Death Penalty

Why the Pope Is Right and Russell Moore Is Wrong About the Death Penalty

Mark Navarette, on California's death row. Image via REUTERS/Stephen Lam/RNS

Pope Francis continues his drumbeat for a global moratorium on the death penalty. This is a wake-up call not just for Catholics, but also for all Christian leaders and lawmakers to reflect and take action.The words of the world’s most popular faith leader in fact come at a time when religious communities are questioning the death penalty theologically and biblically. Opposition to the death penalty even among conservative Christians continues to mount, as evident in the National Association of Evangelicals’ thoughtful reconsideration of its strong support of the death penalty.

Pope Francis Calls for Death Penalty Ban During Year of Mercy

Drop of Light / Shutterstock.com

After his Sunday Angelus  prayer, Pope Francis turned his attention to capital punishment — and the overall treatment of prisoners in general — calling on all Christians to work toward abolishing the death penalty. He also asked for government leaders worldwide, and those of Catholic faith, specifically, to halt any executions during this Holy Year of Mercy. 

Still Fighting the Death Penalty, Sister Prejean Gets Pope's Blessing

Sister Helen Prejean. Image via Rosie Scammell/RNS

Two decades after her anti-death penalty work was transformed into an Oscar-winning movie, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean’s campaign continues with the backing of Pope Francis. Prejean met with the pope on Jan. 21 to deliver a thank-you letter from Richard Glossip, whose execution in the U.S. was halted in September after intervention from the pontiff.

Kansas White Supremacist Sentenced to Death for Three Murders

Frazier Glenn Cross. Image via Johnson County Sheriff's Office / RNS

A judge on Nov. 10 issued the death penalty for the white supremacist convicted of shooting to death three people at two Jewish centers in Kansas last year.

Johnson County District Court Judge Thomas Kelly Ryan sentenced Frazier Glenn Cross, 74, to die by lethal injection.

A jury in early September convicted Cross, a former senior member of the Ku Klux Klan, of the murders and recommended that he be put to death. Cross also was convicted of three counts of attempted murder for shooting at three other people.

Death Does Not Reign

nobeastsofierce / Shutterstock
nobeastsofierce / Shutterstock

POPE FRANCIS called our country to honor the sacredness of all human life. He called on Congress to embrace a consistent ethic of life—to abolish the death penalty. The state killed no one while Francis walked among us. But three days after his departure, blood flowed.

Six people in five states were scheduled to be executed in the U.S. within one week of each other in the beginning of October:

Wednesday, Sept. 30. Kelly Gissendaner, convicted for the orchestration of the 1997 murder of her husband, converted to Christianity while on death row in Georgia. Gissendaner, a respected student of theology, was put to death after three failed Supreme Court appeals.

Wednesday, Sept. 30. Richard Glossip, who is widely believed to be innocent of the 1997 murder-for-hire for which he was convicted, was scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma, but Gov. Mary Fallin issued a stay of execution. Fallin offered the stay not because she believed that Glossip was innocent, but rather because of questions over whether the state possessed the legal drug protocol to put him to death.

Thursday, Oct. 1. Alfredo Prieto was executed in Virginia for the rape and murder of a woman and her boyfriend in 1988. Prieto was believed to be a serial murderer with an IQ below 70, according to Amnesty International. Prieto had an appeal pending when the state killed him.

Friday, Oct. 2. Kimber Edwards was convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife in 2000, but another man recently confessed to having acted alone. Edwards, who has autism, originally confessed to the crime, but at his trial and ever since he has said he was innocent. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

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Change Is Afoot Among Evangelicals on Death Penalty

Image via  / Shutterstock

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.

Kelly Gissendaner Executed Despite Papal Appeal, 11th-Hour Clemency Bid

Image via REUTERS / Georgia Department of Corrections / Handout via Reuters / RNS

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Tuesday that the pope, back in Rome after a six-day visit to the United States, sent a letter through a representative, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendander has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,” Vigano wrote.

“In reaching its decision, the Board thoroughly reviewed all information and documents pertaining to the case, including the latest information presented by Gissendaner’s representatives,” a release sent from board chairman Terry Barnard said. No other explanation of the decision was given.

Religion and Government

Pope Francis is not a liberal or conservative. He transcends pedestrian labels that drive wedges in American society.

So perhaps it trivializes spirituality and religion to keep political score on the pope's visit. But it also might lend instruction and context to some of our raging debates.

So here's how I score it: In the current American political context, Pope Francis was mostly, but not exclusively, left-leaning in his address to Congress on Thursday.

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