Episcopal Church Statement on Federal Executions
“Jesus told us that the greatest gift we could give is to lay down our own lives for another. Conversely, the taking of another life must be viewed as the greatest sacrilege.” The Most Reverend Edmond L. Browning, XXIV Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church
“If it is not about love, it is not about God” The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, XXVII and Current Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church
On July 25th, the Attorney General announced the Trump Administration’s intention to begin carrying out federal executions for the first time since 2003. Since 1958, The Episcopal Church has taught that the sacredness of life requires that no individual or group of individuals have the right to unnecessarily take the life of another person. The taking of a human life can be necessary in self-defense and war, but as retribution for even the most heinous crimes it is not justified.
In ages past, prior to the development of modern prison systems, execution was a method to protect the community from future crimes. St. Paul recognized the reality of this necessity to use force to restrain greater evil. Even in this scenario, execution was not the right or prerogative of the state, but a necessity for communal safety that no longer exists.
Even if our justice system never wrongly convicted, condemned, and killed an innocent person, even if our justice system was equitable in sentencing, capital punishment would not be justified. The death penalty is not theologically justifiable, in part because it is not necessary for the protection of innocent people and the state cannot morally justify killing for the sake of vengeance. In the Old Testament, animal and human sacrifice was used to reestablish the moral balance that sin destroyed by making an offering of those animals and people to God. Christ’s death atoned for all human sin, past, present, and future, thus reestablishing moral balance for all time.
The premeditated and unnecessary killing of a person is unchristian and beyond the legitimate powers of the state. Therefore, The Episcopal Church condemns the decision by the Administration to execute prisoners. We call on the President to reverse this decision and utilize his Constitutional power to commute the sentences of all those condemned to death to life in prison without parole.
The Office of Government Relations encourages Episcopalians to read and reflect on:
The report to the 73rd General Convention by the Standing Commission on National Concerns article on capital punishment, found on page 357 as numbered which is page 25 of the PDF, from which the Biblical and theological basis of this statement is drawn.
Former Presiding Bishop Browning’s Open Statement on Capital Punishment of 1990.
A joint Pastoral Letter from the Episcopal Bishop and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta in response to the Supreme Court’s 1976 restoration of the death penalty.
Read below for a narrative summary of Episcopal Church policies on the death penalty:
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention, the Church’s legislative governing body, first expressed formal opposition to the death penalty in 1958. The Convention of 1958 expressed its opposition to the death penalty claiming that individual life is of great worth in the eyes of God. The resolution passed by that Convention, noted that the taking of human lives falls only within the providence of the Lord, not within that of humans. This action from the Church came in support of a movement among states to abolish capital punishment individually.
In 1979, The Episcopal Church reaffirmed is opposition to capital punishment, charging people and dioceses of the Church to actively work to advocate for its abolition in their individual states. The Church similarly reaffirmed their opposition to the death penalty in 1991, adding that the Presiding Bishop, Edmond L. Browning, would send a statement on capital punishment to Congress, the President, and the Attorney General. The Episcopal Church has continued to stand by its opposition in 2000, where it also called for an immediate moratorium on the use of capital punishment, as well as again in 2015. At the most recent General Convention in 2018, the Church called for all persons sentenced to death in the United States to have their sentenced reduced, consistent with The Episcopal Church’s historic death penalty opposition.
The continued calls of The Episcopal Church to abolish the death penalty are evidence of the Church’s commitment to the Christian Doctrine of redemption and the intrinsic value of all life. In order to truly abolish the death penalty, federal legislation is necessary. This legislative action however, will only come from a change of hearts. As Christians, called to God’s mission of love, and Episcopalians, who have long opposed the notion of capital punishment, our responsibility is to advocate and educate in order to portray a loving Christian nature in all of our actions, and to call our government to do the same.