The Death Penalty

1987 Church of the Brethren Statement



The Church of the Brethren has consistently opposed the death penalty in its Annual Conference statements of 1957, 1959, and 1975. However, the Church of the Brethren has not devoted an entire study paper to the death penalty and the issues surrounding it.

WHEREAS, the church should be about the task of educating the people concerning biblical teaching…

WHEREAS, there is a variation in biblical and theological understanding in relationship to the death penalty…

WHEREAS, the issues surrounding the death penalty, i.e., deterrence, justice, racism, economics, morality, retribution, revenge, etc., are complex and should be addressed by the church …

WHEREAS, the death penalty, once administered, allows no further options, we want to know that adequate pre-sentencing safeguards are in place to prevent the conviction of the innocent…

WHEREAS, we see viable alternatives to the death penalty to assure justice and reconciliation…

WHEREAS, we have not understood the extent of the death penalties’ full impact upon the victim’s family…

The Topeka, Kansas Church of the Brethren, Western Plains district on April 21, 1985, through its district conference, hereby petitions Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren meeting in Norfolk, Virginia in 1986, the following:

That Annual Conference name a committee to study the death penalty and issues surrounding it; to bring a recommendation of support or non-support of our present policy; and to prepare a document which congregations or individuals may use for further study and/or as a guideline for action on the death penalty in their community.

J. Rhudy Whitney, Moderator
Robert D. Remington, Clerk

Action of the 1985 Western Plains District Conference meeting August 9-11, 1985 at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO: Passed to the 1986 Annual Conference meeting at Norfolk, Virginia, June 24-29, 1986.

Alton McDaniel, Moderator
Barbara Flory, Writing Clerk

Action of 1986 Annual Conference: Romy Mueller, the Standing Committee member from the Pacific Southwest Conference, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee. The recommendation to adopt the query, STATEMENT ON THE DEATH PENALTY, and for the study committee to have three members was adopted by the 1986 Annual Conference delegate body.

The three members elected by the 1986 Conference delegates to serve on the study committee were Eva O’Diam, Nathan L. Heffley, and Donald E. Roberts.



Annual conference declared the Church of the Brethren’s opposition to the death penalty in 1957, 1959, and 1975. In July, 1979, a General Board resolution reaffirmed those Annual Conference statements. These actions have delineated an understanding of God’s will for us which upholds the sanctity of human life and personality, opposes the use of capital punishment and encourages Brethren to work for the abolition of the death penalty.

This position statement affirms that understanding, and undergirds it by examining biblical and theological bases as well as practical and social issues involved.


In 1972, the Supreme Court declared in Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238) that under then-existing laws “the imposition and the carrying out of the death penalty…constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments. Within four years after the Furman decision, over 600 persons were convicted and sentenced to death under the new capital punishment statutes enacted by state legislatures and designed so as to meet the court’s objections. More than three times that number now wait on death row in thirty-two states.

Following a ten-year moratorium on executions imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the first “modern era” execution in the United States took place in 1977. In the years 1977-1981, six persons were executed. States executed five people in 1983, twenty-one in 1984, eighteen in 1985; and eighteen in 1986.

Currently, public opinion is strongly in favor of capital punishment, although this support seems in many cases to be based on misconceptions regarding the nature and real impact of the death penalty.

In light of the above factors, the Church of the Brethren senses a compelling need to state clearly its position regarding capital punishment to educate its members regarding both the perspectives of the Christian faith and the realities of the present situation, and to offer guidance for responsible action at all levels of the church.

Biblical and Theological Considerations

Certainly, the biblical record contains both acceptance and rejection of the use of the death penalty. Passages often cited in support of the death penalty include the following:

The law given to Noah – “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man (and woman) in his own image” (Gen. 9:6).

