Apr 13, 2015

Religious Responses to the Death Penalty

By Adam Santosh
The death penalty is a huge and often contentious issue today, and Texas with its capital punishment laws is at the forefront of all discussions. I recently reviewed an important document by the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which offered some points to ponder from a multi-faith perspective.

This document is entitled "The Death Penalty in Texas: A Study Guide for Texas Faith Communities." It is available for download or can be read online at the Center's website.
The study guide starts out with a basic discussion of the death penalty as it stands in Texas. Some facts include that 2013's execution of Kimberly McCarthy was the 500th execution under state law, and that in 2104 a horribly botched execution in Oklahoma led to a spotlight on all states including Texas. There is no question: many including people of faith, are wondering why we still have the death penalty, and how we can work towards a more human manner of punishments for even the most horrific crimes.
According to this study guide, the issue of capital punishment is a deeply religious one. Most importantly is an understanding that our legal system is not perfect, and many innocent people can and are convicted of crimes they did not commit. For instance the guide states:
A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that over four percent of all those sentenced to death in the United States from 1973 through 2004  were innocent. The percentage of innocent people sentenced to death (4.1%) is more than double the percentage of those actually exonerated and freed from death row during the study period (1.6%). These national figures bolster the widely-held concern that Texas has executed innocent people (Pg. 5).
So what are people of faith to do about this? As the guide explains, religion is one context in which we can view this dilemma. It talks about the Abrahamic faiths, and how human dignity, forgiveness and mercy are all important aspects of our belief systems. For instance, Christians are taught to turn the other cheek, and Muslims learn that mercy is one of the attributes of Allah.  Similarly, many religions preach nonviolence, such as Buddhism, while many like Judaism reserve the right to punish only with God (Pg. 5-6).
The Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy recommends that faith communities discuss the issue of the death penalty amongst its congregations in order to try to raise awareness of this issue. Some questions to think about are: 

What does your faith tradition say about the death penalty? What do members of your faith community think about the death penalty? Do these two things differ, and if so, why? Have you ever discussed this issue in your faith community or heard your faith leader address it?

Originally from Hawaii, Adam Santosh is a writer and artist based in Houston, TX. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.  

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