Ecumenical Statement by Rhode Island Churches on the Death Penalty, 1976
February 19, 1976
The matter of the death penalty is one to which we, as a group of religious leaders in our state, feel we should address ourselves at this time. Our aim is to give the religious teaching concerning it, in order to assist those who are making efforts to clarify their thoughts about this very complex and difficult question.
There are two sources from which we draw information: (1) sacred scripture and (2) the teaching of churches and synagogues through the ages. With them as a basis, we can make a theological analysis of our present day circumstances and draw what we believe to be sound conclusions.
I. From Sacred Scriptures
The book of Genesis addresses the same problem and conflict we face today. It is the tension between the inviolable sacredness of human life on the one hand, and man's responsibility for safeguarding the well-being of the community.
The biblical authors regarded life as the gift of the life-giving God himself: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:23) "Then the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." (Gen. 2:7) For one person to deprive another of that gift is an affront to the creator himself.
There are many scriptural references that make the point that the murderer must be punished. Nevertheless, biblical tradition is also replete with reminders that vengeance belongs to the Lord and that he enjoins the qualities of compassion and forgiveness on those believers in the biblical revelation of God. (Among these references are: Deut. 32:35 Rom. 12:19; Ps 103:10-18). For these inspired authors only the sacredness of life and the protection of society—not the willful destruction of human life—can serve as a normative force in the imposition of a penalty for crime.
II. From the Religious Teaching of Our Traditions
Traditionally, moral theology has attempted to come to grips with this age-old tension between the sacredness of life and society's need to protect itself from the criminal who has committed serious crime.
It has been acknowledged that the state has the authority to inflict capital punishment provided that certain well-defined conditions are met. These are:
- That the death penalty be imposed only by duly constituted authority, so that a penalty of death cannot be indiscriminately meted out;
- There must be a proportionate reason for the imposition of the death penalty;
- There must be no other avenue open to society whereby it might protect itself from heinous crimes, other than by resorting to the death penalty itself.
Even given the situation where all these conditions exist, our religious traditions have considered the death penalty as a last resort. This is to be tolerated only for a greater good; other solutions should be sought so that this drastic and irrevocable act could be avoided.
III. The Question Today
The question today which arises in our day, as it has in times past, is whether there are, in fact, sufficient reasons for allowing the death penalty to continue to exist in our state. We must answer these questions:
- Are there not ways, other than the destruction of human life, which will enable society to protect itself and its members from those crimes which are themselves a destruction of human life, a violation of human dignity, and a threat to society?
- Does capital punishment, in fact, serve as a deterrent to crime and promote the societal value of human life?
- Cannot a reform of our system of jurisprudence, improvement in our correctional facilities and more intense rehabilitation efforts serve the same protective purpose in society as was hitherto envisioned by the imposition of the death penalty?
To the extent that society has recourse to these means rather than to the death penalty, society itself will receive the protection to which it has a right and the inalienable dignity of the human person will be unequivocally affirmed.
IV. Our Judgment
After careful consideration of all these premises, it is our conclusion that, in our society, the imposition of the death penalty is no longer an adequate and justifiable way of dealing with the problem of serious crime in our midst.
This does not mean we deny or lessen society's right and duty to protect itself and to punish those who perpetrate serious crimes against the human person and society itself. Rather, we affirm that presently in the state of Rhode Island there are no justifying reasons for the imposition of the death penalty. We further affirm that there is a higher value than that of punishment, namely, the value of all human life as a sacred gift from God. The belief that the person has an inalienable dignity demands our affirmation that the imposition of the death penalty is unwarranted within our present capabilities and in our present circumstances.
It is the same respect for human life which requires us to affirm at the same time that murder itself is a most serious sin. We turn our attention to those bereaved who have been deprived of loved ones and family, indeed of spouse and parent, because of murder or other serious crimes.
Society must reach out to those who are left behind. They must be supported, both physically and spiritually, as our brothers and sisters who stand in need because of the presence of sin in the world.
V. Appeals or Calls
Our present circumstances and our religious traditions prompt us to proclaim the value of every human life and the dignity of every human person and thus call into question the imposition of the death penalty in Rhode Island. We recognize that our proclamation is also a call to others for:
- A further commitment by every person of good will to greater protection of society;
- The affirmation of the God-given value of life;
- The satisfaction of human need for the alleviation of every human want.
- The promotion of justice in society, and peace among men.
It is our belief that the imposition of the death penalty in today's society is an attack upon the inviolability of human life and an affront to human dignity. Our opposition to the death penalty is also an affirmation of the sacredness of all human life and an appeal to all for greater individual and societal efforts for a more humane and just society.