Death-Penalty Issue Stirs Divergent Religious Views McVeigh Case Inspires Debate on Moral Aspects of Society's Ultimate Sanction

Article excerpt

When Lutheran Bishop William Lazareth preaches on the death penalty, he avoids moralizing about compassion. The deeper issue, he feels, is the effect executions have on society. "They cheapen our sense of life, our sense of what is sacred," says Bishop Lazareth of Princeton, N.J.

Assembly of God minister Dennis Pigman, for six years a chaplin on death row in Arkansas, holds a different view. He believes the death penalty is justified in "extreme" cases, but too often is carried out for political reasons.

The two men symbolize some of the divergent and complex views that permeate the religious community as capital punishment reemerges as a major issue in the United States. Ever since the days of Cain and Abel, religious ethics and morals have played a role in the debate over punishing criminals. Now, as pro-death-penalty sentiment sweeps the country, bringing record numbers of executions in states like Texas, church leaders are again urging Americans to examine the issue in all its dimensions. The debate over the death penalty has resurfaced in two explosive public trials coming to an end this week - that of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Jesse Timmendequas, whose killing of a 7-year-old in New Jersey brought "Megan's Laws" to states around the country, requiring sex offenders to notify the town they move to. Roman Catholic bishops were the first to weigh in. Earlier this week they urged that Mr. McVeigh's life be spared. "The question turns on what does capital punishment do to us as a society rather than what does it do to the perpetrator of the crime," said Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, speaking for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. For about 30 years the Catholic church in America has steadily opposed any form of capital punishment. Protestant clergy and Jewish rabbis take a less consistent position against the death penalty - though an estimated 80 percent oppose it as a general or routine punishment. Some Protestants, for example, use scriptural references like Romans 13, where the Apostle Paul mentions "the sword" of the state, to justify the state's right to execute prisoners. But most ministers and clergy in mainstream denominations, such as Lutherans and Presbyterians, feel the death penalty is not a wise policy. Many individuals, however, don't agree with the stand of their church leaders: Polls consistently show a majority of Americans favor capital punishment. FUNDAMENTALIST Christians and orthodox Jews tend to be more consistent supporters of the death penalty. David Brown, for example, a Baptist minister in Oak Creek, Wis., argues that the statement in Genesis that whoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed is a scriptural basis for the death penalty. "Murder is an outrage to Almighty God .... biblically, that person must shed his or her life." In the late 1960s, the American religious community, along with secular liberal activists, were part of the move to largely end the death penalty in the US. …