“Social statements of our church do not intend to end such diversity by ‘binding’ members to a particular position. Social statements acknowledge diversity and address members in their Christian freedom.”
In 1991, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly approved a social statement on The Death Penalty, amidst significant discussion. In 1972 the US Supreme Court put a moratorium on capital punishment, saying that the state laws regarding the death penalty were inconsistent and potentially discriminatory. Over the years a number of states re-instated the death penalty with laws that were consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling. In 1991, 36 states had the death penalty. In 2016, 31 states have the death penalty in some form or other. Both Montana andWyoming have the death penalty.
While acknowledging that other opinions exist among our people, the statement strongly opposes the death penalty. The statement lists 3 broad reasons that the church opposed the death penalty.
1 “ It is because of this church’s ministry with and to people affected by violent crime that we oppose the death penalty.” In this section of the statement, it is pointed out that executions focus on the convicted felon, not on the families of victims or anyone else touched by the crime. “Capital punishment focuses on retribution, sometimes reflecting a spirit of vengeance. Executions do not restore broken society and can actually work to counter restoration.” The statement goes on to suggest that the death penalty by its very nature perpetuates cycles of violence.
2 “It is because of this church’s commitment to justice that we oppose the death penalty.” Using language from a predecessor church body’s statement, the statement calls for “an assault of the root causes of violent crime,” (There is some internal inconsistency here, using violent language to oppose violence.) The statement notes that many nations across the globe have abolished capital punishment, and that we would do well to join them. The statement points out that innocent people have been executed and that the death penalty, once implemented, is irreversible. It also states that race, gender, mental capacity, age and affluence of the accused have a significant role in whether the death penalty is imposed.
3 “It is because of this church’s concern regarding the actual use of the death penalty that we oppose its imposition.” The statement says: “ The practice of the death penalty undermines any possible moral message we might want to ‘send.’ It is not fair and fails to make society better or safer. The message conveyed by an execution, reflected in the attention it receives from the public, is one of brutality and violence.”
The statement ends with some commitments of the ELCA: “As a community gathered in faith, as a community dispersed in daily life, as a community of moral deliberation, and as a church body organized for mission, this church directs its attention to violent crime and the people whose lives have been touched by it.” The statement goes on to elaborate each part of that sentence, suggesting action for individuals, congregations and the wider church.
Since this statement was adopted in 1991, the church adopted another social statement on Criminal Justice. You can find all of the social statements at www.elca.org/socialstatements.
In recent years both the Wyoming Association of Churches and the Montana Association of Christians have worked for abolition of the death penalty in our respective states.
If you are interested in having further conversation about this statement on the death penalty, perhaps in preparation for an adult forum, youth conversation or council study, the following colleagues have offered to make themselves available for consultation:
Pastor Peter Erickson, Pastor of Our Savior’s, Columbia Falls and former MAC President
Pastor Julie Long, Pastor of Our Savior’s, Broadus and former Crime Lab employee
Pastor Rob Nedbalek, Pastor of Freedom in Christ at the Montana State Prison
Bishop Jessica Crist
“How long, O Lord, how long?”
Many in our congregations and communities are shocked and saddened by the events of last week. How could this happen? How could this happen again? When will it stop? What can we do? How do we answer the question of “Who is my neighbor?” in light of these events.
Once again, in 2 separate incidents, black men have been shot and killed by police officers. The toxic combination of racism and violence has become all too familiar. The later shooting of numerous police officers at the end of a peaceful rally only raises the tension and despair.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has gone on record opposing racism, and opposing violence, including in the criminal justice system. Yet our reality does not measure up to our ideals. As a denomination, the ELCA ranks at the bottom of almost all church bodies in terms of racial diversity. The explanations are many and various—northern European origins, rural settlements. But the fact remains that plenty of other denominations with similar histories have managed to become far more diverse. We have a problem, and part of the problem is our own racism. We might as well own it.
The United States (and the colonies beforehand) have had a long story of racism, beginning with the Doctrine of Discovery, which declared that non-Christian indigenous peoples were savages with no rights, and that European Christians have a moral obligation to take their land and subdue them. Soon thereafter the first Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves. This country that we love and respect was built on the dehumanizations of the original inhabitants of the land, and the involuntary servitude of millions of others.
Racism isn’t simply an attitude of prejudice towards a person of another race. It is prejudice combined with power. Racism, because it is systemic, affects everyone. It affects the people who are in positions of power, and it affects the people who are in positions of powerlessness. It is bigger than all of us. So when there is an all-too-frequent tragic death that involves racism and violence, we are tempted to comb through details, looking for reasons—someone to blame, extenuating circumstances. But the fact remains that there is pattern to these incidents—a pattern of racism and violence. It is a pattern that we can and must break.
As Americans we like to think of ourselves as leaders, with a lot to teach the rest of the world. And we do have things to teach the rest of the world. But we also have things to learn from the rest of the world. It is time to get over our arrogance in thinking we have all the answers. We could learn from South Africa about race relations. We could learn from Canada about justice for indigenous peoples. We could learn from Australia about gun violence.
