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
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. …