The Mosaic law, which prescribed death as punishment for murder (Ex. 21:12-14, Lev. 24:17) as well as many other offenses, including breaking the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2), sacrifice to a strange god (Ex. 22:20), blasphemy (Lev. 24:16), adultery (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:23-24), witchcraft (Ex. 22:18; Lev. 20:27), striking a parent (Ex. 21:15), and being a rebellious and stubborn son (Deut. 21:1812I).

Paul’s letter to the Romans – “For he (the emperor) is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).

Opposition to the use of death as punishment is based on scriptures such as these:

The story of the first murder-When Cain killed Abel, God responded by punishing him. Cain replied, “Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him” (Gen. 4:14-15).

The Sermon on the Mount – “You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also” (Matt 5:38-39).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons (and daughters) of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:43-45).

Jesus’ intervention in the execution of a woman convicted of adultery, a capital offense – “and as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” and once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again” (John 8:7-11).

How can this variety of scriptures, used by both opponents and proponents of the death penalty, be brought together in one perspective for the church? Can we discover a whole understanding which enhances the witness of the Old Testament and build on the strength of Christ’s teaching? We believe that the biblical witness most clearly emerges as we consider the theme of vengeance, the wholeness intended by God through shalom, and the power of redemption.

Clearly, instances of vengeance can be witnessed throughout the Old Testament. We must be clear, however, about what we mean by “vengeance.” The Hebrew root naqam, has often been translated “vengeance,” which some define as revenge, or a “paying back” of wrong. They point to instances in Old Testament history when God saved the faithful servant by destroying or punishing the opposition.1 But is the goal of vengeance the destruction of the opposition or the rescuing of the faithful which sometimes requires the destruction of punishment of the opposition? Certainly, it is clear in Psalm 18:46-48 that vengeance is defined as deliverance and the focus is on rescuing the people. The same can be seen in the story of Cain (Gen. 4:15). God determines that Cain, having murdered Abel, shall forever be a fugitive but shall never be slain. If he is, God will deliver Cain by punishing the one who slayed him. “Vengeance” then meant God’s restoration of wholeness and integrity to the community, a restoration accomplished at times through human action. It was not vindictive, but rather sought to repay or provide restitution for the one violated.

Crime was seen as an act against a person, not the state. The Hebrew word for restitution or repayment is shalam: it has the same root as shalom which describes a community characterized by wholeness, justice, right relationships, and peace. Cries to God for “vengeance,” therefore, are cries for a justice based on redemption, restoration, health, and healing. In Isaiah 61:1-4, the “day of vengeance” (i.e. justice) is a day of relief and salvation.

An “eye for an eye,” moreover, is not a demand for retaliation but a limit so that no more than an eye would be taken. Similarly, strict restrictions were placed on death sentencing, so that at least two eye-witnesses to the crime had to be present (Deut. 17:6-7). For the death penalty was not a punishment. Rather, it was a means of restoring relationship balance within the community, a last attempt to bring redemption, and was used very little in ancient Israel. In fact, the death penalty was virtually abandoned by the Rabbis. The value of life was highly regarded. Rabbis made testimony in capital cases so difficult that rarely could one be convicted and sentenced to die. The Mishnah states, “A San Hedrin (Jewish court) that passes one death penalty in seven years is called a violent court. To which one Rabbi added, ‘This would be true of a court that passed the death penalty once in seventy years.'” (Mishnah Makkot, 7a)

Both the Old and New Testaments witness that God provides avenues for redemption. In the Old Testament, this provision comes in part through the judicial system, as well as through signs of grace such as the cities of refuge (Deut. 19). The New Testament witnesses to God’s ultimate redemption. The Creator God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, takes upon himself the world’s sins and is executed, thereby freeing us of the burden of the law.

The Church of the Brethren is a New Testament church, interpreting the Old Testament in light of the New. We affirm the foundations of our faith in Israel’s history but see them through the renewing mind of Christ, who provides our pattern for living. The example of John 8:7-11 reflects this emphasis on personal accountability and forgiveness. Although the people may legally stone the adulterer, Jesus demands that only one who is free of sin may cast the first stone. We believe that there is only One without sin and that the giving and taking of life belongs to God (Gen. 9:5). Instead of passing judgement, Christ offers justice in the form of renewing, life-giving redemption.

