Church of the Brethren reaffirms its historic commitment to opposing the death penalty




A death penalty protest
Messenger photo archive

From the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy

On July 25, 2019, Attorney General William Barr announced that the federal government would resume the use of the death penalty, after a 16-year halt, and directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP) to schedule the executions of five inmates currently on death row. (1)

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In the wake of this troubling announcement, the Church of the Brethren reaffirms its decades-long theological and moral opposition to the death penalty.

As stated in the 1987 Annual Conference statement on the death penalty, “Matthew 25:40 reminds us, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers (or sisters) of mine, you did it for me.’ There is an element of God in each of us, and so we must hold all human life as sacred. To take the life of any person is to destroy what has been created by God and redeemed by Christ. To admit that there are those who are beyond saving is to deny the ultimate power of redemption, the cross and the empty tomb.” (2)

Since 1973, more than 160 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the US have since been exonerated. (3) A justice system that makes mistakes in life-or-death cases has no place sentencing people to die. Additionally, there are racial disparities in the use of the death penalty, which has a high rate of white-victim cases and non-white defendants. (4) The death penalty is an irreversible punishment carried out in a flawed and racist system, and thus should be ended immediately.

“The death penalty only continues the spiral of violence,” the 1987 statement went on to say. “The only real way to deter further violence is to cease our claim to a ‘life for a life,’ to recognize that life and death decisions belong to God, and to seek mercy and redemption of God's lost children.” As a peace church, the Church of the Brethren is committed to countering violence with Christ’s radical peace, and we are deeply opposed to further contributing to the cycle of violence that the death penalty perpetuates. “In a broader sense, we Christians must lead the United States in a total commitment to non-violence as public policy. All violent systems, structures, and ideologies should be challenged at their very core.”

The Death Row Support Project, a Church of the Brethren initiative led by Rachel Gross, offered this response to the attorney general’s announcement: “Last week’s decision by the Federal Government to move ahead with executions is a sobering reminder of how Church of the Brethren members, following the way of Jesus, are out of step with the ways of the world: the world says we need to punish those who hurt others, whereas Jesus told us to ‘turn the other cheek’ and Paul implores us to ‘overcome evil with good.’ Following Jesus’ example of forgiving those about to take his life, we Brethren have the witness of SueZann Bosler who has forgiven James Campbell, the man who killed her father and severely wounded her (see the June 2019 issue of the Church of the Brethren “Messenger” magazine). Thankfully, most of us will never face that kind of challenge. However, we can witness to our faith by using last week’s decision as an opportunity to take action.” (See action suggestions below.)

Our faith through Jesus Christ calls us to love our neighbor, to take care of the least of these, to visit those in prison. We believe in a radical love that is broad enough for those affected by violence and those who commit violent acts. This Justice Department announcement is a step in the opposite direction of this radical love.

The words from decades past about the death penalty are evergreen: “[The story of the Bible] is a very human story which is graced by the inspiration of God’s loving call to justice, reconciliation, peace, repentance, faith, hope, redemption, new life, grace, mercy, and forgiveness seventy-times-seven. This is still God’s call today. Our mission is still to seek and save. It is not to search and destroy.”

Suggestions for action:

Contact your elected representatives in Congress to share the Church of the Brethren witness against the death penalty. The 1987 Annual Conference statement provides several talking points, find it at www.brethren.org/ac/statements/1987deathpenalty.html .

Send a message of Christian love to one of the people whose execution dates have been set. Contact drsp@brethren.org for information.

Learn more about Church of the Brethren work on the death penalty through the Death Row Support Project at www.brethren.org/drsp .

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(1) “Trump administration to bring back federal death penalty after 16-year lapse,” Axios, www.axios.com/federal-death-penalty-justice-department-576a2e44-5cf0-4f95-a301-34216eb0eaf2.html
(2) “The Death Penalty,” 1987 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference statement, www.brethren.org/ac/statements/1987deathpenalty.html
(3) “Innocence,” Death Penalty Information Center, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/innocence
(4) “Race,” Death Penalty Information Center, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/race

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