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Time to address death penalty, SBC resolutions chairman says

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–It was time for the Southern Baptist Convention to address directly the issue of capital punishment, SBC Resolutions Committee chairman Hayes Wicker said.

Messengers to the 2000 meeting voted by an overwhelming margin June 14 in favor of a resolution supporting capital punishment.

The resolution affirms the 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 death penalty should be used only when there is “clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt,” the resolution states. It also calls for “vigilance, justice and equity in the criminal justice system,” with capital punishment “applied as justly and as fairly as possible without undue delay, without reference to the race, class or status of the guilty.”

In the resolution, Southern Baptists are called to pray for and to share the gospel with both the perpetrators and victims of crimes.

The resolution cites several biblical passages, including Genesis 9 and Romans 13, in providing support for the use of capital punishment.

Southern Baptists “have always spoken at crucial times on vital issues, and we have chosen not to be silent, even though issues may be controversial,” said Wicker, pastor of First Baptist Church, Naples, Fla.

“And because there’s so much debate and so much talk swirling around, not only in the media, but in the presidential election, we feel that we as conservative Christians and Southern Baptists must speak out,” he added.

Passage of the resolution came the same week an expansive study on capital punishment was released. The study covered appeals in death-penalty cases from 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, to 1995. It reported two-thirds of convictions in such cases were overturned, mostly because of errors, according to The New York Times.

Adoption of the resolution also followed the delay by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, of an execution while awaiting the results of DNA testing. Since the death penalty was reinstated, 87 inmates have been freed by DNA and other evidence, Newsweek reported in its June 12 issue.

“The heart of [the resolution] is not capital punishment but biblical authority,” Wicker said. “In other words, we don’t operate according to sentiment but [Scripture]. Baptists believe in speaking when the Bible speaks and being silent when the Bible is silent.”

The resolution apparently represents the first time the convention has voted in favor of such a recommendation.

In the only proposal in SBC proceedings found related to the death penalty, messengers in 1964 rejected a call to abolish capital punishment. That year, the then-Christian Life Commission offered a recommendation on the issue affirming the sanctity of human life and urging legislation to clear up abuses of the death penalty.

Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the resolution “a clear and unambiguous statement that we believe in theory the civil magistrate has the right to impose capital punishment in certain circumstances.”

“Romans 13 is very clear that one of the options available to the civil magistrate for crimes that are particularly heinous or involve the wanton taking of human life at the very least is the forfeiture of that person’s life,” Land said.

“I think it’s important this resolution, as I’ve read it, makes it clear that Southern Baptists are aware that it has not been equitably and justly” applied, Land said, citing evidence showing people who are poor and non-white are more likely to be executed. “We’re much more comfortable with capital punishment as an option available to the civil magistrate than we are with all the ways in which it has been applied in this culture.”

There “must be great pains taken in the entire process,” Wicker said. “We are saying that [civil magistrates] may [use capital punishment], not that they must.

“Our resolution is simply trying to underscore the biblical allowance, the civil right and the divine creation of man in [God’s] image. We have to take every opportunity to underscore the sanctity of human life,” he said.

“We feel that we are pro-life in every sense of the world, not only for the unborn children but also for those who also need to have their sanctity of human life unviolated as well.”