A Pastoral Letter on the Death Penalty by Rev. Paul Stumme-Diers

A Pastoral Letter on the Death Penalty by Rev. Paul Stumme-Diers October 24, 2006

A Pastoral Letter on the Death Penalty from Rev. Paul Stumme-Diers, Bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that answers the question: “Should the death penalty be enacted in the State of Wisconsin for cases involving a person who is convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, if the conviction is supported by DNA evidence?”

This pastoral letter begins to articulate a faith-based case against the death penalty referendum before the citizens of the state of Wisconsin.  It is my hope that this conversation will continue vigorously in the congregations of our synod as the November 7th election approaches.

The voice of the interfaith community provides a strong, unambiguous, and particular witness addressing the referendum before the electors of the state of Wisconsin in opposition to the death penalty.  This is a witness shared consistently by mainline Christian denominations, as well as our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, and its voice complements that of the secular concerns raised against the reinstatement of capital punishment. 

This is a dialogue that has been ongoing and consistent in the life of our church.  In 1991, the ELCA adopted a social statement in strong opposition to the death penalty. The statement called upon our church, in all its expressions, to stand in opposition to its establishment and implementation.  This stance was reiterated at the 2006 Greater Milwaukee Synod Assembly, as the highest legislative body of our synod voted to “oppose the death penalty and its reintroduction into Wisconsin.” 

The faith-based case opposing the death penalty complements and indeed strengthens that of non-faith-dependent arguments; it echoes the pragmatic positions against capital punishment, while giving a particular accent to the dialogue.  In this pastoral letter I rely upon those experts in their respective fields to make their informed cases against this referendum, and I attempt to speak from a perspective of faith, a faith centered in a God who calls us to choose life.

I look to the sociologists to explain the racist nature of death penalty implementation, with its historic disproportionate application to persons of color, particularly persons of African descent.

In faith, the cry for justice from Moses and the Exodus, to Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks for the oppressed.  In doing so the faith community has subscribed to the dictum of Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”  At face value, putting someone to death is anathema to the belief that all God’s children are of infinite worth, and God’s constant call for mercy.

I look to the economists to verify that states which embrace the death penalty expend far more resources carrying out this punishment than those that do not.

In faith, it is a matter of stewardship to oppose the death penalty, a stewardship of life as well as a stewardship of resources.  To expend resources on a policy of death, while underfunding programs that enrich life and the safety of communities, is poor public policy, and poor stewardship.

I look to criminologists to point out that states that have the death penalty do not experience a lower crime rate than those who have rejected this approach,

In faith, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’” Jesus goes on in the same lesson, instructing us to, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”  To oppose the death penalty is to follow a clear command from Christ.

I rely upon psychologists to substantiate the claim that when violence is institutionalized by the state (including the recent debate on justifying torture), it promotes a culture of violence that undermines civil society, and promotes a cycle of violence.

In faith, I recognize a sovereign God who is the sole proprietor of justice.  Vengeance is God’s, and to place ourselves in God’s place is perilous.  The compassion and prayers of the faith community extend to the victims of all violence.  It is our hope that in refraining from the death penalty, we will promote a social climate where violence is diminished in all its forms.

I look to the testimony of the hundreds of individuals who have been on “death row” who have then subsequently been exonerated, to remind us that mistakes in the justice system are made, and are irrevocable when resulting in death.

From the cross, the instrument of the death penalty imposed upon Jesus, we hear the voice of innocent suffering, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I listen to the advocates for the poor and vulnerable who rightly point out that such populations are much more susceptible to having the death penalty applied in cases where they are on trial.

In faith, we are called upon to visit the prisoner as though we are visiting Jesus himself.  The death penalty effectively denies us that privilege, and heaps injustice upon those who are already marginalized and powerless.

I am aware that there are those in our church and community who favor the death penalty.  In our conversations, such voices must also be heard, even as arguments favoring capital punishment are acknowledged in the ELCA social statement.  The consistent testimony of our church, however, stands in strong opposition to the death penalty.  I encourage you, in this time of moral deliberation in our state, to make use of resources of our church, as well as the excellent materials recently made available by the Wisconsin Council of Churches, in your congregational and community conversations.

“And may the peace of God that passes all human understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Rev. Paul Stumme-Diers, Bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
October 2006

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