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Nashville 2001 Delegate Actions
Congregational Follow-Up Resources for
Death Penalty Resolution
This document also available as a formatted document (97k PDF).
At Nashville 2001, delegates requested, wrote, and passed a
resolution opposing the death penalty. In response,
Mennonite Church USA has created this resource to help
your congregation study this issue and take steps to act on
our conviction that killing another human being for any
reason is wrong.
Mennonites have led the way in helping our nation and others
think about restorative justice—helping to bring restored
relationships between perpetrators and victims and their
families. Restoring relationships is not "easy" on crime, but
it does help us focus on justice rather than vengeance. A
death for a death cannot bring life.
You will find additional resources on the death penalty on
the Peace and Justice Support Network web site. Simply go
to www.MennoniteUSA.org and click on "peace resources."
You'll also find resources to help your congregation respond
to the Nashville 2001 delegate resolutions on Vieques and
Please send me your comments (ronb@MennoniteUSA.org)
on the usefulness of this resource and your stories about
how your congregation is becoming an instrument of
J. RON BYLER, Associate Executive Director
Mennonite Church USA Executive Board
What Bible passages help us understand
the death penalty?
- A list of eighteen offenses, punishable by death, can be
found in the Old Testament. A few examples (NRSV):
The following passages are often used in support of the
| ||Exodus 35:2—"On the seventh day you shall have a
holy Sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does
any work on it shall be put to death."
| ||Leviticus 20:10—"If a man commits adultery with the
wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress
shall be put to death."
| ||Leviticus 24:16—"One who blasphemes the name of
the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation
shall stone the blasphemer."
| ||Leviticus 24:21—"One who kills a human being shall
be put to death."
| ||Deuteronomy 21:18-21—"If someone has a stubborn
and rebellious son who will not obey his father
and mother…Then all the men of the town shall stone
him to death."
These passages encourage compassion and reject the
| ||Genesis 9:6—"Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person's blood be shed; for in his
own image God made humankind."
| ||Leviticus 24:21—"One who kills a human being shall
be put to death."
| ||Romans 13:4—"But if you do what is wrong, you
should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the
sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath
on the wrongdoer."
| ||Genesis 4:8, 13-15 is the story of Cain killing his
brother Abel and God's compassion on Cain.
| ||Leviticus 19:18—"You shall not take vengeance or
bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall
love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord."
| ||Ezekiel 33:11—"Say to them, as I live, says the Lord
God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but
that the wicked turn from their ways and live."
| ||Romans 12:19—"Beloved, never avenge yourselves,
but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written,
‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"
| ||1 Thessalonians 5:15—"See that none of you repays
evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another
and to all."
| ||1 Peter 3:9—"Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for
abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is
for this that you were called—that you might inherit a
A Resolution: The Death Penalty
In view of our Christian responsibility to value all human life we are compelled to set forth our opposition to all
Therefore we resolve that Mennonite Church USA appeal to state and federal governments to abolish the death
| ||The General Conference Mennonite Church called for "federal and state governments…to discontinue the use
of the death penalty" at Estes Park, Colo., July 16, 1965;
| ||The Mennonite Church called for "federal and state governments…to discontinue the use of the death penalty"
at Kidron, Ohio, August 1965;
| ||The criminal justice system has sent innocent people to death row, and the death penalty is applied in a raciallydiscriminatory
fashion, and disproportionately to some of society's most vulnerable people; and
| ||We acknowledge the deep grief of families of murder victims and victims of capital punishment laws; hold them
in our prayers; and commit ourselves to walk with them;
We resolve further that the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA address this issue with the President of
the United States and urge area conferences to address relevant governors.
We further urge congregations to take action to support abolition of the death penalty through prayer, letter writing,
and public vigils at murder sites and at prisons* where executions occur.
Adopted by Mennonite Church USA Delegate Assembly
July 7, 2001, meeting in Nashville, Tenn.
*Public vigils at murder sites and at prisons should take place only with compassionate consultation with the families of victims.
What were the standards and limits of the
death penalty as God set them forth in the
As an attempt to limit the violence of the blood feud, the Hebrew
law allowed the Israelites to practice capital punishment.
However, the law also set stringent
requirements for this practice.
