From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
National church bodies share historic opposition to death
26 Jan 1998 05:45:44
Jan. 26, 1998
Office of Communication
United Church of Christ
Hans Holznagel, (216) 736-2214
On the Web: www.ucc.org
Office of Communication
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Clifford L. Willis, (317) 635-3113, ext. 207
On the Web: www.disciples.org
National Council of Churches
Carol Fouke, (212) 870-2252
On the Web: www.ncccusa.org
National church bodies share
historic opposition to death penalty
The three church bodies whose leaders today called for a
Texas convict's life to be spared have been on record against capital
punishment since the 1950s and 1960s.
The General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples
of Christ) and its predecessor body first spoke in opposition to
capital punishment in 1957. The General Synod of the United
Church of Christ has been on record against the death penalty since
1969. Both churches have since reaffirmed their historic positions
The National Council of Churches position against the
death penalty dates back to a 1968 General Board statement.
The nearly 1-million-member Christian Church (Disciples
of Christ) has 3,900 congregations in the U.S. and Canada. The
General Assembly, which meets biennially, attracts about 8,000
persons half of whom are voting representatives.
The 1.5-million-member United Church of Christ, with
offices in Cleveland, has more than 6,000 local churches in the
United States and Puerto Rico. Its General Synod is a body of
approximately 700 delegates that also meets biennially.
The churches are two of the 33 member communions of
the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., which
include Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican bodies.
In the UCC's and the Disciples' systems of governance,
Synod and Assembly resolutions and national leaders' statements
are not binding upon other parts of the church. Local churches and
members are free to hold differing opinions.
Following are texts of resolutions from the three bodies.
A "Resolution to Abolish Capital Punishment," adopted
by the United Church of Christ's 7th General Synod, July 2, 1969, in
"Whereas the Committee for Racial Justice, the Council
for Christian Social Action, and the UCC Ministers for
Racial and Social Justice are unalterably opposed to
capital punishment and cannot remain silent regarding its
continuance in our society, and
"Whereas the human agencies of legal justice are
"Whereas we are concerned about the disproportionate
number of black and poor who occupy death row and,
white or black, are victims of an evil which decent people
of our society have too long endured and which violates
categorically our Judeo-Christian ethic, and
"Whereas this outdated and barbaric practice has been
found to discriminate on the basis of skin color and
economic condition, and
"Whereas the last-minute stay of execution of 17-year-
old Marie Hill in the gas chamber of North Carolina
reminds us that one of the gross injustices in our judicial
system is the retention of this barbaric practice.
"Therefore be it resolved that the United Church of
Christ commit itself to join in
a nationwide campaign for the abolition of capital
punishment and call upon other secular and religious
institutions to join in a maximum effort for the abolition
of capital punishment in the following:
"a. Enlisting the support of Conferences and of other
denominations and agencies and co-operating with
existing efforts to abolish capital punishment.
"b. Developing legislative and other political action for
the abolition of capital punishment.
"c. Resisting efforts to reinstitute capital punishment in
those states where it has been abolished.
"d. Testing the constitutionality of laws permitting
"e. Making available and assisting in the raising of
funds to pursue the above."
The Disciples' earliest resolution against the death penalty
was passed by the then International Convention of Christian
Churches (Disciples of Christ). The measure, passed during the
1957 Cleveland meeting, states:
"We believe that Christians can no longer justify
support of the practice of capital punishment. It has
become increasingly clear that the certainty of
apprehension and conviction rather than severity of
punishment is the real deterrent to crime. Under such
circumstances the death sentence becomes not a real
protection to society but only a crude form of vengeance
of retributive justice. Christian justification of punishment
is always found in the hope of rehabilitation of the
offender; since dead people cannot be rehabilitated, we
can in no way defend capital punishment on Christian
"In a very real sense also the practice of capital
punishment stands in the way of more creative,
redemptive and responsible treatment of crime and
criminals: There is the danger that society by
concentrating attention on the execution of a few
criminals may mislead its members into thinking that it is
dealing effectively with crime prevention. Christians must
insist upon the importance of crime prevention and the
rehabilitation of offenders rather than upon retribution."
A policy statement of the National Council of Churches,
titled "Abolition of the Death Penalty" and adopted by the NCC's
General Board on Sept. 13, 1968, reads:
"In support of current movements to abolish the death
penalty, the National Council of Churches hereby declares
its opposition to capital punishment. In so doing, it finds
itself in substantial agreement with a number of member
denominations which have already expressed opposition
to the death penalty.
"Reasons for taking this position include the following:
"(1) The belief in the worth of human life and the
dignity of human personality as gifts of God;
"(2) A preference for the rehabilitation rather than
retribution in the treatment of offenders;
"(3) Reluctance to assume the responsibility of
arbitrarily terminating the life of a fellow-being solely
because there has been a transgression of law;
"(4) Serious question that the death penalty serves as a
deterrent to crime, evidenced by the fact that the homicide
rate has not increased disproportionally in those states
where capital punishment has been abolished;
"(5) The conviction that institutionalized disregard for
the sanctity of human life contributes to the brutalization
"(6) The possibility of errors in judgment and the
irreversibility of the penalty which make impossible any
restitution to one who has been wrongfully executed;
"(7) Evidence that economically poor defendants,
particularly members of racial minorities, are more likely
to be executed than others because they cannot afford
exhaustive legal defenses;
"(8) The belief that not only the severity of the penalty
but also its increasing infrequency and the ordinarily long
delay between sentence and execution subject the
condemned person to cruel, unnecessary and unusual
"(9) The belief that the protection of society is served as
well by measures of restraint and rehabilitation, and that
society may actually benefit from the contribution of the
"(10) Our Christian commitment to seek the redemption
and reconciliation of the wrong-doer, which are frustrated
by his execution.
"Seventy-five nations of the world and thirteen states of
the United States have abolished the death penalty with no
evident detriment to social order. It is our judgment that
the remaining jurisdictions should move in the same
"In view of the foregoing, the National Council of
Churches urges abolition of the death penalty under
federal and state law in the United States, and urges
member denominations and state and local councils of
churches actively to promote the necessary legislation to
secure this end, particularly in the thirty-seven states
which have not yet eliminated capital punishment."
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