Anti-death penalty resolution builds on church’s advocacy in wake of Arkansas executions

By David Paulsen
Posted Jul 9, 2018

The Rev. Allison Liles, executive director of Episcopal Peace Fellowship, testifies July 9 in favor of an anti-death penalty resolution before General Convention’s domestic policy committee at the JW Marriott hotel.

[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] Arkansas’ decision to schedule eight executions in 10 days last year drew intense national scrutiny, sparked a sudden re-examination of the death penalty and served as a catalyst to a resolution before the 79th General Convention seeking to build on the Episcopal Church’s longtime advocacy on the issue.

Resolution D077 was submitted by the Rev. Bob Davidson, a deputy from Colorado and national chair of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. It reaffirms the church’s position in favor of abolishing the death penalty, calls for all death row inmates’ sentences to be reduced, orders letters to that effect be sent to all governors of states where the death penalty is legal and enlists bishops in those states to take up greater advocacy.

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

Davidson, a member of the Social Justice and United States Policy Committee, testified in favor of his resolution at the committee’s open hearing on July 9. He noted the Episcopal Church first took a stand in favor of abolishing the death penalty in 1958.

“The Episcopal Peace Fellowship has continued to maintain this as one of its strongest priorities, carrying the banner of the dignity and sanctity of life for all persons,” Davidson said. “This resolution gives teeth” to past General Convention resolutions.

Davidson, in an interview with Episcopal News Service after the meeting, explained how the resolution developed in reaction to the Arkansas executions of April 2017. Episcopal Peace Fellowship was part of a network of faith-based organizations and activists at the local level that mobilized prayer vigils, social media campaigns and demonstrations in response to those executions.

Only four of the eight scheduled executions were carried out, though the explanation to Resolution D077 notes the death penalty remains legal in 31 states and more than 3,000 inmates are awaiting execution in the United States.

Davidson told ENS this issue overlaps with the Episcopal Church’s work on racial reconciliation, given the disproportionate number of prisoners who are black men.

“There’s no more glaring symbol of racism in our country than to look on death row and just look at the executions of black men in our country,” Davidson said.

The Rev. Allison Liles, executive director of Episcopal Peace Fellowship, also spoke in favor of the resolution at the open hearing on July 9, emphasizing cases of death row exonerations and singling out General Convention’s host state of Texas. The state has executed 552 people since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976, far more than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Liles also noted how this resolution goes beyond prior resolutions on the issue to direct the secretary of General Convention to send letters to the governors of death penalty states specifically seeking sentence reductions of those condemned to death or case reviews for possible exonerations.

“We as human beings are more than our worst sin. We as human beings are capable of redemption,” Liles said. “The death penalty is failed, ineffective, it’s expensive and it’s a policy that’s defined by racial and economic bias.

“We’ve been speaking out against it for 60 years, and now we need to speak on behalf of the people who are living on death row and encourage the governors to commute their sentences to life in prison.”

Marti Hunt, a deputy with the Diocese of New Hampshire, also testified in favor of the resolution.

“We’re calling on governors to step up,” Hunt said. “A lot of them self-identify as Christians, and we want them to recognize that they are responsible for the lives of all the citizens in their jurisdictions.”

Atlanta Bishop Robert Wright, speaking with ENS during a break in the committee meeting, echoed Hunt’s comments about appealing directly to governors’ faith, because a lot of politicians “use their Christianity when it’s convenient politically.” Christianity speaks to the dignity of all humans, including those behind bars, said Wright, a member of the committee who has been active in advocating against the death penalty in Georgia.

“I’m glad that we are remembering our commitment as the Episcopal Church to facilitate the abolition of the death penalty,” Wright said when asked about Resolution D077. “We need people to take that energy that was put into these resolutions and take it back home.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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Comments (24)

  1. Rev. Dr. James Hargis says:

    Don’t agree with abolishing the death penalty. Having worked in San Quentin for a few years, knowing some brutally savage killers (like Charles Manson), please don’t tell me abolishing the death penalty is the way to go.

