Thursday, January 12, 2012

Who would Jesus execute?

Celebrant:      Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

People:           I will, with God’s help.

- The Baptismal Covenant, BCP p. 305

The promises we make in Holy Baptism are not easy to keep.  Doing so requires a lifelong process of transformation that leaves no area of life untouched.  Questions of justice and peace are particularly vexing, for they challenge us to practice our faith as we struggle with the complex moral and spiritual dimensions of public policies. 

The Church at its best seeks to create a space for communal discernment regarding issues of justice and peace, providing moral guidance and teaching that can inform – but does not replace – individual conscience.  The inviolability of individual conscience is a foundational element of Christian moral teaching, but we also have an obligation to listen carefully to the collective wisdom of the tradition, and to each other, as we strive to be faithful to our baptismal vows.

In that spirit, I would like to address the issue of capital punishment.   Since 1958, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has been on record in opposition to capital punishment.  This stance has been confirmed by subsequent General Conventions, including a 1991 resolution urging “the provinces, dioceses, parishes, missions, and individual members of this Church to engage in serious study on the subject of capital punishment and work actively to abolish the death penalty in their states.”

Some states have adopted moratoria on capital punishment due to inequities in the administration of justice, including racial discrimination in sentencing, and the attendant risk of killing innocent people.  More than 100 innocent people have been sentenced to death in this country and some actually have been executed.  In 2008, our Diocesan Annual Convention adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions in California, as a necessary step in the eventual abolition of the practice.  It urged “clergy and laity to commit themselves to inform and educate congregations so as to strengthen efforts to abolish the death penalty.”

There are a number of pragmatic arguments against the death penalty.  It doesn’t deter violent crimes, which are often crimes of passion.  It is more expensive to administer than life imprisonment, due to the necessary procedural hurdles of the appeals process.  It doesn’t bring closure to victims’ families, who must endure an appeals process that is often a 20 – 25 year ordeal. 

The theological reason, however, for the Church’s opposition to the death penalty lies elsewhere: in the inalienable dignity of every human being.  That dignity entails, at the very least, the preservation of life: if for no other reason than to hold open the possibility for repentance, amendment of life, and reconciliation with those harmed.  Only a live criminal can make restitution for his or her crime.  Dead criminals may satisfy a desire for revenge, but they can’t provide for reconciliation, healing, or justice.

The taking of a human life, for whatever reason, is an affront to God.  The Christian community affirms that all persons are made in the image of God, thus making all people holy.  The death penalty is an assault on God's purposes in creation. - Bishop Edmond L. Browning

In keeping with the Church’s teaching, the Episcopal Diocese of California has endorsed the SAFE CALIFORNIA ACT, a proposed ballot measure initiative to repeal the death penalty in California and replace it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  It also requires those convicted of murder to work while in prison, with their wages applied to any victim restitution fines or orders against them.  Savings to the state will be allocated to a $100 million fund that will be distributed to local law enforcement agencies over a three-year period.

While separation of Church and state precludes endorsement of political parties or candidates for elective office, advocacy for or against particular laws, ballot initiatives, or policies is allowable.  Such advocacy is one of the ways that we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. 

I invite you to join me, and the Episcopal Diocese of California, in actively supporting the SAFE CALIFORNIA ACT.

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