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