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 the lex talionis (Matthew 5:38-39), and the Talmud denies its literal meaning and holds that it refers to financial indemnities.
When a woman was brought before Jesus having committed a crime for which the death penalty was commonly imposed, our Lord so persisted in questioning the moral authority of those who were ready to conduct the execution that they finally dismissed the charges (John 8:31f).
The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church condemn the "torture of persons by governments for any purpose" 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).
After a moratorium of a full decade, the use of the death penalty in the United States has resumed. Other Western nations have largely abolished it during the twentieth century. But a rapidly rising rate of crime and an even greater increase in the fear of crime has generated support within the American society for the institution of death as the punishment for certain forms of homicide. It is now being asserted, as it was often in the past, that capital punishment would deter criminals and would protect law-abiding citizens.
The United States Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia, 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.
The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about the present high rate of crime in the United States and about the value of a life taken in 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 in general nor a lessening of the particular kinds of crime against which it was directed. Homicide—the crime for which the death penalty has been used almost exclusively in recent decades—increased far less than other major crimes during the period of the moratorium. Progressively rigorous scientific studies, conducted over more than forty years, overwhelmingly failed to support the thesis that capital punishment deters homicide more effectively than does imprisonment. The most careful comparisons of homicide rates in similar states with and without use of the death penalty, and also of homicide rates in the same state in periods with and without it, have found as many or slightly more criminal homicides in states with use of the death penalty.
The death penalty also falls unfairly and unequally upon an outcast minority. Recent methods for selecting the few persons sentenced to die from among the larger number who are convicted of comparable offenses have not cured the arbitrariness and discrimination that have historically marked the administration of capital punishment in this country.
The United Methodist Church is convinced that the nation's leaders should give attention to the improvement of the total criminal justice system and to the elimination of social conditions that breed crime and cause disorder, rather than foster a false confidence in the effectiveness of the death penalty.
The United Methodist Church declares its opposition to the retention and use of capital punishment in any form or carried out by any means; the church urges the abolition of capital punishment.
The international portions of The United Methodist Church are deeply grieved by the use of the death penalty in the United States. United Methodists in central conferences and people in the autonomous Methodist churches deplore this fact and are embarrassed by this immoral practice in many states in the United States. The international conscience is mobilizing to condemn this cruel practice and targets the United States as "an enemy of civilized people" in their protests.
The United Methodist Church recommends the following specific actions:
(1) Congregations, districts, conferences, and ecumenical coalitions in sovereign nations and lesser political entities where the death penalty is currently practiced are called to take overt action to change the laws and social conditions which produce this violent act.
(2) Persons and groups who take this moral issue into the public arena (such as addressing elected officials, vigils, letter-writing campaigns, paid advertising, and other responsible direct action) will be supported by the church.
(3) The General Boards of Global Ministries and Church and Society and their affiliates throughout the denomination and ecumenical partnerships are called to develop strategies of education and political action to overcome the evil of capital punishment.
(4) The global scope of the protest summons the people of the church to seriously oppose this abhorrent practice, and for United Methodist persons to incorporate this protest into their personal social conscience.
(5) The United Methodist Church commends the people who have provided moral judgment, prophetic insight, pastoral care for those who suffer from this practice, and have borne the pain of hostility and indifference to this advocacy.
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.