This social practice statement was adopted by a more than two-thirds majority vote at the second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in Orlando, Florida, August 28-September 4, 1991.
The first social statement to tackled a divisive issue, The Death Penalty was a statement that was born at the congregational level, because congregations wanted to discuss it. It is a critique of a world characterized by horrific violence and our responses to it.
Arguments in Favor of the Death Penalty
Lutherans hold a wide range of convictions regarding the death penalty and the statement reminds readers that social statements are persuasive, not coercive. There are arguments in favor of both positions, and I find myself agreeing with some on both sides.
These arguments are cited by the statement in favor of the death penalty:
- In the scriptures concerned with law, they demand a life given for a life taken and submission to rightful authority, as when it uses violence responsibly, it is acting in accordance with its divine purpose.
- In the Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel, the state bears the responsibility of carrying out the duties of Law.
- Life is precious, so wrongfully taking a life should be paid for with something equally precious: the life of the offender.
- Society is made safer by the permanent removal of convicted murders.
- The procedures in place for carrying out the death penalty are heavily scrutinized to make sure that the risk of error is as minimal as possible.
- The death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime.
Arguments in Opposition to the Death Penalty
- In the scriptures, Jesus Christ teaches against retribution and that no one has the moral authority to execute another.
- Governments are ordained for good order, and the death penalty is contrary to good order.
- The death penalty violates the sanctity of life, which is God-given and belongs only to God.
- There are other ways to remove people dangerous to society.
- The risk of a mistake is too great to justify the death penalty.
- The death penalty is not effective as a deterrent.
All of these arguments are valid and deeply held by faithful Lutherans. Taking all the arguments into account, however, the social statement opposes the death penalty.
The primary reason that the ELCA opposes the death penalty is because it believes in restoration, not retribution. We are called, as a church and as Lutherans, to respond to violent crime in the way that Jesus did. Jesus takes the tit-for-tat basis of retaliation and throws it out. “Do not resist an evildoer”, he says, meaning, “if someone hurts you, don’t go and hurt them back”. This is the model we are given, and as disciples, should be the one we seek to emulate.
In its ministry to victims, the church has found that the death penalty does not address their deep wounds and needs–it neither restores them, nor gives them satisfaction. Retribution breeds more violence and more retribution. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, and with good reason: when we human beings use it, it never ends.
There are also serious justice concerns with the death penalty. The sources of violent crime are many and complex, yet the death penalty reduces violence to a simple 1-for-1 equation. This simplistic treatment of violence is itself an injustice because it ignores the painful reality of those affected by violent crime.
Another justice concern is, “What is the purpose of the death penalty?”. One purpose of the death penalty is to deter violent crime, yet “the body of research on deterrent effect indicates, at best, conflicting evidence. Many proponents of the death penalty have abandoned the deterrence theory altogether.”
If the death penalty neither restores the brokenness of victims or society, nor fulfills its purposes, is it just to continue using it? The social statement says no.
Concerns Regarding Use
The third major reason that the ELCA opposes the death penalty is because of serious concerns about its implementation and use. Were the death penalty perfectly administered, this wouldn’t be an issue. But we know that it isn’t.
First, there are concerns about who is being sentenced to death. The sentence one receives too often hinges on an offender’s race, class, age, gender, and other factors. If it is disproportionately being used against one section of society, then it is not being wielded fairly or justly.
In a recent sermon, I quoted a study on the rate of false conviction of criminals who are sentenced to death. The peer-reviewed study concluded that up to 4.1% of death row inmates are actually innocent and could be executed for crimes they have not committed. The study makes no attempt to identify how many innocent people have actually been executed (that is beyond the scope of the study), but the implications are clear–of the 8000 people who have been executed by the state between 1974 and 2004 (the timeframe of the study), it is very likely that some were innocent.
“The execution of an innocent person is a mistake we cannot correct,” says the social statement. There is no way to restore that brokenness. At least with other forms of punishment, if the person is later found to be innocent, some restitution can be made. This isn’t the case with the death penalty.
For these reasons, the ELCA opposes the death penalty. It does not offer the restoration or healing it is meant to, it does not deter violent crime, it is used unjustly, and the risks of executing an innocent person are too great. I would generally agree.
Yet, there is a part of me that wonders if the death penalty is truly necessary in some cases. I find myself empathizing with the argument that one role of government is to protect society from very clear, very present dangers. Are there people who are so dangerous to society, even in prison or under other forms of punishment, that executing them is not only desirable, but necessary? How do we decide when this really is the case? I cannot answer these questions, and because of those difficulties, the ELCA errs on the side of alternative punishments.
There is also the greater problem of our criminal justice system, which seems to be built around punishing and imprisoning as many people as possible, actively discouraging rehabilitation and encouraging recidivism. Our justice system does not seem to be concerned with restoration. It is no surprise, then, that the social statement published in 2013 addressed criminal justice as a whole. The issue of the death penalty is not a simple matter apart from the rest of our justice system.
In the end, the death penalty is not the solution to our problems. Instead, we desperately need to find other solutions that will serve the purpose of the death penalty, but with a greater focus on restoration, on justice, and on fair and equitable use; and, because we are human, fallible, and sinful, something we can undo when we are wrong. Are our current forms of rehabilitation and punishment enough? If the death penalty is still our best solution, then no, they aren’t. It is up to us to address these problems in our justice system and implement better, effective solutions to stop the cycle of violence.
Featured image is in the public domain.