[Pretty much every week, I write a…something…for my church‘s weekly eNewsletter. Way back when, it was my take on a pastoral letter. Then some time along the way, I started thinking of it more like a newspaper’s opinion column. Now I suppose I think of it as a blog post. Whatever I write for eNews usually ends up here too. Though usually in a slightly different form, edited for the more general audience that I hope is (could be someday?) reading here. Over there it’s called The View from the Dance Floor.]
Pop Quiz time! Grab the nearest Bible and find this verse: “God helps those who help themselves.”
…Time’s up! Did you find it?
I hope not, because it’s not there. While frequently quoted as scripture, it was actually Benjamin Franklin who said it. (As often noted in this space, Scripture actually has the exact opposite to say: God helps the helpless and calls his followers to do the same. But the great divide between those two ideas is a post for another day…)
I thought of that “verse” today because I just discovered that I’ve been guilty of something similar. For years I’ve heard – and repeated – that the great 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, instructed we who would preach and teach the faith to do so “with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
Turns out, Barth said some things in that vein, but never actually said that. What kind of in-depth investigative journalism was required to learn this? About 30 seconds of Google searching and then reading. Wow.
As you may have already guessed, I was thinking about that Barth “quote” this week because of this 1A, above the fold, top headline of the week: “Illinois Bans Death Penalty.” (Though today you could make a strong case that the earthquake and tsunamis in Japan have taken over that top spot.)
Excuse me. That should probably read: ILLINOIS BANS DEATH PENALTY. That’s how it was in the print version of this Chicago Tribune’s story. For reasons unknown to me, the online version has a different headline. (For comparison sake, the Sun-Times’ version.)
That’s just huge, huge news; perhaps even cause for (muted) celebration. For we, the people of The United Methodist Church, have this to say:
We oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
– ¶164G Social Principles of The United Methodist Church 2009-2012
That’s actually the conclusion of the Death Penalty section of the Social Principles. Here’s how we get there:
¶164 Social Principles of The United Methodist Church 2009-2012
The Political Community:
While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government as a principal vehicle for the ordering of society. Because we know ourselves to be responsible to God for social and political life, we declare the following relative to governments:
…G. The Death Penalty
We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
Offered as scripture references to support the UMC position are:
Matthew 5:38-39 – Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount “turn the other check” teaching on non-violent resistance to oppression and abuse.
John 8:1-10 – Jesus’ response to the crowd looking to stone to death a woman caught committing adultery (with no mention of punishment for the man!), “let anyone among you without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
As you would expect, the Board of Church and Society (which is the advocacy arm of The United Methodist Church), leads the way in turning this statement of faith into action. To the words of the Social Principles and the Scripture references, they add:
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. 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. We will continue to advocate for the final elimination of this act of barbarism, which has no room in a civilized society, nor in a country that prides so much on its Christian heritage.
And you can sign up for their action network
They also offer a link to Amnesty International, an organization which I support. Amnesty is at the forefront fighting against the death penalty. Check out their take on this story. In that post, Amnesty also offers a way you can add your name to a thank you note to Governor Quinn.
As this Chicago Tribune editorial reminds us, you can add this information to the reasons for abolishing the death penalty. “The Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment found that the death penalty is most often pursued when the defendant is poor or a minority or when the victim is white.” These racial, social and economic factors alone make capital punishment untenable.
The United Methodist Church has a long history of concern for social justice. Our faith moves us to action. I offer these resources to encourage you to take some time to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider where you stand and why. As always, I’d love to make this a conversation by hearing your responses.
What do you think? Did IL get it right? Does the UMC? What, if anything, would you change about the UMC’s position on this?
- Cathleen Falsani: Jury Out On Religion and the Death Penalty (huffingtonpost.com)
- Illinois abolishes death penalty (cnn.com)
- Illinois Abolishes Death Penalty (alternet.org)