United Methodist-related Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

Official church positions must be deeply grounded in scripture, Storey stressed. "Many people who support the death penalty point to 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' one of the only Old Testament teachings that Jesus specifically called upon his followers to disobey."

While resolutions or official statements are important, he stressed the importance of backing them up with serious educational programs to help members understand why such actions are taken.

The first act of the new constitutional court in South Africa after liberation was to abolish the death penalty, according to Storey. "Prior to that, there were 14 or 15 executions every Friday.

"While South Africa has a serious crime problem, the government has resisted efforts to reinstate the death penalty," he said. He discounts the position of some that if the death penalty is abolished, an increase in violent crime will follow. "There are countries that have abolished the death penalty where crime has gone up, and there are countries where it has gone down," he said.

"It is a puzzle to people around the world that a society that seems to be so advanced in so many ways as the U.S. is increasingly becoming the odd one out when it comes to retaining the death penalty," Storey said.

Particularly puzzling, he added, is the "barbaric" practice of allowing family members of victims to view executions. "While there are no public executions in the United States, neither are they private," he said. "I really can't understand how that can contribute to healing, unless we really believe that revenge heals."

Storey recalled how Nelson Mandela came close to being legally hanged at one point in his anti-apartheid struggle. "I wonder what history would have looked like if the judge in his case had not decided for some reason against applying the death penalty."

German Bishop Walter Klaiber said the death penalty was abolished there in 1948, largely because the Nazi regime used it against political opponents. Efforts to reintroduce it in recent years have had little support, he said, largely because of the perception of what is happening in the United States. "The high rate of people who are wrongly sentenced to death upsets people." He said Ryan's recent actions were "highly praised" in Germany.

Klaiber said United Methodists in Germany who travel in the United States are sometimes astonished about the discrepancy between the church's Social Principles and the opinions of people in the pews. "In general, the way the death penalty is handled in the United States is a major source of irritation about a culture in a great country."

Forfeiting rights

Phillips said he bases his support of capital punishment on the Old Testament. "It is clear that people in those days could lose their right to life by their actions," he said. "It seems to me that the death penalty is a legal matter rather than a religious matter."

Some victims may be vindictive, Phillips said, "but individuals forfeit their right to live in society when they don't abide by the rules of society. If persons are convicted of murder and other horrible things before the murder, they have forfeited their rights, and the state shouldn't have to pay for them to stay in prison for the rest of their life. Many won't stay in prison for the rest of their lives anyway. They will get out to rape and murder again. We must protect innocent people."

Anne Marshall, whose husband died in the Oklahoma City bomb blast, disagrees with the blanket nature of the United Methodist Social Principles and says each case must be considered individually. In cases where guilt is clear and individuals have no remorse, she believes "the punishment must fit the crime."

She revealed for the first time publicly that she was one of 10 family members and survivors chosen randomly to view the execution of bomber Timothy McVeigh. Her husband, Raymond Johnson, was among 168, including 19 children, killed in the blast. McVeigh's death was the first federal execution in 38 years. Marshall is on staff at the church's Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns in New York.

Witnessing the execution brought no closure, nor was she expecting it, Marshall said. "It did provide a way I could let go. There is never closure, but I can put my life in perspective. With McVeigh's death, I realized his reputation would not live on in books he would write. He would have no literary career. There would be no famous movie, or at least a series of movies about him. That's where the closure came. I know he can't damage me anymore."

Bishops step forward

Following action of the 1996 General Conference, an Inter-agency Task Force on Restorative Justice was created, including representatives from all program agencies of the church. An Office of Restorative Justice Ministries was established in 1999 at the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, Tenn., but was closed in a cost-cutting measure by the Board of Global Ministries in 2002.

Wray, former director of the office, is the author of Restorative Justice: Moving Beyond Punishment, a book produced by United Methodist Women as part of their annual mission studies for 2002. He emphasizes the importance of backing up denominational statements with educational resources and advocacy.

"For me, the death penalty is fundamentally about revenge," Wray said. "If there is anything our Lord was against, it was revenge."

A resolution adopted by the 2000 General Conference encourages bishops to oppose capital punishment and to request that all clergy and lay officials preach, teach and exemplify the teaching of the church. Specifically, they are encouraged to call on governors and state legislators in capital punishment states to commute existing death sentences to life imprisonment and work for the abolition of capital punishment.

Some bishops have stepped forward, including Bishop Ann B. Sherer of the Missouri Area, who watched a convicted murderer die by lethal injection in November 2000 and shared her emotional experience in a widely circulated commentary. She stressed that she was not condoning the actions of the convict, but at the same time, she protested the large number of people executed in the state since the death penalty was re-instituted in 1989. "The cycle of violence continues, and we share in it," she said.

In January 2000, while serving the Fort Worth Area, Bishop Joe A. Wilson, now retired, sent a letter to then-Gov. George W. Bush, pleading with him for a moratorium on capital punishment. "I continue to be dismayed by the number of executions being performed in the state of Texas," the bishop wrote. "As a United Methodist, I hope you will consider the stand of your church on the death penalty."

Two years earlier, Wilson and other area church leaders in the region unsuccessfully tried to get Bush to call off the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, which took place Feb. 3, 1998. "Any way one looks at it, the death penalty system is wrong," Wilson declared.

Texas has executed more inmates by far than any other state since 1976. Of the 820 executions, Texas has been responsible for 189 since reinstating the death penalty in 1977. Last year, Texas led with almost half of the 71 executions nationwide. For executions per 10,000 population, Delaware leads with a rate of .166, followed by Oklahoma with 1.45 and Texas with .126.

It was in 1976 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The court had ruled in 1972 that Georgia's death penalty statute, which allowed juries discretion in sentencing, could lead to arbitrary death sentences and therefore amounted to "cruel and unusual" punishment. That decision resulted in capital punishment being suspended in states around the country and death penalty laws eventually being rewritten.

The statement in the United Methodist Book of Resolutions reports that between 1972 and 1999, more than 70 people were released from death row as a result of being wrongly convicted. On average, for every seven people executed, one person under a death sentence is found innocent, the statement notes.

Reflecting on his efforts to stop executions, Carder said he is even more convinced today that capital punishment serves "no role other than desire for vengeance and retribution, which is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and counterproductive in addressing the serious problem of crime and violence."

No evidence exists that the death penalty deters violent crime or contributes to the well-being of victims, he said.

"One of my most memorable experiences was visiting with a mother about 10 minutes after her son was executed," Carder said. "She was an active member of a local United Methodist church but no one in her church knew her son was executed in another state. She loved her son no less than the parents of the victim of her son's crime. The death penalty only created another grieving mother!"

Jesus took a position on capital punishment, Carder said. "When confronted with a woman who was guilty of a capital offense by the laws of the day, Jesus shifted the whole question from who deserves to be executed to who deserves to execute. Jesus stopped an execution of a guilty person by insisting that those without guilt are qualified to throw the stones, or pull the switch, or inject the needle."
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*McAnally, former director of United Methodist News Service, lives in Nashville, Tenn.

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