First, it required that the court
give due consideration of mitigating
factors before using the death
penalty. Then it demanded that
capital punishment could only be
applied where there was absolute
certainty of the guilt of the
accused. Finally, it required that
capital punishment be applied
fairly and without prejudice. When
the application of capital punishment
does not meet these standards,
it no longer is Yahweh's
sanctioned punishment for a
crime, but a form of human sacrifice
—a practice strictly forbidden in the Hebrew Scriptures.
|Violence does not overcome
violence. As an alternative society
within the broader society,
the church can proclaim and
demonstrate a different way.
We can provide healing and
hope by what we practice
within the church, our workplaces,
and neighborhoods. We
can teach and demonstrate
that biblical justice comes
through peaceful means.|
—A Mennonite Statement on
The standards for the use of capital punishment set by the
Hebrew Scriptures simply cannot be attained in human society.
Human beings are too fallible to achieve these standards. No
matter how hard we try, even in the most scientific of settings,
we make mistakes in perception and judgment. No matter how
much we may desire it to be otherwise, the rich and the poor
will always be treated differently. Thus, while the Hebrew
Scriptures give us the right to use the death penalty, they set
standards for its use that are impossible for us to achieve.1
Doesn't God's justice call for an "eye for eye"?
With God, there is no dichotomy between mercy and justice.
Biblical justice grows out of love. Such justice is in fact an act of
love that seeks to make things right. Love and justice are not
opposites, nor are they in conflict. Instead, love provides for a
justice that seeks first to make right.2
Repeatedly, God responded to offense with mercy, seeking to
restore offenders into right relationship with him. God responded
to the first murder by protecting Cain against violence
(Genesis 4:15). Cain deserved to die, but God was merciful.
Although Moses and David were murderers, God chose to spare
them. In the New Testament, Paul, who was closely associated
with the murder of Stephen, is likewise spared. "As I live, says
the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but
that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn
back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of
Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:11)3
What did Jesus say about the death penalty?
Jesus' statement about allowing the person without sin to cast the
first stone (John 8:1-11) falls directly in line with the teachings of
the Torah. "Yes," Jesus said, "you are allowed to stone this
woman to death, but only if you yourself have not sinned." Like
the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus allowed capital punishment, but
then set requirements for its use that were impossible to fulfill.
What is the meaning of this paradox? On one hand, the teaching
is of justice: that sin deserves death. On the other hand, the
teaching is one of grace: that mercy supersedes justice. The Bible
teaches us that God wants to give us better than we deserve.4
What is restorative justice?
Our legal system often does not meet the needs of victims or
offenders in the process of justice. Offenders are not held
accountable to those they have actually harmed and victims are
often not given a voice to articulate their needs. As Christians we
call for justice for all those involved in crime and encourage
individuals and communities to think about a philosophical shift
in how we view crime and its impact. Restorative justice calls us
to work toward the restoration of victims, empowering them and
responding to their needs as they see them, as well as supporting
offenders while encouraging them to understand, accept,
and carry out their obligations to those they have harmed.
Doesn't God call the state to wield the sword?
The "sword" in Romans 13 does not refer to the state killing
either in war or capital punishment. It was a dagger (not a
weapon of war) that symbolized judicial authority.5
Protecting society from violent criminals is certainly a
legitimate role of government, as Paul demonstrated in his teaching
on the principalities and powers. But that protection must
come with an opportunity for repentance and redemption if it is
to meet the standards set by Jesus. Forgiveness does not mean
letting the criminal get away with murder, but it does mean giving
that criminal an opportunity to find a new way of life in which his
or her former need for violence is given over to God.
The early Christians came to understand that in Jesus' sacrifice
of himself, the cycle of vengeance had been broken. The
moral universe that had been damaged by sin was repaired once
and for all. God had found a way to break through our perpetual
sinfulness. Jesus' death on the cross was the final payment for
sin—a final sacrifice that made unnecessary other forms of sacrifice,
including the human sacrifice that we call capital punishment.
Jesus showed us that salvation from sin lay in forgiving the
enemy, not in getting even by imitating the enemy's wickedness.
When we forgive, we see new possibilities both for our enemy
and for ourselves.6
How can we support victims?
Howard Zehr suggests ways we can support victims: We must
openly recognize and acknowledge the intense feelings that
crime creates in others and ourselves. We must stand with our
sisters and brothers when they are victimized. We can provide
assistance to victims. We can help victims grapple with their faith
questions. We can help move society to solutions that heal.7
Led by the Spirit, and beginning in the church, we
witness to all people that violence is not the will of God.
