Duty to Kill vs. Right to Life

Today the NH Death Penalty Study Commission heard testimony whether continuation of the death penalty should be affected by “evolving standards of decency”. In a letter to the Commission, NH religious leaders called the death penalty “a gravely unjust method of protecting society” that is “unnecessary and unwarranted”. They urged the Commission to recommend repeal of capital punishment.

These 185 religious leaders started from various points of origin in their thinking but these men and women reached the same prudential decision, the death penalty serves no just purpose in our society. The letter along with the presence of faith traditions at the hearing offering testimony underscored the concern of religious leaders for the work being done by the Study Commission.

Is there increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency? We see being played out before us the conflict between the right of the state to take life and the necessity to exercise that right in capital murder cases, versus belief in the sanctity of human life, the right to life, and the equal dignity of all persons that argues for repeal of the death penalty.

Both Jews and Christians share a spiritual heritage that preaches constantly evolving standards of human decency. Thus, for example, when the Bible speaks in the imagery of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” etc. it does so to teach the concept of distributive rather than retributive justice, seeing equal justice as critical and thereby opposing the spirit of unbridled vengeance, seeing it as something to be transcended rather than endorsed as was true in the past.

 “Our respect for human life and our opposition to violence in our society prompts us to join with other death penalty opponents in New Hampshire to advocate for repeal of New Hampshire’s death penalty,” the religious leaders assert in their statement.

The message of these views is that we live in a time of continually evolving moral and ethical standards. We no longer tolerate the torture of people in the name of the law. We do not mutilate criminals or hang the bodies of the condemned in the public square. We are beyond such cruelties, and we believe that capital punishment is also a standard of societal behavior whose time has come and gone, noting that it persists mostly in societies with which we hesitate to identify ourselves.

Those are those who with personal integrity argue that, if it could be applied absolutely without possibility of error, then capital punishment should remain the law of the state. We humbly and respectfully disagree. We would argue that legalistic and legislative overhauling is an insufficient response to what we see as a fundamental moral question: Are we, God’s people, at liberty to take the life of one of our own, really one of God’s own? The teachings of our faiths, applied to our time and place, tell us that when other punishment options exist (life imprisonment without the possibility of parole) then the death penalty is unnecessary, unwarranted and unjust.

For the last 30 years individual states have modified their death penalties to attempt to make capital punishment fair, accurate and effective. After three decades of changes the system continues to fail as evidenced by wrongful convictions, political pressure, bias of geography, bias of race, and human error.

Even in a pluralistic society such as America, the majority of mainstream religious denominations share a common opposition to the death penalty. That should not be surprising since these groups share a common source of spiritual guidance, namely, the Bible, with its profound insistence on the sanctity of human life. That belief leads many to a simple conclusion, namely, that a society that cherishes such an ideal cannot respond to an act of murder by committing a second act of homicide, albeit in the name of justice.

The evolution from the state’s right to kill to the state’s obligation to protect life has been slow. A majority of American religious leaders and moral theologians along with the international human rights community now has joined together in a shared conviction that

Every human being is a person

Every person has universal, inviolable, inalienable rights

Basic to all other rights is the right to life

This right cannot be forfeited by misconduct

Thus everyone has a right not to be killed

Therefore the state has no right to kill.

Individual and organizational membership in NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (www.nodeathpenaltynh.org) itself has been growing throughout this past year.  This Coalition, which includes the NH Council of Churches, has actively engaged in public education and support of the work of the Commission in addition to its legislative advocacy to repeal the death penalty.

The monthly meetings of the state’s Death Penalty Study Commission take place at the Legislative Office Building in Concord.   Members of the public are welcome to attend and offer prepared testimony. The Commission’s progress can be followed at  www.gencourt.state.nh.us/statstudcomm/committees/2009/

David Lamarre-Vincent

Executive Director

N H Council of Churches


NB: Per the request of the submitter, we have replaced the original version with this 'corrected' version.

/Bob DeMaura Owner/Operator NHInsider.com