Episcopal leaders push to abolish death penalty across the country

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Jun 13, 2012

Connecticut Bishops Ian T. Douglas, Laura J. Ahrens and James E. Curry during an April 3 public witness in Hartford, Conn., marking the Stations of the Cross and protesting the state’s death penalty. The Diocese of Connecticut organized the public witness attended by some 200 people. Connecticut has since abolished the death penalty. Photo/Marc Yves Regis

[Episcopal News Service] When Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a bill in April making Connecticut the fifth state in five years to abolish the death penalty, Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut Bishop Suffragan James Curry’s attendance at the ceremony testified to the influence of Episcopal leaders on ending capital punishment in the state.

Curry and other members of the diocese had worked with the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty since the 2005 execution of serial killer Michael Ross, the first prisoner put to death in New England in 45 years.

Abolishing the death penalty became “a very, very contentious issue” in Connecticut after two recently released prisoners invaded a home and “brutally murdered” two girls and their mother in 2007, he said.

“In the midst of that, it was very hard to have a conversation in this state about not demanding the death penalty for such horrific crimes,” Curry said. “It was also a time in the church where we started to shift the conversation from that this is punishment to [that] the death penalty is really about the kind of statement we want to make about what we want our society to be.”

The Episcopal Church officially has opposed the death penalty for more than half a century, and its advocacy is gaining traction as momentum builds across the country to end capital punishment. Bishops and other church leaders are writing letters, joining coalitions, testifying before legislators and publicly demonstrating their opposition to the death penalty.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have ended capital punishment. In total, 3,189 people remain on death row in the United States, including some in Connecticut and New Mexico, which repealed the penalty without making it retroactive, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Episcopal Church first passed a resolution opposing the death penalty in 1958, said Alexander Baumgarten, Episcopal Church director of government relations. “It’s been reaffirmed in multiple conventions since then, so our position as a church has been clear for a long time.

“I think the fact that we’ve seen a recent pattern of bishops and other leaders in the church in the dioceses of the United States raising the profile of our advocacy is a reflection of the climate in which public opinion in the United States seems to be moving against the death penalty for the first time in a number of years.”

A 2011 Gallup poll showed about one in three Americans opposing the death penalty, a 19 percent drop in support for capital punishment over 17 years and down from an all-time high of 80 percent supporting it in 1994. Baumgarten attributes the trend to an understanding of “the inherent flaws in the application of the death penalty.”

Repeated studies, for example, have documented that capital punishment does not deter crime, he said. The death penalty also carries inherent racial and socio-economic biases and the chance of killing innocent people, he said.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center:

  • Studies indicate the chance of being sentenced to death is much higher when murder victims are white, and a 1998 study reported a pattern of race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination or both in 96 percent of states where race and the death penalty had been reviewed.
  • More than 130 people have been released from death row since 1973 with evidence of their innocence, with an average of five people exonerated annually from 2000 to 2011.

“As people start to understand the complexities of how the penalty is applied in practice,” Baumgarten said, “I think we start to see people who on its face might not be opposed to the death penalty now start to say: As a matter of applied justice in this country, this doesn’t really work.”

While the Episcopal Church has an official stance against the death penalty, this primarily is a state issue, and church abolition efforts have originated mostly at the local level, noted Baumgarten, who works in the church’s Washington, D.C., office.

“It’s not something that I think has been driven by central structures of the Episcopal Church or central governing entities of the Episcopal Church,” he said. “Bishops and congregations and leaders in the dioceses have looked at the church’s historic stance on this and applied it to the … context that’s evolving around them.”

Cooperative efforts

In Connecticut, the diocese worked with the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty on legislative efforts that fell short more than once before the governor signed the April 25 bill abolishing the death penalty in the state. Then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill in 2009. A 2011 abolition bill failed by two votes in the state Senate.

The 2012 bill ended the death penalty, but not for those previously convicted – including the two men sentenced to death for the high-profile 2007 murders.

“It’s a flaw in the bill,” Curry said. “I think that’s going to be a legal battle.”

