Religion

Baptist Theologian Says Death Penalty Does Not Fit With Christian Theology

Baptist ethicist and theologian Dr. Roger E. Olson (pictured) recently issued a call "for Christian churches to publicly stand against the death penalty for Christian reasons." A professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Dr. Olson writes in an essay for the theology website Patheos.com that "authentic Christians must oppose the death penalty." He says that, while "[t]here are many secular reasons to abolish the death penalty," there are also theological reasons why church opposition to capital punishment should be non-negotiable. "Christians believe that every individual human being might be someone chosen by God for his salvation and for his service," he writes. "When we take another human life unnecessarily, we usurp God’s prerogative for that person’s eventual salvation or, if they are already saved, for that person’s future service for the Kingdom of God." Dr. Olson's essay urges all Christian churches to take public stands against the death penalty. "I believe the Christian reasons for opposing the death penalty are so strong that capital punishment ought to be, as slavery was in the mid-19th century, an issue for a 'church struggle' that divides if sadly necessary. At the very least, Christian pastors and other leaders ought to preach against capital punishment from their pulpits and in their newsletters."

Pope Francis Seeks Ban on Executions During 'Year of Mercy,' Renews Call for Abolition of Death Penalty

In an address at the Vatican on February 21, Pope Francis (pictured) broadened his call for a global end to capital punishment and urged Catholic leaders around the world to take action to halt all executions during the Church's ongoing "Holy Year of Mercy." The pontiff's address was a prelude to a two-day international conference, "A World Without the Death Penalty," hosted in Rome by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic organization that opposes capital punishment. Francis said, "The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value, and covers both the innocent and the guilty. ... [E]ven the criminal keeps the inviolable right to life, a gift from God." The Pope linked his call to action to the Holy Year of Mercy, which began on December 8, 2015, and encourages Catholics to show mercy in every aspect of their lives. “I appeal to the conscience of the rulers, so that we achieve an international consensus for the abolition of the death penalty,” Francis said. "And I propose to those among them who are Catholics to make a courageous and exemplary gesture that no sentence is executed in this Holy Year of Mercy.” Pope Francis has previously urged world leaders to end the death penalty, including a strong statement in his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2015. Prior pontiffs have also expressed the Catholic Church's opposition to capital punishment. In 2000, Pope John Paul II advocated worldwide abolition of the death penalty, which he called "an unworthy punishment."

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Orthodox Jewish Organization Calls for an End to Capital Punishment in the U.S.

"As Jews, as citizens of a nation dedicated to liberty and justice, we believe that governments must protect the dignity and rights of every human being. The use of the death penalty, in America, fails to live up to this basic requirement," wrote Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz (pictured), founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Orthodox Jewish social justice movement. In a column for Jewish Journal, Rabbi Yanklowitz outlines the reasons for Jewish opposition to the death penalty, focusing particularly on the issue of innocence. "[O]ur American system today lacks the highest safeguards to protect the lives of the innocent and uses capital punishment all too readily," he says. "It is time to see the death penalty for what it is: not as justice gone awry, but a symptom of injustice as status quo" with "consequences [that] ... produce racially disparate outcomes." Rabbi Yanklowitz cites numerous studies that have estimated 2-7% of U.S. prisoners are likely innocent, then ties the issue to Jewish teachings. "Jewish law strongly upholds the principle that the innocent should be spared undue punishment," he explains, recounting the biblical story of God agreeing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten righteous people in those cities. He lauds the work of organizations like the Innocence Project, which work to free people who have been wrongfully convicted. "This is nothing short of the championing of justice over inequity, and as a community, we must support their work. Jewish community leaders should call for an end to this cruel practice, but also for the beginning of a new paradigm of fair, equitable, and restorative justice," he concludes.

New Position of National Association of Evangelicals Shows Cracks in Death Penalty Support

Recognizing that "a growing number of evangelicals now call" for a shift away from the death penalty, the National Association of Evangelicals - an umbrella group for congregations representing millions of evangelical Christians in the United States - has backed away from its prior strong support for capital punishment. A newly adopted NAE resolution states, "Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation. We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought." The resolution says "Nonpartisan studies of the death penalty have identified systemic problems in the United States" and expresses concerns about "the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations." Previously, the NAE had been entirely supportive of the death penalty. Shane Claiborne, an evangelical Christian author and activist, called the NAE's change, "a big deal," saying, "For evangelicals, one of the core tenets of our faith is that no one is beyond redemption. The death penalty raises one of the most fundamental questions for evangelicals: Do we have the right to rob someone of the possibility of redemption?" According to a Pew Research Center poll from March 2015, white evangelical Protestants were more supportive of the death penalty than any other group, with 71% in favor, although support had dropped 6 percentage points since 2011. 

Pope Francis Calls Death Penalty Inappropriate "No Matter How Serious the Crime"

In a letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, Pope Francis expressed the Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty, calling it "inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed." He continued, "It is an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God's plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance." He acknowledged society's need to protect itself from aggressors, but said, "When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of aggression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralized -- they are already deprived of their liberty." He also addressed questions of methods of execution, saying, “There is discussion in some quarters about the method of killing, as if it were possible to find ways of 'getting it right'. … But there is no humane way of killing another person.” The pope had previously offered remarks in opposition to the death penalty when he spoke to the International Association on Penal Law in October 2014.

EDITORIALS: Four National Catholic Journals Urge End to Capital Punishment

In an unusual joint editorial on March 5, four national Catholic publications called for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. The editors of America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor urged "the readers of our diverse publications and the whole U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith to stand with us and say, 'Capital punishment must end.'" Citing opposition to the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and statements by Popes John Paul II and Francis, the editorial said, "The practice is abhorrent and unnecessary. It is also insanely expensive, as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes." The publications concluded: "We join our bishops in hoping the [Supreme] court will reach the conclusion that it is time for our nation to embody its commitment to the right to life by abolishing the death penalty once and for all."

NEW VOICES: Pope Francis Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty

Pope Francis called for an end to capital punishment in an address on October 23 to the International Association on Penal Law. "It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples' lives from an unjust aggressor," the Catholic leader said. He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that the death penalty can be used only if it is the "only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor," and that modern alternatives for protecting society mean that "cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." Pope Francis said, "All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty." In discussing a variety of criminal justice issues, he critiqued the tendency to focus solely on punishment, rather than addressing broader social issues.

INTERNATIONAL: Philippines to Host International Conference with Focus on Capital Punishment

An international human rights conference with an emphasis on Asian cultural and religious heritage and a special focus on the death penalty will be held in Manila on October 27-28, 2014. Representatives from the Philippines, India, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the European Union are expected. The conference is being organized by the Department of Justice of the Philippines and the Community of Sant'Egidio, an international Catholic lay association. The event, the first of its kind in Asia, is titled "No justice without life" and is part of Sant'Egidio's "Cities for Life" campaign. President Benino Aquino of the Philippines will offer remarks to open the conference.

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