Commentary: WWJD about the death penalty?
Commentary: WWJD about the death penalty?

Feb. 7, 2001 News media contact:
Thomas S. McAnally
(615)742-5470·Nashville, Tenn. 10-71B{061}

A UMNS Commentary
By John C. Goodwin*

The bumper sticker asks, "What Would Jesus Do?" Regarding the death penalty, the answer seems clear. I cannot imagine him saying yes to an execution. In John 8:1-11 he spoke against the prescribed penalty of death for the woman caught in adultery. "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her," he said (NRSV).

Yet there are many persons who profess to be followers of Christ who also profess to favoring capital punishment. The paper trail of Methodist opposition to the death penalty extends at least to the 1950s, long before United became part of the name. Of the major Christian denominations in the United States, only the Southern Baptist Convention supports the death penalty. Here in the Northeast most denominations clearly oppose capital punishment.

On Nov.17, 1998, Bishop Alfred Johnson joined nine other New Jersey Protestant leaders in signing "A Pastoral Statement: the Death Penalty." Part of the statement reads: "It is time to state our position as clearly and unambiguously as we can. The death penalty is incompatible with Christianity." Soon afterwards, Bishop Johnson established the committee formally known as The New Jersey Area Church and Society Task Force to Abolish the Death Penalty and I am privileged to serve as co-convener. The task force is working to raise the consciousness of 115,000 or more United Methodists in the Greater New Jersey Area and works with New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium on legislative issues (www.njmoratorium.org). Members of the task force hope that United Methodists will agree with the denomination's position and communicate that viewpoint to their local, state, and federal legislators.

New Jersey has 15 persons on death row; New York has six. Neither state has executed anyone since 1963, but unless the laws are changed, executions could be resumed within two years. Pennsylvania's death row houses 238 persons. Three have been executed since 1976. My mother, at age 13, was fascinated and horrified by the 1927 Massachusetts executions of two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. When I was 12 years old, I was also fascinated and horrified by a double execution, that of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953.

My father felt that my mother's obsessive reaction to the Sacco-Vanzetti execution contributed to her 1964 suicide. My reaction to the Rosenberg case certainly was a contributing factor in my commitment to end the evil that is the death penalty. Here is my short, partial, personal list of reasons to oppose the death penalty:

1. It is wrong. Murder by the state is still murder and is contrary to the Sixth Commandment.

2. Killing the killer cannot restore life and will not bring closure to the living. Increasing numbers of families of murder victims, including many of those who lost loved ones in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing incident, are voicing their opposition to the death penalty and are seeking restitution and reconciliation instead of death.

3. Executions cause more families to grieve, creating more victims.

4. I am a citizen of the state. For the state to execute someone in my name makes me a killer.

5. Increasing numbers of prison officials, those involved in the actual carrying out of executions, are experiencing stress disorders. It is unfair to turn our correctional facility professionals into hired killers.

6. Studies have shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Ten of the 12 states with no death penalty have lower murder rates than the national average.

7. It is primarily the poor and persons of color who are in danger of receiving the penalty of death.

8. Death is irreversible. Innocents have been executed and innocent people have died of disease while living on death row. The governor of Illinois declared a moratorium on executions when it was brought to his attention that innocent prisoners in Illinois have come within days or hours of their execution.

9. Capital punishment is more expensive than life in prison. Studies have shown that the average cost of incarceration for a life sentence is between $400,000 and $850,000. The death penalty process costs millions -- an estimated $22,800,000 annually for New Jersey.

10. Much of the world, including all of Western Europe, has forsaken use of the death penalty. There is growing international pressure for the United States to give up what is considered to be a barbaric practice by much of the world.

11. Christian Theology places life and death in the hands of God. The Christian faith teaches us that it is never too late for a person to repent of his or her sins.

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*Goodwin is a member of the Demarest (N.J.) United Methodist Church, a lay member of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and co-convener of the Church and Society Task Force to Abolish the Death Penalty of the New Jersey Area.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church officially opposes capital punishment and urges its elimination from all criminal codes. See 2000 Book of Discipline, Para. 164A , or the denomination's Web site:
http://www.umc.org/abouttheumc/policy/political/a-basicfreedoms.htm

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