With all that is going on in the world–Syria, North Korea, health care, border wall–you can be forgiven for not having read that Arkansas just executed its fourth prisoner in eight days. This “frantic execution schedule” (in the words of The Washington Post) was sparked by the impending expiration of one of the drugs used in the lethal cocktail. The last execution, the killing of Kenneth Williams, was particularly disturbing, as witnessed said he convulsed violently as he was dying (they called it “horrifying”), and demanded an investigation, which the governor rejected.
Arkansas is not alone in its use of the death penalty, of course. The map above shows in teal the 19 states (in addition to the District of Columbia) that have abolished the death penalty. In addition to these, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Pennsylvania currently have governor-imposed moratoriums. Otherwise, our country is a sea of red. Most executions are by lethal injection, but electrocution is another regular option–a firing squad is still a possibility in Utah. I find it ironic that there are a handful of states that currently are not imposing the death penalty, because they are investigating a botched execution–this happens more often than we would like to admit.
So, it was timely that in my class last week, the students and I read through the ELCA’s Social Statement on the Death Penalty. [Find it here: Death Penalty ELCA] The statement, adopted in 1991, is short–just 8 pages–and I think the thing that surprised us the most is that the Church actually comes out with an unequivocal position: the ELCA opposes the death penalty, for three reasons:
1. It is because of this church’s ministry with and to people affected by violent crime that we oppose the death penalty.
2. It is because of this church’s commitment to justice that we oppose the death penalty.
3. It is because of this church’s concern regarding the actual use of the death penalty that we oppose its imposition.
The ELCA recognizes that violent crime tears apart communities and families, but it is clear that the death penalty does not restore them.
The ELCA recognizes that citizens need to be protected and justice needs to be upheld, but it also recognizes that we live in a broken, sinful society. Therefore, the death penalty reflects the racism of the criminal justice system, and also the mistakes made by individuals, which leads to the execution of the innocent.
Practically, the death penalty is inhumane and cruel; it does not deter violent crime, it does not bring back the dead or provide lasting comfort to the bereaved, it does not save the state any money, and it does not make society any safer or more peaceful.
Instead, the death penalty promotes vengeance and violence and denies the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation, and rehabilitation. The death penalty allows the past to have the final say, and denies the creative possibilities always present in the future. The death penalty gives in to despair, and gives up on hope.
In short, the death penalty reflects the worst of human nature, rather than our best. It pulls us down to the lowest common denominator, instead of inviting us to rise up together. [And, to be clear, it is fundamentally anti-life: how a person can be against abortion but pro-death penalty is completely beyond my comprehension.]
We worship a God who is all about life, and life abundant; the death penalty stands in absolute opposition to this One who creates life, restores life, and who is bringing about new life within us always.
It is past time to abolish the death penalty once and for all.