    1. Matt Ouellette says:

      I fail to see how it is justice to kill someone who is behind bars and is no longer able to harm others. To me, it seems like nothing more than revenge (he/she killed someone, so we must kill them), which Jesus taught against. This is one of the reasons why I have opposed the death penalty. It makes us no better than the criminals we administer “justice” towards. Even more importantly, we often convict the wrong people for crimes they did not commit, and end up killing innocent people in the process. That fact alone should keep us from using the death penalty.

    2. Allison Liles says:

      The death penalty is biased and that alone is a reason to abolish it. People of color convicted of murdering white people are those who most often get death sentences. It’s a vengeful punishment that is given to the poor who can not afford proper legal defense. It’s also not a deterrent for violent crime and costs far more of our tax dollars than a life in prison sentence.

  2. David Duggan says:

    The abolition of the death penalty will do nothing to improve the civility of our country or remove the prospect of wrongful convictions. For grievous recidivists, including, for example, the Rev. Heather Cook, the death penalty is too good a punishment. Some people, it is sorry to say, have no business drawing breath on this earth or otherwise taking up its resources. Light up Ol’ Sparky.

    1. Matt Ouellette says:

      The evidence shows that keeping the death penalty is actually very expensive, which is yet another reason we should abolish it:
      http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-how-much-more-expensive-the-death-penalty-is-2015-1

  3. william dailey says:

    Is the Rev. Allison Lilies going to a picnic after her presentation?

    1. Allison Liles says:

      I was caught outside in the flash flood and was literally dripping from head to toe. I had my camp shirt for camp day in my backpack so swapped out my clergy shirt for it.

  4. John Hobart says:

    I don’t have many strong political convictions, but one of the ones I do have is firm conviction that the death penalty is wrong. Having said that, I know many people who are as good Christians/Episcopalians as I am who support the death penalty. Since we live in a representative democracy, we can all communicate our opinions to our elected representatives and vote for someone else next time if they fail to represent us. I do not need a bunch of self righteous bishops speaking for me, and I would suggest that since we are not all of one mind on this issue, that they are attempt to steal the voices of those with whom they disagree. That is morally bankrupt in my opinion.

    1. David Duggan says:

      Amen. The bishops have a political agenda which is contrary to the Gospel. Their kingdom, with their tax-free manses, exorbitant salaries, declining memberships and failing parishes, is of this world. They will answer for their misdeeds in heaven.

      1. Matt Ouellette says:

        How is it contrary to the gospel? You do realize that there are many Christian denominations that oppose the death penalty on principle, right? This is not just politics. This is a moral issue. You may not agree, but please spare us the complaining about politics. Unless you are also willing to call out the religious right.

        1. David Duggan says:

          Jesus said absolutely nothing about the death penalty. Instead, from the cross, He said: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23: 34. Whether the death penalty conforms to the Gospel message of forgiveness and repentance can be debated until the Second Coming. And whether God has specifically allowed the death penalty for crimes short of murder, as is inferable from the account of Ananias’ withholding of his treasure as against the collective of the Apostles (Acts 5) is not too luxurious an interpretation of that passage. As one who defended the accused, and has worked to liberate those wrongfully convicted, I have the sure and certain knowledge that the death penalty is a deterrent not only to crime, but to wrongful convictions. And as to Mr. Davin, my KJV of Genesis 12 stops at v. 20. Don’t know what version you’re looking at.

          1. Matt Ouellette says:

            The evidence does not support your claim that the death penalty is an effective deterrent against violent crime:
            https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/04/30/theres-still-no-evidence-that-executions-deter-criminals/?utm_term=.6a7709caf95d
            That, and the fact that we have any wrongful convictions that lead to the death of innocent people should be enough to us to cease using it. Every other developed nation in the world has abolished the use of the death penalty, and I believe we should do the same.

