Death-Penalty Issue Stirs Divergent Religious Views

McVeigh case inspires debate on moral aspects of society's ultimate sanction

When Lutheran Bishop William Lazareth preaches on the death penalty, he avoids moralizing about compassion. The deeper issue, he feels, is the effect executions have on society. "They cheapen our sense of life, our sense of what is sacred," says Bishop Lazareth of Princeton, N.J.

Assembly of God minister Dennis Pigman, for six years a chaplin on death row in Arkansas, holds a different view. He believes the death penalty is justified in "extreme" cases, but too often is carried out for political reasons.

The two men symbolize some of the divergent and complex views that permeate the religious community as capital punishment reemerges as a major issue in the United States.

Ever since the days of Cain and Abel, religious ethics and morals have played a role in the debate over punishing criminals. Now, as pro-death-penalty sentiment sweeps the country, bringing record numbers of executions in states like Texas, church leaders are again urging Americans to examine the issue in all its dimensions.

The debate over the death penalty has resurfaced in two explosive public trials coming to an end this week - that of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Jesse Timmendequas, whose killing of a 7-year-old in New Jersey brought "Megan's Laws" to states around the country, requiring sex offenders to notify the town they move to.

Roman Catholic bishops were the first to weigh in. Earlier this week they urged that Mr. McVeigh's life be spared. "The question turns on what does capital punishment do to us as a society rather than what does it do to the perpetrator of the crime," said Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, speaking for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For about 30 years the Catholic church in America has steadily opposed any form of capital punishment.

Protestant clergy and Jewish rabbis take a less consistent position against the death penalty - though an estimated 80 percent oppose it as a general or routine punishment.

Some Protestants, for example, use scriptural references like Romans 13, where the Apostle Paul mentions "the sword" of the state, to justify the state's right to execute prisoners. But most ministers and clergy in mainstream denominations, such as Lutherans and Presbyterians, feel the death penalty is not a wise policy.

Many individuals, however, don't agree with the stand of their church leaders: Polls consistently show a majority of Americans favor capital punishment.

FUNDAMENTALIST Christians and orthodox Jews tend to be more consistent supporters of the death penalty. David Brown, for example, a Baptist minister in Oak Creek, Wis., argues that the statement in Genesis that whoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed is a scriptural basis for the death penalty. "Murder is an outrage to Almighty God .... biblically, that person must shed his or her life."

In the late 1960s, the American religious community, along with secular liberal activists, were part of the move to largely end the death penalty in the US. Two landmark US Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s, along with a growing public concern over violent crime, however, restored the death penalty and led to an increase in executions since the 1980s. Today, 3,200 inmates sit on death row in the 38 states that allow capital punishment. This month, Texas will execute an average of two prisoners a week - a 20th-century record.

Today, religious thinkers in many churches find themselves criticizing liberal sentiments of the 1960s that proved either too shallow or too naive about the problem of human nature and crime, and how to punish those who commit, for example, mass murders and "crimes against humanity." Yet they are troubled by the use of the death penalty as a "quick fix" solution.

"We are trying to find our way past simplistic moralizing love on the one hand and knee-jerk revenge on the other," says Lazareth, who drafted the Evangelical Lutheran church position in 1991. "We can't and don't expect Caesar to be loving. But we do expect him to be just."

Conventional religious opposition to the death penalty includes points familiar to secular opponents. They include the risk of executing an innocent person; the disproportionate rate of execution of poor and minority inmates; the possibility of rehabilitating human beings; and the cost of execution (an average $1.8 million in legal fees versus $602,000 for incarceration).

Yet the deeper point, held by many of faith, is that over time execution slowly corrodes a civilization's higher standards. "It's the assumption that we bring, that these people are not people, that is so dangerous," says a Protestant theologian. "In a sense, this isn't about McVeigh. It's about us, though I know that's not so easy to grasp."

"What gets little talked about is what happens when hatred and revenge become internalized as a standard," says John Reumann of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. "An awareness of this is part of a deeper reading of the Sermon on the Mount."

This does not mean, says Neil Platinga of Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., that the death penalty in some cases can't be a statement that society makes, showing it "has a sturdy and determined position against those who harm the innocent. But I'm not sure it is a wise answer, as a policy."

Nearly every religious tradition has gone through a steadily more humane approach to punishment over the centuries. A famous Israeli law review article by Haim Cohn, a high court judge in Tel Aviv, points out that both the Jewish Torah and Talmudic scholars steadily move away over time from the severity of "an eye for an eye" in the Hebrew scripture and from early forms of punishment like mass stonings. Churches supported civil reforms against beatings, lashings, and torture.

Even the earliest Jewish eye-for-an-eye dictum was an improvement on the pagan cultures of the early Middle East, where punishment and retribution might be "10 eyes for an eye," as one scholar puts it.

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