By Darla Shelden
The Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP), in partnership with the Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC) recently co-hosted a forum themed “Religious Leader’s Dialogue on the Death Penalty.”
The event, moderated by Lydia Polley, OK-CADP co-chair, was held at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, in Oklahoma City.
Plenary speakers included: The Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches; The Rev. Michael Girlinghouse, Bishop, AR-OK Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; The Rev. Adam Leathers, Director, Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries; and Rev. Marlon J. Coleman, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.
Dr. Tabbernee said, “It is time for religious leaders in Oklahoma to have a serious discussion about capital punishment and to develop ways by which that discussion can continue in congregations and other local faith communities.”
A minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in Australia and the US, Tabbernee has more than 20 years service as a member of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order.
“Although the topic remains controversial in Oklahoma, there is evidence which suggests that capital punishment is not really a deterrent to violent crimes such as murder,” Tabbernee added. “Moreover, it does little, if anything, to truly ease the pain of families of the victims.”
The 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Report showed that the South, which accounts for over 80 percent of executions, had the highest murder rate. The Northeast, which has less than 1 percent of all executions, had lowest murder rate.
Tabbernee reported that in 2012 the OCC produced a statement calling on the abolition of the death penalty in Oklahoma.
“The OCC Theological Statement on the Death Penalty, has been signed by every one of the bishops (or other Heads of Communion) of OCC member denominations,” said Tabbernee.
Rev. Girlinghouse said, “The main thrust of the Statement is gong to be that the goal of the criminal justice system should not be punitive. It is not to exact vengeance, it is to restore a broken community.”
“Sometimes that’s going to mean putting people in prison to keep them from hurting themselves or others,” Girlinghouse added. “Other times it’s going to be about trying to help rehabilitate people so that they might re-enter society in healthy and whole ways.”
Participants discussed how to develop ways to use the OCC Theological Statement within local congregations or other faith communities.
Girlinghouse said, “In Matthew, Jesus tells us that we should ‘Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you’ (5:44). Just a few verses before, Jesus sets aside the Old Testament principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ (5:38ff).”
“These texts could provide a basis for a sermon, which includes reflections on the death penalty,” Girlinghouse said. “The OCC Theological Statement provides other places in scripture to begin a sermon on this topic.”
It was noted that since 1973, 142 death row prisoners have been exonerated, including 10 in Oklahoma.
The Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck has stated that DNA has demonstrated the failings of the justice system in America noting the lack of resources for defendants to access this kind of evidence.
A recent study by Columbia University Law School found that two thirds of all capital trials contained serious errors. When the cases were retried, over 80 percent of the defendants were not sentenced to death and 7 percent were completely acquitted.
Tabbernee was working in Australia when the last person was executed there in 1967.
“Since then, 87 other countries in the world and 17 states in the United States have abolished the death penalty,” Tabbernee said.
Girlinghouse believes that sermons need to be coupled with opportunity for dialogue and discussion.
Rev. Coleman said, “As Christians we have to temper justice against mercy. We need to challenge those who influence policies on the death penalty. Not only do we want them to talk about Christ, we want them to live like him. Romans 12:19 states ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’
“We are sowing seeds that say we kill people to show that killing is wrong. And that’s not logical,” Coleman said.
Tabbernee added, “We’re against the death penalty, even for those who are absolutely guilty. That’s not the point. It’s not up to us and it’s certainly not up to the state to execute people, because what we do is then get down to the lowest common denominator.”
Organizers challenged participants to help to further death penalty discussions in their own communities.
Rev. Leathers said, “The fact is, as a state, we do not sexually assault rapists. We do not burn down the homes of arsonists. Why then would we kill killers?”
“Religiously, speaking, we have to remember that as Christians we follow the life and teaching of a death row inmate,” Leathers added. “Jesus was convicted and executed by the state. If we affirm the death penalty, we are counting ourselves in the same ranks as those who once cried out ‘crucify him.’ Would Jesus be able to tell the difference between us and the people that hung him on the cross? I think that is the question before us.”
Larry Bauman, Senior Pastor of Sunny Lane United Methodist Church said, “I’m here because I oppose the death penalty. I find it very nonredemptive.”
For more information visit www.okcadp.org. To read the OCC Theological Statement on the Death Penalty, visit www.okchurches.org/in-the-know.
Religious leaders host forum to stir death penalty dialogue
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