Change Is Afoot Among Evangelicals on Death Penalty

By Ryan Hammill 10-19-2015
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The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents over 45,000 churches from almost 40 different denominations, published a resolution Oct. 19 that substantially revises their position on the death penalty.

The resolution casts serious doubt on the fairness of the U.S. criminal justice system, citing, among other things, the use of DNA evidence in the exonerations of 258 people in the first decade of the 21st century. While levelling a substantial critique of criminal justice in the U.S., the resolution does not call for an end to the death penalty, but instead acknowledges both sides as legitimate positions.

This is, nevertheless, a serious change from the previous NAE resolution on capital punishment, which read, in part:

We strongly reaffirm our resolution of 1972 concerning capital punishment, and we call upon congress and state legislatures to enact legislation which will direct the death penalty for such horrendous crimes as premeditated murder, the killing of a police officer or guard, murder in connection with any other crime, hijacking, skyjacking, or kidnapping where persons are physically harmed in the process.

According to the resolution that the NAE issued Oct. 19,

As evangelicals, we believe that moral revulsion or distaste for the death penalty is not a sufficient reason to oppose it. But leaders from various parts of the evangelical family have made a biblical and theological case either against the death penalty or against its continued use in a society where biblical standards of justice are difficult to reach. In Mosaic Law, standards of evidence were stringent, requiring a minimum of two eyewitnesses who were willing to stake their own lives on the truthfulness of their testimony and who would initiate the execution by “casting the first stone.” Circumstantial evidence was not permitted. The contemporary American system is unlikely to reach such standards of evidence, and given the utter seriousness of capital crimes, the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations leads to calls for radical reform.

…Despite differing views on capital punishment, evangelicals are united in calling for reform to our criminal justice system. Such reform should improve public safety, provide restitution to victims, rehabilitate and restore offenders, and eliminate racial and socio-economic inequities in law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing of defendants.

This call for reform takes the inequities of the U.S. criminal justice system much more seriously than the 1973 resolution. That resolution included in its conclusion, as a seeming afterthought, a single sentence which read:

“We urge that legislation which re-establishes the death penalty also include safeguards to eliminate any inequities.”

While the NAE did not cite Pope Francis, his clear denunciation of the death penalty before congress during his recent trip to the U.S. has contributed to increased debate on the topic, especially because of the controversial execution of Kelly Gissendaner which occurred shortly after the pope’s departure.

The NAE’s resolution, while only a half-measure, may lend increased momentum to the movement to end the death penalty, especially as the state of Nebraska considers repealing its recent ban of capital punishment.

Ryan Hammill is a former Online Assistant for Sojourners. Follow him @ryanahammill.

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