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Differing views on capital punishment embraced by state conventions in Texas

DALLAS (BP)–Two state Baptist conventions have voiced contrasting views on capital punishment in the United States.

Out of the Baptist General Convention of Texas comes a call for a moratorium on the death penalty by its Texas Christian Life Commission with the belief that biblical teaching does not support capital punishment as practiced in contemporary society.

From the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention comes a reaffirmation by the Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the view expressed in a resolution passed by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 that capital punishment is a just and appropriate means by which the civil magistrate may punish those guilty of capital crimes.

In a Jan. 10 vote, the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission of the BGCT also supported legislation that would allow Texas juries the sentencing option of life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty. Only one commissioner objected, preferring the call for a moratorium be separated from support of sentencing options, according to a BGCT news release.

Acting in the agency’s role of speaking to BGCT churches and not for them, all but two of the BGCT commission members present approved the report examining issues related to capital punishment. The report states that “the practice of capital punishment in our nation and state is an affront to biblical justice, both in terms of its impact on the marginalized in society and in terms of simple fairness.”

Commenting on biblical passages addressing the importance of obeying God’s commands and profound respect for human life, the BGCT report stated that Scripture not only places limits on revenge, as reflected in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but also moves beyond retribution to “transforming initiatives.” Creative confrontation and constructive community-building are cited as the methods Jesus used to avoid even limited retaliation.

Of particular concern to the BGCT is the way Texas applies the death penalty, with the commission’s report calling the pattern unjust in terms of its impact on racial minorities, the poor, juvenile offenders and inmates who mistakenly are convicted. Noting that the United States ranks third in the total number of executions worldwide since 1998, the report also notes that Texas has carried out one-third of them.

The SBC resolution affirmed by the SBTC ethics committee on Jan. 23, meanwhile, recognizes the importance of fair and equitable application of the death penalty without reference to the race, class or status of the guilty. “We support fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death,” the SBC resolution states.

SBTC committee member Howard Thompson, pastor of Baxter Baptist Church in Athens, stated, “Some perceive a contradiction in the biblical Christian’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia and simultaneous support for the death penalty. There is, however, no contradiction. The same motive exists in each case because we affirm that every human is created in the image of God. We are not dismissing the life of a murderer — we are affirming the value of the life of the victim.”

In an upcoming editorial for the SBTC journal Southern Baptist Texan, editor Gary Ledbetter acknowledged that capital punishment is not fairly administered in America, but challenged using a moratorium as a remedy. He argues that the death penalty has a sound biblical foundation based on the justice and holiness of God.

“Better that we do the hard thing. Put the blindfold back on justice and provide adequate defense for all the accused. The burden must remain on our legal system to provide equal treatment under the law. Doing away with problematic penalties takes the burden to reform off those we have assigned to do just that thing.”

Among the dissenting BGCT commissioners, Cy Fletcher of Baytown supported the call for a moratorium but voted against adopting the report on capital punishment, questioning how the principles would be applied to the use of deadly force by police or prison guards.

“I support the option of life without parole,” he said, according to the BGCT news release. “Yet that raises a question. How do we hold people for life against their will without the threat and use of deadly force? In the future, are we going to hear protests that the impersonal shock of an electrical fence is murder by proxy and the split-second decisions of a prison guard should be viewed the same way?”

Bobby Broyles, pastor of First Baptist Church in Earth, noted the report’s reference to 16th-century Anabaptist Menno Simons’ argument that if a murderer genuinely repents and turns to God, then that person is a new creation and a brother in Christ. If the murderer does not repent, then executing him would rob him of future opportunities to repent and be spared from punishment in hell. “Sending somebody into eternity without Jesus is a grave thing to consider,” Broyles said, according to the BGCT news release.

Charles Kemble from First Baptist Church of Universal City spoke of the transforming power of God’s love on even the most abused and abusive person. “Whereas electricity and chemicals can kill people, love can change people,” he said.

Taking a different perspective, Ledbetter warned, “A nation that determines a penalty for a crime and then does not regularly assign that penalty breaks faith with its people and the God that established it.” He referenced God telling Noah that a reckoning for bloodguilt was demanded by the image of God in the victim. “It is thus the person of God who is offended by murder whenever man wrongly takes the prerogative of God on himself. God specifically assigns this mandate to governments,” he said, citing Romans 13:1-7.

While the SBTC committee’s position reaffirms the SBC capital punishment resolution in 2000, the BGCT’s call for a moratorium is similar to that of the Texas Conference of Churches, an ecumenical communion of 13 Protestant, Catholic and Greek Orthodox denominations with whom the BGCT recently resumed dialogue.

BGCT Texas Christian Life Commission director Phil Strickland told the Dallas Morning News that while the state convention has never formally joined the Texas Conference of Churches, the two groups have had a strong collegial relationship for many years. BGCT representatives met with TCC leaders last year for half-day sessions in six Texas cities to discuss the role that people of faith can play in public policy areas such as capital punishment.

According to a report on the TCC website, Strickland emphasized the important role people of faith play when they bring their message into the state policy arena. “Faithful voices are those without special interests. They call out for change making life better for all Texans,” the report quotes Strickland as telling those gathered in San Antonio and McAllen. People of faith get closest to Christ when they bring justice into society, Strickland said.

The Texas Conference of Churches indicated that almost 200 Texans in six cities gathered for the half-day Interfaith Policy Institutes sponsored by the TCC, the BGCT Christian Life Commission, United Methodist Women, Texas Impact and the American Jewish Congress. Each institute began with interfaith worship and a plenary session during which two long-term advocates from various faiths dialogued about their work and experiences. Workshops addressed the state budget, environment, capital punishment and campaign financing.

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