During the push for the successful abolition legislation, the Connecticut network helped organize conversations in churches around the death penalty, he said. “We started organizing letter-writing campaigns to state representatives and senators. We made ourselves available for conversation. We were lobbying at the legislative office building.”

The diocese also partnered with the church’s Washington, D.C., office, sending alerts through a Connecticut public policy network.

The diocese’s public witness included inviting clergy to renew their vows during Holy Week this year while participating in a Stations of the Cross service that meditated on issues of justice in society and particularly on abolishing the death penalty. Between 175 and 200 people participated, mostly Episcopal priests but also some clergy from other denominations, Curry said. “We had one rabbi join us … It speaks to the power of this issue and the power of the coalition, because the very language of our Stations of the Cross was unsettling to him.”

While they walked in prayer, the last senator needed to pass the abolition bill held a press conference saying she had changed her mind after opposing similar legislation last year, Curry said. The church made a difference in the bill’s passage, he said, from the letter writing to the image of three Episcopal bishops and numerous clergy in their cassocks processing through the state capital.

“For me, the other reality is that the church learned that we have the possibility to affect public discourse by staying true to who we are and by creating alliances with other groups like the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, and that’s a learning that were going to keep as we’re looking into social justice,” said Curry. ” We need to always keep looking beyond ourselves, outside of ourselves for other voices that we can ally with.”

In the Diocese of Montana, Bishop C. Franklin Brookhart Jr. belongs to the Montana Abolition Coalition, an umbrella group of religious and other organizations seeking to end the state’s death penalty. He has written editorials and letters to legislators opposing the death penalty and testified before a state Senate committee.

“It’s difficult in some ways because, in doing this, you have to speak to people with a broad range of ethical and religious backgrounds,” he said. “It’s easiest for me simply to speak as a Christian.”

He raises issues such as whether the death penalty is justice or vengeance; how accurately it can be applied; whether it deters crime; and whether it serves the common good. He views the death penalty as “morally corrosive to a society,” he said.

“I think we have to say that there is no question from the Scriptures that the state has – the traditional phrase is ‘the power of the sword’ — to do this, but is it in this day and age really a Christian witness to say let’s kill people? I don’t think it is.”

Like Curry, he believes the church’s witness makes a difference.

“I believe there is power in being a bishop and speaking on behalf of the church. I know I get listened to more carefully because of that,” he said, adding, “The other side is, I think that for some people it is easier to dismiss me: Well, what would you expect a soft-headed Christian to say?”

The Montana legislature meets for 90 days every two years, and death penalty abolition is an issue every session, he said. “It nearly got through last time.”

“Every time it comes up … the idea of the death penalty seems to have less power and appeal to it, and it will come up again this time when the legislature meets in January 2013,” he predicted.

Episcopal leaders advocate against the death penalty in other states as well.

As president of the Ecumenical Leaders Group of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, Diocese of Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton most recently led a march to Maryland’s State House following an early-morning Ash Wednesday service at St. Anne’s Episcopal Parish in Annapolis, said Sharon Tillman, diocesan spokesperson. The Feb. 22 event culminated in a press conference and discussions with religious leaders and legislators.

In 2008, at an anti-death-penalty rally in Annapolis, Sutton said, “There is no room for state-sponsored killing and state-sponsored revenge. To kill and to revenge for the killing of another person contributes to a cycle of killing. … Love is doing what is right precisely when it is hard. Jesus taught his disciples to go beyond an ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth,’ for that would inevitably lead to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others would call an ‘eyeless and a toothless society.’ Instead, he taught us to love even the unlovely and stop the cycle of violence.”

In the Diocese of Los Angeles, Bishop J. Jon Bruno and Bishops Suffragan Mary Douglas Glasspool and Diane Jardine Bruce endorsed the SAFE California Act, which will replace the state’s death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without chance of parole as the maximum punishment for murder.