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.

Does the Death Penalty Really Protect Society From Violence?

Many murders are irrational and passionate acts performed without considering the possible consequences. Well over half of all murders are committed by persons acquainted with their victims. Nearly a quarter of these involve family members, one-half of whom are spouses.2 Heavy drug usage, drunkenness, or psychological neuroses caused by physical and/or mental abuse can also lead a person to commit murder. The threat of the death penalty can obviously have no effect on these unpremeditated, spontaneous acts committed while the persons committing the deeds are in a state or extreme distress.

Many other murders are committed by people who calculate that they will not be caught much less convicted, sentenced to death, or executed. The death penalty does not deter these planned acts of violence. Indeed, there are those who hold that life is not so sacred that it may not be erased to achieve some desirable end. It is ironic that this attitude should so closely mirror the beliefs of those who favor capital punishment.

In light of the above, it is not surprising to find that the use of death as punishment has had no positive impact upon murder rates. Numerous studies conclude that the death penalty is no more a deterrent than a life sentence. Much research suggests that capital punishment may even contribute to an atmosphere that fosters more violence.

After the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah (who requested no appeals), there was a double murder in a convenience store in that state. This pattern of violence following an execution is not uncommon. In a study by Bowers and Pierce of all executions in New York state between 1907 and 1963, there were an average of two additional homicides the month alter every execution. In the abstract to the study, the authors state “the message of executions is one of ‘lethal vengeance’ more than deterrence.” Further, they say that such a “brutalizing” effect is consistent with research on violent events such as publicized suicides, mass murders, and assassinations.3 Indeed, some psychopaths may seek this unmerited public attention.

The death penalty only continues the spiral of violence. Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38-39). Do we not believe this to be true? 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.

Is the Death Penalty Applied Fairly?

During the writing of this paper, the Supreme Court heard a major challenge to the death penalty. Warren McCleskey, a black man, was convicted off killing a white Atlanta police officer during the course of a burglary. McCleskey’s appeal is the first to have been heard on the constitutional claim that the state of Georgia is imposing a disproportionate number of death sentences on blacks and those accused of killing whites. Statistics of the death sentencing rates (1973-1979) support McCleskey’s claim. Those accused of killing whites in Georgia are nearly eleven times more likely to receive the death penalty than those convicted of killing blacks. Blacks convicted of killing whites are three times more likely to receive the death sentence than whites who kill whites.4 Similar studies in other states (cf. Gross and Mauro, Stanford University) corroborate this finding. The conclusion is clear: race plays a profound role in the judicial systems which decide between life and death.

Matthew 25:40 reminds us, that as we do it to “one of the least of these,” we do it to Christ. To applaud or even stand silent in the midst of any discrimination is to discriminate against Christ. To execute any person, regardless of the race of the victim, is to execute Christ himself. The Good Samaritan story reminds us that the “least of these” include the down trodden, the poor, those we hate, those who are discriminated against. Jesus calls us to pray for them and also to speak out prophetically against the evils of discrimination.

What are the Economic Costs of Capital Punishment?

When life and death are at stake, the legal costs of trials and appeals are especially exorbitant. A study in New York State on the price of the death penalty found that–excluding correctional and other costs not directly related to the litigation–the price tag for one execution would be over $1.8 million, $800,000 to the state and over $1 million to the county. The study further predicted that the practice of capital punishment would cost New York state over $1 billion annually by the year 2000. The study concludes: “conventional wisdom suggests that it is less expensive to execute a person than to imprison a person for life. Conventional wisdom is wrong.”5

Justicee Thurgood Marshall stated in the Furman v. Georgia decision, “A disproportionate amount of money spent on prisons is attributable to death row. Condemned men are not productive members of the prison community, although they could be, and executions are expensive. Appeals are often automatic, and courts admittedly spend more time with death cases… When all is said and done, there can be no doubt that it costs more to execute a man than to keep him in prison for life.”