        2. John Hobart says:

          I don’t like “calling out” because it is both judging and condemning in a package deal (Jesus was opposed to both), but in this case I’ll make an exception. The religious right and the religious left should both sit down and shut up.

          1. Matt Ouellette says:

            My other question to you would be: should the church be involved in politics at all? I personally don’t think the church is called to be apolitical. That means it has to make political judgments at times, which means it is going to make statements that make liberals and conservatives unhappy.

          2. John Hobart says:

            Politics involves the acquisition and use of force. Christianity rejects the use of force. Therefore, Christianity and politics are incompatible. This is largely the position of the Historic Peace Churches and I lean in that direction. Having said that, while some of the HPCs take that so far as to say that Christians should be nonpolitical to the point of not voting, I don’t have an issue with Christians voting or engaging in political activity as long as they don’t use the Church as a platform for promoting their political views. As Christians, we should rely on conversion rather than coercion.

          3. Matt Ouellette says:

            I have to disagree. While the Church should never align itself with a secular political party or ideology, I think the Church should speak out prophetically on certain issues of moral crisis (not to coerce, but to persuade). I don’t think all involvement in politics is coercive or involves force (I don’t agree with the libertarian definition of government), so I guess I disagree with the Historic Peace Churches on this.

          4. John Hobart says:

            It seems to me that the Episcopal Church has aligned itself with the Democratic Party and their progressive ideology.

          5. Matt Ouellette says:

            I haven’t seen TEC endorse the specific policy proposals of the Democrats. I’ve seen them endorse certain goals like reducing poverty, fighting for social justice, combatting climate change, etc. Those should not be partisan issues. The Republicans used to agree on those issues in the past, although they disagreed with the Democrats on the policy solutions. There may be disagreements on certain policies, but the overall goals of combatting climate change, reducing poverty, treating migrants humanely, etc. should be things people across the political spectrum should agree on.

  5. Ron Davin says:

    Read Genesis 12:31

  6. Terry Francis says:

    Matt Ouellette, when you start condeming abortion, where the unborn, who have committed no crimes are terminated by the thousands every year in this country as much as you do the death penalty, maybe more people will take your words seriously. If the death penalty goes against the teachings of Christ, then certainly abortion does as well. Be consistant. The bishops who approved this resolution would probably defend to the end a woman’s so-called right to choose. And I agree with John Hobart, one is not less of a Christian whichever side they fall on regarding this issue.

    1. Matt Ouellette says:

      I would say that changing the subject to abortion is a “whataboutism” argument, since the topic is the death penalty and not abortion. However, I’ll engage the argument. I have issues with abortion. I do think it involves the loss of human life (I think calling it murder is hyperbolic, however. It’s more complicated than that). And I have issues with the dehumanizing rhetoric of certain pro-choice activists and groups. However, the evidence does not indicate that the policies of the pro-life movement (e.g. total bans on abortion) are effective at reducing the abortion rate:
      https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-care/abortion-rates-go-down-when-countries-make-it-legal-report-n858476
      The most effective way to combat abortion is to reduce unwanted pregnancies, which we should do by working for easier access to contraceptives, paid maternity leave, comprehensive sex education, etc. And I have never said someone is more or less of a Christian based on this issue. I am simply expressing my opinion that I do not see the death penalty as compatible with Christian teaching. However, I’m sure there will be people who disagree, as is common on many issues in the Church.

  7. cynthia seddon says:

    If you talk about abolition of the death penalty, you must definately include abolishing abortion, the putting to death of innocents.There are plenty of birth control methods…including abstinence.A woman can choose to say no…and for instances of rape etc, there are plenty of couples wanting to adopt. Giving birth is a life changing experience ,no matter how painful,and we should choose life over death.

    1. Matt Ouellette says:

      It’s not that simple, though. As I showed you, anti-abortion laws do not reduce abortion rates. Also, abstinence-only sex education does not reduce unwanted pregnancy:
      https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/08/23/545289168/abstinence-education-is-ineffective-and-unethical-report-argues

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