Helping to recruit signers in the successful petition drive to get the initiative on California’s November 2012 ballot were the diocesan Program Group on Peace and Justice Ministries, the diocesan PRISM Restorative Justice Ministries and All Saints Church, Pasadena, and St. Michael and All Angels Church, Studio City, among other congregations, said Robert Williams, diocesan canon for community relations.

Diocese of California Bishop Mark Andrus also has supported abolition efforts.

In the Diocese of Ohio, the Rev. Will Mebane, canon for Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, testified in February before the Senate Judiciary Committee to support a bill to abolish the death penalty.

In Kansas, Episcopal and other bishops have participated in letter-writing campaigns and other efforts encouraging abolition of the death penalty.

Theology of justice work

Such efforts are consistent with the church’s mission, Baumgarten said.

“If we look at the catechism in the prayer book,” he said, “it tells us that the church lives out its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the gospel and promotes justice, peace and love.”

“As Episcopalians, as Anglicans, we would understand the promotion of just structures in society and peace in God’s kingdom on earth as something that is central to the mission of the church, not a distraction from the mission of the church,” he said. “We would be remiss if we did not look at what our faith says about justice and peace and then work for it in the world around us.”

Curry agreed.

“Our biblical witness is about transforming the world, and it’s not about hoarding the good news of God’s redemptive love,” he said. “I think that we have to be out in the world and that one of the primary reasons for church community is to equip every single Christian to take that faith out in their own lives. So I have great respect for legislators who are living out their faith or social workers or organizers. It’s almost counterintuitive that clergy would feel they can’t do that.”

Church polity allows Episcopalians to shape the church’s stance on public-policy issues, Baumgarten noted. “One of the important things about the Episcopal Church’s system of governance is that there really is a straight line from the congregational level to the General Convention level. … Everybody has the ability to participate in the church’s discernment of where it stands on particular issues.”

This doesn’t mean that every Episcopalian must agree with every stance the church takes, as Brookhart noted.

“I think our church has the sense that we don’t expect everyone to agree with the official so-called positions,” he said, adding that there’s no “punitive side” for disagreeing with General Convention resolutions on public-policy issues.

“On the other hand,” he added, “I think it’s important to say that there are some issues that are important enough that the church needs to make a witness about it, even if a substantial minority of its members don’t agree.”

And that witness doesn’t remain at the institutional level.

Advocacy is part of the mission of every person of faith including Episcopalians, Baumgarten said. “It’s not uniquely the role or responsibility of churchwide structures or bishops or church leaders.”

“That comes from our understanding of baptism,” he said. “That comes from our understanding of the commands of Jesus. That comes from our understanding of mission and Anglican theology. And so our [Washington, D.C.] office exists for the purpose of equipping Episcopalians to engage in the ministry of advocacy in their own contexts.

“In one sense, we provide a representative face of the church in Washington on an ongoing basis,” he said. “But in the most important sense, the heart of our work, the heart of our ministry as an office, is to equip Episcopalians around the country for their own ministry of advocacy.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


Comments (16)

  1. Jack M McKelvey says:

    Good for all of these church leaders who are fighting against the death penalty. As I testified before two committees of the New York State Legislature a couple of years ago “one mistake is one mistake too many, especially if you are the mistake” and “in addition to theological reasons against the death penalty, it is better stewardship to impose life without parole.” These thoughts seemed to have reached several of our legislators. Jack

  2. Joe Parrish says:

    The execution abolition movement seems to be gaining steam. We will need to get many other denominations to help. The Roman Catholic Church has played a key role so far in several states, but we have helped. It is very good to see Episcopalians take this issue on more vigorously!

  3. Kathleen Murff Whiting says:

    As a prison reform advocate in Florida for more than 25 years, I am profoundly grateful to all who have pressed for the repeal of the death penalty. We must continue. Please consider, however, the hopelessness of true “life without parole,” particularly for youthful offenders whose immaturity and impulsiveness has put them into a terrible situation. Look at the “life” sentences meted out in other civilized countries such as Israel, England, and Holland, where crime rates are lower than they are in the U.S. These sentences are generally the length of a generation – 20 to 30 years. The emphasis on all but a few irreparable cases is on rehabilitation. We must strive for restorative justice, not just locking the door and throwing away the key.

  4. The Rev. Canon Richard P. McDonnell, D.Min. says:

    Now if we could only get our beloved President to do away with his KILL LIST, and set a national moral standard. God bless The President and all these United State- let’s let everyone live even if they don’t deserve to live for the crimes they have committed. That’s ALL of US !!!!

    Pax and $$$,

  5. Jennifer Myers says:

    What about all the victims of the horrendous acts of violence? I work in victim services for a state Dept of Justice. If church members and clergy read the accounts of some of the crimes committed against the innocent, they may change their opinion of the death penalty. Who in the Church will speak out for the victims?

    I do not support the Church engaging in political activity as an institution. The First Amendment allows me the freedom from government’s intrusion on my religious liberties. I’d rather not have the Episcopal Church as an institution that I freely choose to be a part of, make political statements on my behalf. I believe in the tenets of the Church, tradition, The Bible and reason. I understand the Church taking the moral high ground based on tradition and scripture, but find the reasoning behind the political activity questionable.

    1. Dudley Sharp says:

      Ms. Myers:

      You imply that being against the death penalty is pursuing the moral high ground.

      The foundation of support for the death penalty is justice, the same foundation as for all criminal sanctions.

      The pursuit of justice may be the greatest of all human endeavors.

      Note that the EC first opposed the death penalty in 1958 and the official Church of England originated in the 1500’s, with Henry VIII’s direction to separate from the Catholic papacy, not in small part because of the Pope’s refusal to aprove of Henry VIII’s divorce request.

      The EC supported executions for about 400 years, before voicing its recent opposition, which is largely the result of liberal, secular influence, in opposition to the 400 years of biblical and theological based death penalty support, as well as the total 2000 years of support from the Catholic Church

    2. Rob Nelson says:

      It is good to see the Episcopal Church advocate for abolition of the death penalty. I am impressed with the leadership the Church takes on important public policy issues — this being a key one. I wish the Roman Catholic Church would step up more on this and other issues as well.
      Remember that Christ was executed in a horrific way. He did so to save us. We should not forget Christ’s despair of the Cross as he cried out Father why have you forsaken me… that dark, terrible moment. We can seek peace in the understanding of the suffering and his love for us.
      We don’t need to repeat torture and death. This cannot bring back victims of violent crimes – an eye for an eye. We have the new covenant — love God and love thy neighbor. We have a just God. True Justice comes in God’s love and grace and accountability. It is good that the Church evolves away from things that likely do not please God — such as the torture, even of a criminal. No need to be stuck in the middle ages. And, what of innocents who are wrongly convicted and put to death. What is that justice or the morality in Gods eyes. We must pray for the victims and we must pray for those who committed the crimes.

  6. Dudley Sharp says:

    Very odd the EC is against the death penalty.

    God/Jesus: ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.’ Matthew 15:4

    This is a New Testament command, which references several of the same commands from God, in the same circumstance, from the OT.

    Jesus: Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Jesus) replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23: 39-43

    It is not the nature of our deaths, but the state of salvation at the time of death which is most important. This was the perfect opportunity for Jesus to say something contrary to support for execution.

    Jesus: “So Pilate said to (Jesus), “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” Jesus answered (him), “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” John 19:10-11

    The power to execute comes directly from God.

    Jesus: “You have heard the ancients were told, ˜YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court”. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca”, shall be guilty before the supreme court and whoever shall say, “You fool”, shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell.” Matthew 5:17-22.

    Fiery hell is a considerable more severe sanction than any earthly death.

    The Holy Spirit, God, through the power and justice of the Holy Spirit, executed both Ananias and his wife, Saphira. Their crime? Lying to the Holy Spirit – to God – through Peter. Acts 5:1-11.

    No trial, no appeals, just death on the spot.