We witness against all forms of violence, including war
among nations, hostility among races and classes, abuse
of children and women, violence between men and
women, abortion, and capital punishment. |
—Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995
Why we oppose the death penalty
As Christians, we oppose the death penalty because we worship
the God of life and mercy. Our theology—our understanding of
who God is and who God calls us to be—proclaims that we are
Death Penalty Facts|
(from Amnesty International, Campaign to End the Death
Penalty, and Death Penalty Information Center)
The imposition of the death
penalty is racially biased:
| ||Over 80 percent of persons executed
were convicted of killing
whites, although people of color
make up over half of all homicide
victims in the United States.
| ||A comprehensive Georgia study
found that killers of whites are
4.3 times more likely to receive a
death sentence than killers of
Top four nations of
death penalty executions|
1. China 2,468
2. Iran 139
3. Saudi Arabia 79
4. United States 66
In 2001, 90% of all known
executions took place in
The death penalty punishes
| ||Over 90 percent of defendants charged with capital crimes
are poor and cannot afford to hire an experienced criminal
defense attorney to represent them. They are forced to use
inexperienced, underpaid court-appointed attorneys.
| ||In most states the pay for court-appointed attorneys is so
low that lawyers assigned to capital cases will lose $20–$30
an hour if they do an adequate job. In Alabama, Louisiana,
and Mississippi defense attorneys are paid a flat fee of
$1,000—which translates into about $5 dollars an hour for
The death penalty condemns the innocent to die:
| ||Since 1973, more than 102 people have been released
from prison after being sentenced to death despite their
innocence. In other words, 1 in 7 of those on death row
have been freed after being fully exonerated. Each year,
approximately 4.5 people convicted of capital crimes are
The death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime:
In 1999 the average murder rate per 100,000 people in U.S.
states with capital punishment was about 5.5, while only 3.6
in abolitionist states.
| ||Governments that have enacted the death penalty continue to
have higher civilian murder rates than those that have not.
The five countries with the highest homicide rates that do
not impose the death penalty average 21.6 murders per
every 100,000 people, whereas the five countries with the
highest homicide rate that do impose the death penalty
average 41.6 murders for every 100,000 people.
| ||In Canada the rate of homicides has fallen since the abolition
of the death penalty, from 3.09/100,000 in 1975, the year
before the abolition, to 1.76 in 1999.
| ||Police chiefs feel that violent crime is best reduced by
reducing drug abuse, a better economy and more jobs,
simplifying court rules, and longer prison sentences.
In response to violence in public life, we call the church
at all levels to work to abolish capital punishment,
wherever it has become law.|
—"And No One Shall Make Them Afraid,"
A Mennonite Statement on Violence, 1998
The United States leads the world in killing children:
| ||The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the
American Convention on Human Rights, and the Convention
on the Rights of the Child all prohibit execution for crimes
committed before a person reaches the age of 18.
| || Since 1990, only seven countries have executed people for
crimes they committed when under 18 years of age: Congo
(Democratic Republic), Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran,
Yemen, and the United States. The U.S. has executed more
children than any of the other countries, 17 since 1990.
Death Penalty Resources
"MCC Washington Office Guide to the Death Penalty"—To order,
contact MCC Washington Office, 110 Maryland Ave, NE, Suite 502,
Washington, DC 20002, 202-544-6564,
Register your congregation to receive updates and alerts on the
| || Against The Death Penalty: Christian and Secular
Arguments Against Capital Punishment, Gardner C. Hanks
| ||Capital Punishment and the Bible, Gardner C. Hanks
| ||Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean
| ||The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey,
James J. Megivern
| ||Murder Close Up, 30 minutes, Mennonite Media
Productions, 1-800-999-3534, $24.95
| ||Dead Man Walking is a major motion picture with Sean
Penn and Susan Sarandon and may be rented at a local
Reconciliation means accepting that you cannot undo
the murder but you can decide how you want to live
—Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation
1 Gardner C. Hanks, Capital Punishment and the Bible (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2002),
2 Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1990)
3 Arthur Paul Boers, Justice That Heals (Newton: Faith and Life Press), p. 35.
4 Capital Punishment and the Bible, pp. 231-232.
5 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 206.
6 Capital Punishment and the Bible, p. 234.
7 Howard Zehr, Who is My Neighbor? (Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Office of
Criminal Justice pamphlet), pp. 10-12.