Christian Denominations Hold Mixed Views on Death Penalty, Tend Toward Opposition

With the execution of several death row inmates pending or recently carried out, the leaders of some Christian denominations especially those opposing capital punishment, have articulated their arguments on the matter.

Shortly after the Dec. 2 lethal injection execution of North Carolina murder convict Kenneth Boyd, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), called capital punishment wrong because “it is impossible to know that a person who has murdered can never be redeemed or restored.”

There are currently 3,450 convicts, primarily men, on death row. A Gallup opinion poll last month showed that 64 percent of Americans supported the death penalty, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.

In South Carolina, on the same day as Boyd's execution, Shaw Humphries, the killer of a store clerk was injected with poisonous chemicals as he mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to the victim’s two sisters who watched.

The scheduled Dec. 13 execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams, the co-founder of the notorious Crips gang, has also drawn attention in California. Williams’ last hope is to be granted clemency by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Citing a 2002 decision by his denomination’s General Assembly, Kirkpatrick stated that capital punishment was wrong because it is not necessary to protect society.

“Anyone from whom society needs protection can be imprisoned for as long as that person poses a threat to others,” he said in a released statement. “The only way to properly honor God’s gift of life is to refuse to deprive anyone of the life that God has given them.”

Denominations considered liberal, which often take stands on social justice issues such as anti-poverty measures, have come out in support of clemency for even the worst killers saying that the death penalty is ineffective and unfair.

“The death penalty not only applies disproportionately to the poor and to people of color, but also continues to make fatal mistakes, with 122 people now freed from death rows across the country due to evidence of wrongful conviction,” wrote Christian leaders from the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ and the Mennonite Church USA. Leaders of other faiths joined them as signatories.

The message came out as the 1000th execution since the death sentence was reinstituted in 1976 approached. At the time, Boyd of North Carolina was two days away from dying. Another man by the name of Robin Lovitt had been scheduled to die Nov. 30 but Virginia Gov. Mark Warner commuted his sentence. Lovitt had stabbed a man, killing him in a pool-hall robbery.

The Roman Catholic Church, the nation’s largest Christian denomination is a staunch opponent capital punishment, calling it part of the “culture of death.” In a 1999 visit to St. Louis, Pope John Paul II reiterated the view.

"I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary," he said. "Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."

The Catholic Church does not take an absolute view on the matter, however, stating that in extreme cases, where society cannot protect itself, capital punishment can be allowed.

Others, such as the Assemblies of God – the Pentecostal denomination with nearly three million adherents in the United States – says there’s room for disagreement.

“There is room in the church for honest differences of opinion concerning the use of capital punishment. However, all believers should seek to apply biblical principles in reaching their conclusions: the sacredness of human life (of the criminal as well as of the victim), the need of all mankind to repent, and the power of God to transform even the most violent sinners,” is the statement posted on the Assemblies of God church web site. According to the site, the comments had been endorsed by the church's Commission of Doctrinal Purity and the Executive Presbytery.

From the biblical perspective of the Southern Baptist Convention – the nation’s largest Protestant denomination – comes affirmation for capital punishment. In 2000, members of the church passed a resolution supporting the death penalty where there is “clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt” and the punishment be applied "as justly and as fairly as possible without undue delay, without reference to the race, class or status of the guilty.”

The resolution cites God’s authorization of capital punishment after the Noahic Flood as biblical support for the death sentence. It also notes that in the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul writes that the civil government can use the sword to punish those guilty of capital crimes.

Richard Land, the President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at the SBC has stated previously however, that he believes capital punishment is not being equitably applied in the nation, noting that poor people are more likely to be executed than the wealthy, as well as people of color.

While blacks were nearly 47 percent of this nation's homicide victims from 1976 (the year the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty) to 2002, 80 percent of the victims of the people on death row were white, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.