    God: “You shall not accept indemnity in place of the life of a murderer who deserves the death penalty; he must be put to death.” Numbers 35:31 (NAB) full context http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/numbers/numbers35.htm

    For murder, there is no mitigation from a death sentence.

  7. Kevin Roberts says:

    I agree and am glad the Episcopal Church is working to end the death penalty, another issue that is as or more important is that all Churches should work to end taking a precious innocent baby’s life through abortion!

  8. The Very Rev. Kevin Carroll says:

    I believe that it is right and good that the church speaks out against capital punishment. Yet, if we do not include other issues, such as abortion, war, assisted suicide, and violent crime in the same conversation it lacks moral integrity. How we treat human life from the inception of person-hood through death needs to be an all-inclusive conversation. If we cherry pick a politically correct issue out of the breadth and death of God’s imperative that we respect human life we abrogate our baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being.

    1. Dudley Sharp says:

      Rev. Carrol:

      I am more familiar with Catholic teaching on these topics, within which abortion and assisted suicides are moral evils and both war and the death penalty may be justified on moral grounds.

      It is not a matter of cherry picking, but of properly finding that there are different moral foundations for different types of killing.

      It would be morally irresponsible to say that there is no moral difference between the killing involved in the rape and murder of children and the killing involved in the execution of that rapist/murderer.

      “Killing Equals Killing: The Amoral Confusion of Death Penalty Opponents”

  9. Rafiki Bakari says:

    I am pleased with the efforts of many in the USA and the State of Ohio where I live in Cleveland. If not for the grace of GOD I may have been a victim of the Ohio’s electric chair. In 1975 I was charged with the crime of Aggravated Murder With Specializations. I was found guilty of Voluntary Manslaughter in January of 1976. I am innocent of the crime. I witness a suicide. Here it is 2012, I served time for Voluntary Manslaughter, three years. Since my release, 33 years ago, life has been difficult with the Aggravated Murder charge still on my record. I am being punished for life for a crime I did not do. I came very close to being convicted of Aggravated Murder and thus the electric chair. I am a black man, I was 23 years of age when convicted, and I was a Vietnam veteran which did not help my case during the 1970’s. I strongly support the efforts to end death penalty. There are far too many black men becoming innocent victims to the death penalty.

  10. I would be much more impressed by all this if these bishops and anyone else opposed to the death penalty showed the same care and solicitude for the lives of the unborn. Because if this country completely does away with the death penalty, those of us who claim to be Christians will still have an American holocaust to account for.

  11. The Rev. Matthew Tucker says:

    I am grateful for the comments above referencing the death penalty handed down to so many of our unborn children. They are the modern Holy Innocents.

  12. Thomas Andrew says:

    God bless those who speak for those who truly have no voice and are truly innocent – the unborn. Charitable as the opposition to the death penalty may be, I do not see how it squares with the rabid support this denomination shows for abortion.

    1. Dudley Sharp says:

      Eternal charity should be a bit more important.

      Romano Amerio, a faithful Catholic Vatican insider, scholar, professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council.

      “The most irreligious aspect of this argument against capital punishment is that it denies its expiatory value which, from a religious point of view, is of the highest importance because it can include a final consent to give up the greatest of all worldly goods. This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to civil society, capital punishment can cancel all punishment due in the life to come. His thought is . . . Summa, ‘Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or a least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation and contrition; but a natural death does not.’ The moral importance of wanting to make expiation also explains the indefatigable efforts of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist Beheaded, the members of which used to accompany men to their deaths, all the while suggesting, begging and providing help to get them to repent and accept their deaths, so ensuring that they would die in the grace of God, as the saying went.”

      Some opposing capital punishment ” . . . go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory. In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened. In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life.”

      Some death penalty opponents “deny the expiatory value of death; death which has the highest expiatory value possible among natural things, precisely because life is the highest good among the relative goods of this world; and it is by consenting to sacrifice that life, that the fullest expiation can be made. And again, the expiation that the innocent Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through his being condemned to death.”

      “Amerio on capital punishment “, Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, May 25, 2007 ,

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