As Lutheran Christians in the United States, ELCA Lutherans with the least diversity of any US denomination except the National Baptists, we must begin our response to racially motivated violence with deep repentance for our own participation in the history of violence, racism and injustice. We must be involved in healing, but only after confession.
We can demand justice, and we can demand change. But only if we are prepared to engage in it ourselves. Racism and violence are systemic—and we are part of the system that perpetuates itself through racism and violence. We do not have the choice to distance ourselves from the very system in which we all live and work and exercise our Christian callings.
We pray for those who have suffered losses, and who continue to suffer losses. We pray for a change of heart for those who have committed violence and injustice. We pray for healing. And we commit ourselves to change.
One of our Synod Benchmarks is “Promote Unity.” Surely this is a time when it is appropriate. Surely this is a time when we must answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” by engaging with our neighbors, with those who may think differently from us, from those whom we might characterize as “other.” Jesus answered the lawyer’s question by expanding the idea of neighbor. We can and we must do likewise in our increasingly globalized and interconnected world.
May God have mercy.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Social Statements are a significant part of the ELCA’s identity and public witness. They represent the church’s best thinking on an issue at the time. Composed by a task force comprised of lay and clergy experts and interested parties from a variety of backgrounds, the social statement is finally approved by a vote at a Churchwide Assembly. In 1991, the Churchwide Assembly adopted the Social Statement on Abortion. Because the church was still relatively new in 1991, the statement relies on earlier statements from the predecessor churches, namely the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church.
The adoption of the ELCA Social Statement on Abortion did not settle the matter in either church or society. The battle still rages. Indeed, despite the passage of our social statement, an ELCA physician who provided legal abortions, was murdered while ushering in his own church in Kansas. Since 1991, medical science has continued to advance, with diagnostics, with contraceptive options, and with life support for pre-term infants. And the political scene has certainly been active as well. Since Roe v. Wade in 1970, state legislatures and political campaigns have been filled with issues of parental consent, universal health care, clinic requirements, spousal/partner consent, foreign aid and contraceptive restrictions, and waiting periods. The recent Supreme Court decision is a reminder that the issues are still alive.
Our 1991 statement takes a middle ground. It neither advocates for the elimination of all abortions, nor advocates for the elimination of all restrictions. Rather, it affirms the sanctity of life, acknowledges human brokenness and the need for difficult choices, encourages societal care for pregnant women and their children, and warns about unequal access to care.
Lutherans clearly support an ethic of life. But it is nuanced. On the one hand: “The strong Christian presumption is to preserve and protect life.” This ethic is re-enforced in the social statement on the death penalty. The Abortion statement continues: “Abortion ought to be an option only of last resort. Therefore as a church we seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies.” Our position does not privilege the potential life of the fetus above all other lives.
The statement spends several paragraphs discussing how the church might support women and girls with unwelcome pregnancies. Adoption ranks high as a 1991 option. The statement advocates for hospitality, including the welcoming of women and children, foster care and adoption. It also affirms marriage and shared parenthood. And it suggests that congregations should be involved in sex education. Several topics in this section, “III. THE CHURCH AS COMMUNITY SUPPORTIVE OF LIFE,” are addressed more thoroughly in subsequent ELCA social statements (“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” and “Genetics”) and social messages (“Gender-Based Violence”)
In the section, “IV. GUIDANCE IN MAKING DECISIONS REGARDING UNINTENDED PREGNANCIES,” the statement calls for compassion and for respectful and competent counseling. Concerning the decision for abortion the statement declares: “ We recognize that conscientious decisions need to be made in relation to difficult circumstances that very greatly. What is determined to be a morally responsible decision in one situation may not be in another.” It goes on: “Our biblical and confessional commitments provide the basis for us to continue. deliberating together on moral issues related to these decisions.”
In the section, “PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES RELATED TO ABORTION,” the statement offers:
“Because of our conviction that both the life of the woman and the life in her womb must be respected by law, this church opposes:
-the total lack of regulation of abortion
-legislation that would outlaw abortion in all circumstances
-laws that prevent access to information about all options available to women faced with unintended pregnancies
-laws that deny access to safe and affordable services for morally justifiable abortions
-mandatory or coerced abortion or sterilization
-laws that prevent couples from practicing contraception
-laws that are primarily intended to harass those contemplating or deciding for an abortion
Church and society continue to debate abortion. The 1991 ELCA Social Statement was not intended to stop debate. It was intended to help Lutherans navigate the debate, by providing background theological resources as well as contemporary discussion. And it was intended as a guide for our participation in public policy. An addendum reminds us:
“Social teaching statements provide an analysis and interpretation of an issue, set forth basic theological and ethical perspectives related to it, and offer guidance for the corporate ELCA and its individual members. They also illustrate the implications of their teaching for the social practice of this church. In their use as teaching documents, their authority is persuasive not coercive.”
To see the Social Statement, go to www.elca.org/socialstatements.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA