Major evangelical group recognizes growing opposition to death penalty

The National Association of Evangelicals has issued an expanded statement on the death penalty that for the first time recognizes Christian opposition to state execution of criminals.
“A growing number of evangelicals call for government resources to be shifted away from the death penalty,” National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson said Oct. 19.
“Our statement allows for their advocacy and for the advocacy of those of goodwill who support capital punishment in limited circumstances as a valid exercise of the state and as a deterrent to crime.”
The National Association of Evangelicals’ Board of Directors approved the new resolution Oct. 15 at its semiannual meeting.
Previous statements had focused only on arguments in favor of the death penalty.
The new statement says “leaders from various parts of the evangelical family have made a biblical and theological case either against the death penalty or against its continued use in a society where biblical standards of justice are difficult to reach.”
The National Association of Evangelicals’ resolution cited the fallibility of human systems of justice and the potential for wrongful convictions. It also noted a desire to advance “God’s grace, Christian hope and life in Christ.”
It acknowledged a “growing number of evangelicals” who advocate that the government shift resources away from the death penalty to favor life in prison without parole for criminal offenders.
The statement cited Mosaic law’s “stringent” standards for witnesses in death penalty cases, including requirements of at least two eyewitnesses willing to stake their own lives on the truthfulness of their testimony.
“The contemporary American system is unlikely to reach such standards of evidence, and given the utter seriousness of capital crimes, the alarming frequency of post-conviction exonerations leads to calls for radical reform,” the resolution said.
In addition, the resolution recognized evangelicals who support the death penalty in legitimate circumstances where evidence is overwhelming and there are no issues of the accused’s limited mental competency. They see the death penalty “as a legitimate exercise of the state’s responsibility to administer justice, and as a deterrent to crime,” the resolution said.
“Despite differing views on capital punishment, evangelicals are united in calling for reform to our criminal justice system.”
The National Association of Evangelicals says it represents over 45,000 local churches in almost 40 different denominations.
The Pew Research Center in April reported that 71 percent of white Evangelicals support the death penalty, compared to 53 percent of Catholics, 48 percent of the religiously unaffiliated and 37 percent of Black Protestants.
While the Catholic Church has historically allowed the use of the death penalty, Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” noted growing opposition to capital punishment and observed modern society’s ability to render criminals harmless without denying them “the chance to reform.” The encyclical taught that government must limit itself to “bloodless means” of protecting society where possible in order to conform to human dignity.
Pope Francis went beyond this in his September 2015 speech to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. He called for the global abolition of the death penalty.
“I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” the Pope said in his Sept. 24 speech.
Death penalty opponents have successfully persuaded many drug companies to halt the sale of several drugs for use in executions. The State of Ohio has delayed executions until 2017 due to its lack of supplies for the lethal drugs.

Raphael Benedict

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