On Capital Punishment

What does The United Methodist Church believe on the subject of Capital Punishment? That’s a very good question, and one that I’ve been asked several times both before and since Karla Fay Tucker’s execution. Just as many people don’t know that the UMC has Doctrinal Standards which we uphold, so also many people don’t know that our denomination has a body of “Social Principles” which serve to help guide its individual members in their Christian walk. Regarding the Social Principles, the General Conference has said:

“The Social Principles are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions. They are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit. The Social Principles are a call to all members of the United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.” (The United Methodist Book of Discipline, Part III, Preface to the “Social Principles”)

According to Paragraph 509 of the Book of Discipline, the only body which can speak for The United Methodist Church is the General Conference ... and the formal statements of the General Conference are found, primarily, in the Book of Discipline itself, and also in the Book of Resolutions. The Book of Discipline contains what some would call “Church law,” while the Book of Resolutions contains “Church Opinion.” However, to say that everything in the Book of Discipline is required for United Methodists to do and/or believe would not be correct. Certain things in the Book of Discipline are not negotiable -- for example, the Doctrinal Standards, while not precisely stated, are nevertheless unalterable and quite beyond the pale of debate. We can talk about what they mean, and how we should interpret them, but we are not at any liberty to change them or to deny that they state our formal Doctrinal positions. Methodists have, in the past, voiced disagreement with the Doctrinal Standards, and of course we are free to disagree, but doing so is far more problematic than disagreement with, for example, the Church’s position on how a congregation should be structured, or what the Church teaches on the subjects of abortion, birth control, or even Capital Punishment. In other words, while the Doctrinal Standards are not really open for debate or revision, the Social Principles are not so protected and, indeed, are open for revision each and every time the General Conference meets. Methodists are free to consider, reflect upon, debate with, and disagree on the teachings of the Social Principles. They are not, strictly speaking, binding.

That being said, there is much in the Social Principles with which most of us would agree wholeheartedly. It is, after all, the product of the General Conference, and the General Conference is an elected body representing the various Annual Conferences, including our own, and our Annual Conference is made up of delegates from the congregations and the clergy of our conference, including Beverly Drive United Methodist Church. Hence, the General Conference reflect us to a very great degree. Nevertheless, I am certain that, were any of you to read the Social Principles, you could take a pen and check those things with which you agreed and those things with which you disagreed. Even we clergy, who are bound to teach the Doctrinal Standards and support the Social Principles by our vows of ordination, are fee to dispute the Social Principles. And, yes, I have done so from time to time.

So, given all this, what do the “Social Principles” have to say about Capital Punishment?

“In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of genuinely new systems for the care and support of victims of crime and for rehabilitation that will restore, preserve, and nurture the humanity of the imprisoned. For the same reason, we oppose capital punishment and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.” (Paragraph 68 F)

The Book of Resolutions amplifies this position of our Social Principles with the following statement, which was originally adopted in 1980:

“The United Methodist Church cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life. It violates our deepest belief in God as the Creator and the Redeemer of humankind. In this respect, there can be no assertion that human life can be taken humanely by the state. Indeed, in the long run, the use of the death penalty by the state will increase the acceptance of revenge in our society and will give official sanction to a climate of violence.... The United Methodist Church declares its opposition to the retention and use of capital punishment in any form or carried out by any means; the Church urges the abolition of capital punishment.” (pp. 502-504, The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 1996)

According to the Book of Discipline, the above constitutes the formal position of the denomination -- as represented by the General Conference -- on the subject of Capital Punishment. All clergy and official representatives are directed to state the formal position without further amplification when speaking FOR the denomination.

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This being said, I will admit that, at a personal level, I generally agree with this position of our Social Principles. In my opinion, life is far too precious for me to sanction its taken for any reason other than self-defense or defense of an innocent loved one. While I will not shed a tear when Timothy McVeigh is executed for blowing up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, the execution of Karla Fay Tucker -- like the execution of so many -- seemed, to me, to be a waste of human life.

© 2000, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved