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Leaders of the Episcopal Church push to abolish the death penalty across the U. S.

Leaders of the Episcopal Church push to abolish the death penalty across the U. S.

In 1958, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution opposing the death penalty for the first time and since then the resolution was reaffirmed at multiple conventions.  Alexander Baumgarten, Episcopal Church director of government relations, stated, "I think the fact that we've seen a recent pattern of bishops and other leaders in the church in the dioceses of the United States raising the profile of our advocacy is a reflection of the climate in which public opinion in the United States seems to be moving against the death penalty for the first time in a number of years."

In April of this, Connecticut became the fifth state in the nation, within the last five years, to abolish the death penalty, making it the 17th state to abolish the death penalty, replacing it with life in prison without release.  Episcopal News Service (ENS) stated that the presents of Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut Bishop Suffragan James Curry's during the ceremonial signing of the bill "testified to the influence of Episcopal leaders on ending capital punishment in the state".  However, the bill is not retroactive and eleven prisoners remain on death row.

Curry and other members of the diocese worked with the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty since 2005 to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut after the execution of serial killer Michael Ross.

Abolishing the death penalty became "a very, very contentious issue" in Connecticut after two recently released prisoners invaded a home and "brutally murdered" two girls and their mother in 2007, [Curry] said.

"In the midst of that, it was very hard to have a conversation in this state about not demanding the death penalty for such horrific crimes," Curry said. "It was also a time in the church where we started to shift the conversation from that this is punishment to [that] the death penalty is really about the kind of statement we want to make about what we want our society to be."

ENS stated, "3,189 people remain on death row in the United States, including some in Connecticut and New Mexico".  Accordingly, New Mexico did not make the repeal retroactive, so some remain on death row.

A 2011 Gallup Poll showed that one in three Americans now oppose the death penalty, Baumgarten attributes to the "inherent flaws in the application of the death penalty".

Repeated studies, for example, have documented that capital punishment does not deter crime, he said. The death penalty also carries inherent racial and socio-economic biases and the chance of killing innocent people, he said.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center:

  • Studies indicate the chance of being sentenced to death is much higher when murder victims are white, and a 1998 study reported a pattern of race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination or both in 96 percent of states where race and the death penalty had been reviewed.
  • More than 130 people have been released from death row since 1973 with evidence of their innocence, with an average of five people exonerated annually from 2000 to 2011.

"As people start to understand the complexities of how the penalty is applied in practice," Baumgarten said, "I think we start to see people who on its face might not be opposed to the death penalty now start to say: As a matter of applied justice in this country, this doesn't really work."

Baumgarten also noted, "While the Episcopal Church has an official stance against the death penalty, this primarily is a state issue, and church abolition efforts have originated mostly at the local level."

"It's not something that I think has been driven by central structures of the Episcopal Church or central governing entities of the Episcopal Church," he said. "Bishops and congregations and leaders in the dioceses have looked at the church's historic stance on this and applied it to the …  context that's evolving around them."

The 2012, ended the death penalty for future convictions, but not for those currently on death row, prior to the signing of the bill, including for two men in high profiled 2007 murder cases, ENS reported.

"It's a flaw in the bill," Curry said. "I think that's going to be a legal battle."

While the efforts to pass the abolition of the death penalty were made, prior to the signing of the bill, the Connecticut network assisted in organizing discussions about the death penalty in various churches.  "We started organizing letter-writing campaigns to state representatives and senators.  We made ourselves available for conversation.  We were lobbying at the legislative office building," Curry stated.

The diocese also sent alerts through the Connecticut public network, in an effort to raise awareness and to abolish the death penalty.  They also invited other clergy to join the effort, while participating in The Stations of the Cross, during Holy Week.

Between 175 and 200 people participated, mostly Episcopal priests but also some clergy from other denominations, Curry said. "We had one rabbi join us…  It speaks to the power of this issue and the power of the coalition, because the very language of our Stations of the Cross was unsettling to him."

According to the Hartford Courant, the Episcopal Bishops of Connecticut organized the protest walk, and opened the event to everyone, but about halfway through, Glickman said he understood why many Jews would not attend such a Jesus-centric event, but "someone had to come and bear witness," the rabbi said.

"If we are going to keep the death penalty, and we appoint people to take the life of someone, it's the same as if our hands are on the syringe."

