The United Methodist Church declares its opposition to the retention and use of capital punishment and urges its abolition. In spite of a common assumption to the contrary, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," does not give justification for the imposing of the penalty of death. Jesus explicitly repudiated retaliation (Matthew 5:38-39), and the Talmud denies its literal meaning and holds that it refers to financial indemnities.
Christ came among us and suffered death. Christ also rose to new life for the sake of all. His suffering, death, and resurrection brought a new dimension to human life, the possibility of reconciliation with God through repentance. This gift is offered to all without exception, and human life was given new dignity and sacredness through it. The death penalty, however, denies Christ's power to transform and restore all human beings. In the New Testament, when a woman having committed a crime was brought before Jesus, He persisted in questioning her accusers, so that they walked away (John 8:1-11).
The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church condemn ". . . torture of persons by governments for any purpose," (¶ 164A) and assert that it violates Christian teachings. The church, through its Social Principles, further declares, "we oppose capital punishment and urge its elimination from all criminal codes." (¶ 164A)
During the 1970s and 1980s a rapidly rising rate of violent crime and an even greater increase in the fear of crime generated support in some countries and within the American society, for the institution of death as the punishment for certain forms of homicide. It continues to be wrongly asserted, that capital punishment uniquely deters criminals and protects law-abiding citizens from violent crime.
Studies conducted over more than sixty years have overwhelmingly failed to support the thesis that capital punishment deters homicide more effectively than does imprisonment. Careful comparisons of homicide rates in similar states with and without use of the death penalty have revealed that homicide rates remained the same or slightly greater regardless of the use of the death penalty in those states. Governments that have enacted the death penalty continue to have higher civilian murder rates that those that do not. The five countries with the highest homicide rates that do not impose the death penalty average 21.6 murders per every 100,000 people, whereas the five countries with the highest homicide rate that do impose the death penalty average 41.6 murders every 100,000 people. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned with the rate of crime throughout the world, and the value of a life taken by murder or homicide. When another life is taken through capital punishment, the life of the victim is further devalued. Moreover, the church is convinced that the use of the death penalty would result in neither a net reduction of crime nor a lessening of the particular kinds of crime against which it was directed.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the use of the death penalty in the United States reached almost unprecedented proportions. The rate of homicide, the crime for which the death penalty has been used almost exclusively, increased very little during the 1980s and declined during the 1990s. As United Methodist Christians, part of our mission is to give attention to the improvement of the total criminal justice system and to the elimination of social conditions which breed crime and cause disorder, rather than foster a false confidence in the effectiveness of the death penalty.
Sixty-seven percent of law enforcement officials do not think capital punishment decreases the rate of homicide. A poll of police chiefs found that they ranked the death penalty least effective in reducing violent crime.
In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing an innocent person was not "cruel and unusual" if all the proper and legal procedures were followed. The court thus does not have to reopen a case if new evidence, exonerating the defendant, comes to light after a legally established deadline for new information. Between 1972 and 1999 more than seventy people have been released from death row as a result of being wrongly convicted. On average, for every seven people executed, one person under a death sentence is found innocent.
The United States is the world leader in sentencing children to death. Since 1990 only Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and the U.S. are known to have executed persons for crimes they committed as children. Of these, the U.S. has executed more juvenile offenders than any other nation. This practice has been condemned in nearly every major human rights treaty. Canada, Italy, and South Africa are among the many countries that abolished the death penalty in the 20th Century.
The death penalty falls unfairly and unequally upon marginalized persons including the poor, the uneducated, ethnic and religious minorities, and persons with mental and emotional illnesses. In the United States, persons who receive the death penalty are usually convicted of killing middle or upper class white persons, are almost always poor and unable to afford a lawyer, and often suffer from brain damage associated with previous head injuries, often in childhood. In the U.S. methods for selecting the few persons sentenced to die from among the large number who are sentenced for comparable offenses are entirely arbitrary. What warrants the death penalty and what sentencing options are available vary among the few countries that impose capital punishment and even among the states in the United States.
The United States Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), in permitting use of the death penalty, conceded the lack of evidence that it reduced violent crime, but permitted its use for purpose of sheer retribution.
The United Methodist Church cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life. It violates our deepest belief in God as the Creator and the Redeemer of humankind. In this respect, there can be no assertion that human life can be taken humanely by the state. Indeed, in the long run, the use of the death penalty by the state will increase the acceptance of revenge in our society and will give official sanction to a climate of violence.
Therefore, we call upon United Methodists individually, at the district and conference level and through general boards and agencies to:
- work in collaboration with other ecumenical and abolitionist groups for the abolition of the death penalty in those states which currently have capital punishment statutes, and against efforts to reinstate such statutes in those which do not;
- speak out against the death penalty to state governors, state and federal representatives;
- develop education materials on capital punishment; and
- oppose all executions through prayer and vigils.
See Social Principles, ¶ 164A.
From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church — 2004. Copyright © 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.