Yet for all the argument over these horrendous costs, they are only arguments over dollars and cents. We maybe paying an even higher price by legalizing the death penalty. A cost not in terms of dollars and cents, but in terms of our spirits. Are we not trading our reverence for life for the right to kill? Even if the death penalty was less of an economic cost would it not still be wrong to kill?

Do We Execute Innocent People?

A major problem with the death penalty is that courts are bound to apply it to innocent people no matter what the “safeguards.” A study of the period 1900 to 1985, by professors Hugo Adam Bedau of Tufts University and Michael L. Radelet of the University of Florida, identified 343 instances in which convicted defendants were later proven innocent. As a result of these miscarriages of justice, 25 innocent people were executed, seven died in prison, and others came within hours, even minutes of their execution. Many spent up to 25 years in prison.6 So long as the death penalty continues, it is inevitable that innocent people will continue to be executed.

Even if all these “practical” objections–lack of deterrence, wanton discrimination, exorbitant costs, and “innocent” executions, to name only a few–were to be corrected by some perfect legislation or judiciary, we as Christians must still decry the taking of life as wrong. We believe that all life belongs to God.

The Death Penalty, Violence, and Justice

Our Christian sense of justice compels us to abolish the death penalty. While we share society’s concern regarding violent crime, we support other methods far more effective and humane than the death penalty. We must redouble our efforts at effective crime prevention and, for victims of crime, creative means of reparation and healing.

Preventing crimes requires addressing the root causes of criminal behavior. We as Christians must do everything we can to eliminate the systemic violence which helps create and oppress a growing class of people who are poor, under-educated, or otherwise “disadvantaged.” We must place even greater emphasis on preventing abuse in relationships and caring for those who have been abused. We must commit ourselves to giving quality psychiatric care to those in need of it.

Perhaps the most obvious area of need in preventing violent crime is handgun control–the number of people killed every year in the U.S. because of the wide availability of handguns is truly astounding. No other measure could have such a dramatic effect on murder rates throughout this country as strict handgun laws.

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.

Visions of the Kingdom, of course, must not lose sight of the world at hand. One of the great tragedies of the death penalty is its focus on the criminal, and its callous indifference toward the victim’s family. In cases of homicide, the death penalty does nothing to replace the loss. The legal killing of life does not restore the life of the victim, nor does it heal the open and angry wounds of the victim’s family and friends. The victim’s family needs to express grief, loss, and forgiveness, then get on with the difficulties, and hopefully, the joys of living.

The prolonged court struggle hinders their healing process, and continues to fuel the hurt, the rage, and the frustration felt by all concerned. The death penalty, rather than accomplishing justice, continues to perpetuate more injustice.

Revenge can be an overpowering natural emotion. Yet, revenge is not acceptable in our Judeo-Christian tradition. Although the death penalty is legal in 37 states, and quite popular in most of the country, we stand in firm opposition to it.

We understand that we are called to live in the world, but not of he world. We should not be pressured into conforming to the world’s ways. Our minds and hearts must be continuously renewed by Christ. Our response to violence must be healing mercy and self-giving love.


Jesus Christ came with a message of redemption and compassion for life, while the death penalty carries a message of condemnation and death.

From Cain, who was marked as being under God’s protection; to Moses, whom God called to lead the Israelites out of bondage; to King David, whose heart was renewed, and whose life cast the vision of the future messiah; to Paul, who carried the great mysteries or the gospel to the Gentiles, the message is always that of hope and light even in the most desperate among us. Each of these–Cain, Moses, David, and Paul–committed murder, and through each, God’s kingdom was advanced. It 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.

Guidelines for Action

But what can Christians do: When Jesus came upon a group of average citizens, intent upon stoning an adulterer to death, he provided a very clear example through a very simple suggestion: let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. Thus he reminds them, and us, that sin cannot be destroyed through sinning, but only through love.

How might we Christians, enmeshed in the ways of 20th century United States, intervene against capital punishment and on behalf of non-violence and love? We suggest the following beginnings:

  1. The Church of the Brethren should engage in serious study of capital punishment and the faith issues which relate to it. This educational process should include, but not be limited to, interpretation of this document through a study guide or packet similar to the one developed for use with the 1975 statement on Criminal Justice Reform. This study should begin as soon as possible and continue through 1988. While the primary focus of educational activity should be at the congregational level, all segments of the church should be involved.
  2. Additional activities which might take place as part of this study would include a) creating worship opportunities which address the death penalty, the sanctity of human life, creation shalom, the unity of life, and other related themes; b) learning to know at least one prisoner as a person through either a chaplain at a local prison, the Death Row Support Project, or the Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS) organization (information on Death Row Support Project PVS may be obtained through the Washington Office); c) inviting a speaker on the issue is an excellent way to begin group involvement
  3. Take part in local and/or statewide activities in opposition to the death penalty. For suggestions on how and where to begin, contact Brethren Criminal Justice, P.O. Box 600, Liberty Mills, IN 46946, 219-982-7480.
  4. We encourage Brethren to support efforts that would show greater concern for the victims of crime and better address their needs. This includes efforts to meet the financial, emotional, and spiritual needs of these victims and/or their families. Programs such as Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) make room for restitution and compensation while providing opportunities for redemption and healing. (Information on VORP can be obtained through the MCC Office of Criminal Justice, 220 West High Street, Elkhart, IN 46516.)


  1. The two closely related statements. Criminal Justice Reform (1975) and Christian Lifestyle (1980) may be used in combination with this paper for study.
  2. An excellent resource for a study is the “Capital Punishment Study Resource,” published by United Presbyterian Church, USA, 475 Riverside Drive, 1244, New York, NY 120115, $3.00. (An annotated bibliography is included.)
  3. A very helpful introduction is Death As a Penalty by Howard Zehr, MCC US Office of Criminal Justice, 220 West High St., Elkhart, IN 46516, $.50. (This study contains an excellent bibliography.)
  4. LIFELINES, the newsletter of the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty (NCADP), 1419 Vee St., SW, Washington, DC 20009. This bi-monthly publication brings news of local, state, and national efforts to end the death penalty, legislative updates, announcements of upcoming events, insightful analysis, and much more. Sent free to supporters of the NCAD (suggested dues are $25 per year).
  5. “The Case Against the Death Penalty,” by Hugo Adam Bedau, is a thorough, cogent and well-documented examination of the reasons for abolition of the death penalty, with historical background. Order from Capital Punishment Project, ACLU, 132 W. 43rd St., New York NY 10036 (27 pages, single copies free).

Donald E. Roberts, Chair
Eva O’Diam, Secretary
Nathan L. Heffley


  1. Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplemental Volume, “Vengeance,” Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1976.
  2. “Handgun Facts;” Handgun Control, Inc., 1400K Street, NW, Suite 500, Washington. DC 20005.
  3. “What Is the Effect of Execution: Deterence or Brutalization.” William J. Bowers and Glenn L. Pierce, Center for Applied Social Research, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115.
  4. “Race and the Death Penalty,” NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., 99 Hudson St., New York, NY 10013.
  5. “Capital Losses: The Price of the Death Penalty for New York State: A Report From the Public Defense Backup Center to the Senate Finance Committee, the Assembly Ways and Means Committee and the Division of the Budget,” April 1,1982.
  6. “Miscarriages of Justice in potentially Capital Cases,” Hugo Adam Bedau and Michael L. Radelet, ACLU News, 132 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10036, November 13, 1985.

NOTE: All scriptures noted are from Revised Standard Version of the Bible

Committee’s expenses related to travel, lodging, and meals from 1986 to
March, 1987 total……………………………………………………………………..$2,055
Estimated additional expenses……………………………………………………..$500