The walk ended at the State capitol and one of the last senators to vote on the bill said she changed her mind after opposing similar legislation prior to the current bill.  Curry believes that the Church made a difference in the passage of the bill.

"For me, the other reality is that the church learned that we have the possibility to affect public discourse by staying true to who we are and by creating alliances with other groups like the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, and that's a learning that were going to keep as we're looking into social justice," said Curry. "We need to always keep looking beyond ourselves, outside of ourselves for other voices that we can ally with."

Bishop C. Franklin Brookhart Jr., who belongs to the Montana Diocese and the Montana Abolition Coalition, stated, "It's difficult in some ways because, in doing this, you have to speak to people with a broad range of ethical and religious backgrounds. It's easiest for me simply to speak as a Christian."

In his various editorials and letters, he questions whether the death penalty is justice or vengeance.  Other issues he raises is whether we can apply it accurately, deters crimes, and if it does serve the common good.  According to ENS, he also wonders if the death penalty is "morally corrosive to society".

"I think we have to say that there is no question from the Scriptures that the state has– the traditional phrase is 'the power of the sword'– to do this, but is it in this day and age really a Christian witness to say let's kill people? I don't think it is."

"I believe there is power in being a bishop and speaking on behalf of the church. I know I get listened to more carefully because of that," he said, adding, "The other side is, I think that for some people it is easier to dismiss me: Well, what would you expect a soft-headed Christian to say?"

In Montana, the legislator meets for 90 days and every year the death penalty is an issue that comes up every session.  According to Brookhart, the death penalty comes closer to being abolish every time, but that bill abolishing it did not pass during the 2012 session.  He predicts it will come up again in 2013.

Other Episcopal Dioceses around the country have participated in various ways to abolish the death penalty in their state, of which Baumgarten stated that such efforts are consistent with the Church's mission.

"If we look at the catechism in the prayer book," he said, "it tells us that the church lives out its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the gospel and promotes justice, peace and love."

"As Episcopalians, as Anglicans, we would understand the promotion of just structures in society and peace in God's kingdom on earth as something that is central to the mission of the church, not a distraction from the mission of the church," he said. "We would be remiss if we did not look at what our faith says about justice and peace and then work for it in the world around us."

Curry agreed.

"Our biblical witness is about transforming the world, and it's not about hoarding the good news of God's redemptive love," he said. "I think that we have to be out in the world and that one of the primary reasons for church community is to equip every single Christian to take that faith out in their own lives. So I have great respect for legislators who are living out their faith or social workers or organizers. It's almost counterintuitive that clergy would feel they can't do that."

Church polity allows Episcopalians to shape the church's stance on public-policy issues, Baumgarten noted. "One of the important things about the Episcopal Church's system of governance is that there really is a straight line from the congregational level to the General Convention level… Everybody has the ability to participate in the church's discernment of where it stands on particular issues."

However, Brookhart made clear that this does not mean every Episcopalian must agree with the stance the Church takes and that there is no punitive side to disagreeing with General Convention resolutions on public policy issues.  He also believes there are some social issues that the Church must take a stance on, even if a minority disagrees.  Baumgarten added that this does not end on the institutional level, because advocacy is the responsibility of everyone of faith, not just bishops or church leaders.

"That comes from our understanding of baptism," he said. "That comes from our understanding of the commands of Jesus. That comes from our understanding of mission and Anglican theology. And so our [Washington, D. C.] office exists for the purpose of equipping Episcopalians to engage in the ministry of advocacy in their own contexts.

"In one sense, we provide a representative face of the church in Washington on an ongoing basis," he said. "But in the most important sense, the heart of our work, the heart of our ministry as an office, is to equip Episcopalians around the country for their own ministry of advocacy."

About Mriana

Mriana is a humanist and the author of "A Source of Misery", who grew up in the Church of God, Anderson Indiana. After she became an adult, she joined the Episcopal Church, but later left the Church and became a humanist. She has two grown sons and raises cats. Mriana raised her sons in the Episcopal Church, but in their teen years, they left the Church and she soon followed. One of her sons became a "Tao Buddhist" and the other a None, creating his own world view. She enjoys writing, reading, science, philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Mriana is also an animal lover, who cares for their welfare as living beings, who are part of the earth. She is a huge Star Trek fan in a little body.
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