Editor's note: The following statement on capital punishment was issued Monday by the Christian Council of Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore.
It is with considerable regret and pain that we offer these comments. The regret comes from the feeling of frustration and horror that we experience at the senseless and brutal crimes that too frequently disrupt the harmony of society. The pain accompanies the heartfelt sympathy that we extend to the victims' families who, in their time of suffering, are in need of the support and compassion of the whole community.
Their pain, their anguish, is something with which they live each and every day. It is pain and anguish we have been spared. Nothing will ever bring their loved ones back. Quite clearly, such violence is to be denounced vehemently.
Appropriate measures should be employed to safeguard our community and reduce the incidence of crime. The guilty should pay the penalty for their actions. At the same time, however, we also consider it our duty to question the suitability of retaining the death penalty within our penal system.
Today, in our nation more than 2,500 human beings await execution. As throughout history, so in our day, a disproportionate number are poor people and members of minorities. In Delaware, eight persons live on death row and one of them, Steven Brian Pennell, has been scheduled for execution.
We believe that this impending event in the state of Delaware requires that we as a community once again re-evaluate the use of the death penalty in the light of our conviction that life is a gift of God.
Though the state has the right to inflict the death penalty, we question whether the state should exercise the use of that right. In a world filled with violence, one more act of violence, we believe, only serves to make society less sensitive to the intrinsic value of human life.
Usually, punishment is meted out to criminals as an example to deter others from acting in a like manner; or to allow an opportunity for the convicted individual to reform; or for the sake of retribution. However, it seems that the deterrent value of capital punishment is, at the most, doubtful; that the plea for retribution, when the death penalty is involved, reflects a more primitive form of justice than we in the United States would like to claim as our own. Indeed, the taking of the life of another person hardly restores the imbalance created by the original homicide. Rather, it promotes further violence.
The Christian tradition has always upheld the sanctity and dignity of the human being, made in the very image of God (Genesis I). Each person receives life as a gift from God, a gift to be nurtured, a gift over which we have stewardship but not absolute dominion. The right to life belongs to all of us.
Furthermore, the death penalty appears to oppose the spirit of the Gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges us to replace the old law of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" with an attitude of charity, even toward those who would commit evil against us (Mt 5:38- 48). When asked for his opinion in the case of the woman convicted of adultery, a crime that carried the penalty of death, he immediately pardoned the offender, the sinner, while deploring the action, the sin (Jn 8). It is difficult for us to accommodate Jesus' injunction to forgive and love, to reconcile and heal, with the practices of executing criminals.
In recent years, there has been a growing trend among Christian writers and spokespersons to state that capital punishment is unnecessary in our society. This position has been taken by the Roman Catholic Bishops, the Episcopal Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Church of the Brethren, the United Baptist Convention, the Ministers Action Council of Delaware, Inc., and many others. As Christian leaders, we would like to add our voice to theirs in proposing that, whatever may be said about the state's right to exact the death penalty, the exercise of that right, in our opinion, no longer meets the needs of our present-day community.
(Patricia McClurg, Executive Presbyter, New Castle Presbytery, The Presbyterian Church USA; George P. Mocko, Bishop, Delaware-Maryland Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Susan M. Morrison, Bishop of Philadelphia Area of the United Methodist Church; Robert E. Mulvee, Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Wilmington; The Rev. Clifford T. Parke, Christian Church, Disciples of Christ; The Rev. Dr. Ronald D. Petry, District Executive, Mid-Atlantic District, Church of the Brethren; Cabell Tennis, Episcopal Bishop of Delaware)