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Why Do We Kill People Who Kill People?

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada
October 15, 2006

Never does hatred cease by hating in return
(reading 597, Singing the Living Tradition)

Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person,
and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
(Unitarian Universalist Principles)

We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Does every person have inherent worth and dignity? If we’re born with worth and dignity, can our behavior change that status? Do murderers retain worth? Do child molesters retain dignity? Are all people worthy of respect, despite criminal actions?

I’ve asked a lot of questions, many of which remain questions in my mind, if I’m pushed into debate. In my heart, I accept that every person has inherent worth and dignity, though sometimes it’s well hidden. I know that every person is worthy of justice, equity, and compassion.

It’s easy to say those words, harder to make them reality. In the face of seemingly senseless violence, human beings often respond with a desire for vengeance. As a mother, I can only imagine my grief if someone were to kill my child. I would certainly want the perpetrator caught and locked away. Would I want them killed? In yesterday’s newspaper, Marietta Jaeger Lane was quoted, on her response to the murder of her young daughter 33 years ago.

“In the beginning, I readily admit that I wanted to kill him, with my bare hands and a smile on my face, for what he had done to my little girl.”

But, in time, she changed. She says, “I gave God permission to change my heart. If I wanted to stay in good relation with God, I had to get clear of that rage and desire for revenge.” (Reno Gazette-Journal, October 14, 2006, p.1A) It’s a compelling story. I hope you’ll take advantage of the opportunity to hear her speak in Reno next weekend.

Does getting “clear of rage” make room for forgiveness and understanding?  Last week, after ten Amish girls were gunned down in their classroom, five of them killed, members of the community arrived at the killer’s home to offer compassion and forgiveness to his family. Their faith impressed many, as it was widely reported, nationwide. If he had not killed himself, if he had been alive and on the run, or in jail, would they have offered compassion and forgiveness directly to him? Would they have prayed with him, in jail? Or would they have responded differently? I can’t imagine that gentle community expressing hatred and a desire for vengeance. Our responses are influenced by faith, by our belief in the dignity and worth of every person, perhaps that every person is a child of God, and each of us is a being worthy of love.

As a religion with no creed, Unitarian Universalism does not tell you what to believe. I won’t stand up here and read scripture as law. I will offer words from various religions to ponder, and you can accept or reject the teachings:
In Exodus, God commands “You shall not kill” (20:13) and in Leviticus, we are told “You must not exact vengeance, nor must you bear a grudge... You must love your neighbor as yourself.” (19:18)

In the New Testament, Luke quotes Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” (6:27-28) and “Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned.” (6:37) (Bible quotations from the Jerusalem Bible, Reader’s Edition)

Buddhist teachings tell us “Let no one, from antipathy or hatred, wish evil to anyone at all” and “Display a heart of boundless love for all the world.” (reading 598, Singing the Living Tradition)

You can find similar teachings in many religions. Yet some governments retain the power to kill. According to Amnesty International, “China, Iran, the United States, and Viet Nam accounted for 97% of the executions recorded in 2004.”

Does killing people who kill people teach that killing people is wrong?

The Unitarian Universalist Association declares common beliefs through the votes of congregational delegates at our annual General Assemblies. Individuals are not required to accept each one as personal belief, though we are asked to study and consider the statements. If you’ve been to GA, you know how much word-smithing goes on. We don’t easily accept any statement without careful scrutiny. So when I tell you that the death penalty was the subject of five resolutions from 1961 to 1989, you can imagine the debate. The earliest, in 1961, provides the basis for those that followed. It says:

WHEREAS respect for the value of every human life must be incorporated into our laws if it is to be observed by our people; and
WHEREAS, it has not been proved that fear of capital punishment is a  deterrent to crime; and
WHEREAS, modern justice should concern itself with rehabilitation, not retribution; and
WHEREAS, human judgments are not infallible, and no penalty should be used which cannot be revoked in case of error; and
WHEREAS, capital punishment has not always been used impartially among all economic and racial groups in America;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That the Unitarian Universalist  Association urges its churches and fellowships in the United States and     Canada to exert all reasonable efforts toward the elimination of capital punishment...

The General Resolution in 1966 Resolved: That the Unitarian Universalist Association urges the complete abolition of capital punishment in all United States and Canadian jurisdictions...

Eight years later:

WHEREAS, the act of execution of the death penalty by government sets an example of violence;
BE IT RESOLVED: That the 1974 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association continues to oppose the death penalty

After a brief cessation of capital punishment in the United States due to a Supreme Court decision in 1972, (in Furman vs. Georgia, the court held that capital punishment was unconstitutional and struck down state death penalty laws nationwide) many states rewrote their death penalty laws. A GA resolution in 1979 states:

...WHEREAS, the State of Florida has declared its intent to proceed with    the executions of those under the capital sentence in Florida prisons,   numbering more than one hundred, and
WHEREAS, the Florida example may become precedent for a new wave   of capital punishment in numerous other states;
BE IT RESOLVED: That the 1979 General Assembly of the Unitarian         Universalist Association urges the Governor of the State of Florida to        commute all existing death sentences; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That the General Assembly urges     Governors of all other states similarly to commute death sentences and to    prevent the restoration or continuance of capital punishment in any form.

The resolution in 1989 opposed a Supreme Court decision which ruled that the execution of minors from 16 years of age as well as those determined to be mentally retarded was not a violation of the United States Constitution, and urged Congress and state legislatures to protect these classes of individuals.

So Unitarian Universalists, in General Assemblies, have repeatedly declared opposition to the death penalty. But we had no dedicated organization to actively express that opposition until Unitarian Universalists Against the Death Penalty was organized in 1996. With a name change, Unitarian Universalists for Alternatives to the Death Penalty seeks to give witness to the five UUA resolutions I reviewed above. The website,, has a wealth of information, resources, and links to other sites, and is the source of much of the information I have cited here.
The 2005 Statement of Conscience, Criminal Justice and Prison Reform begins: “As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to affirming the inherent goodness and worth of each of us. As Americans, we take pride in our constitutional promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all, including those who have violated the law”...and finishes with A Call to Unitarian Universalists:

Appalled by the gross injustices in our current criminal justice system, we, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association commit ourselves to working in our communities to reform the criminal          justice and correctional systems and effect justice for both victims and    violators. We act in the spirit that we are indeed our sisters' and our brothers' keepers. Love is our governing principle in all human relationships.....
Through ongoing congregational education, advocacy, and action, we can make good on our Unitarian Universalist heritage and our American promise to be both compassionate and just to all in our society. Through our diligence and perseverance in realizing this promise, we can live the core values of our country and extend the values of our faith to the benefit of others.

As a community of faith, you are called to engage in education, advocacy, and action. As a nation known for advocating human rights worldwide, it’s long since time the United States joined the more than 120 nations that have abolished the death penalty. As my friend and colleague, the Rev. Ricky Hoyt, wrote, “The death penalty is morally wrong, not because there are questions of how it is applied and to whom and under what circumstances, but because it simply is, always is, morally wrong.” (Death Penalty, 2001)

And in 1900, Universalist preacher Quillen Shinn said: "A church having for its foundation the law of love, which returns good for evil, will not have discharged its full duty until the death penalty is abolished.”
(Quoted in Williams, G.H. American Universalism. Skinner House 1971, p.58;)

Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person; and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

You’re invited to join Unitarian Universalists for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Their slogan is Execute Justice, not People.

So may it be.


Death Penalty

The death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights. By working towards the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, Amnesty International USA's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty looks to end the cycle of violence created by a system riddled with economic and racial bias and tainted by human error.

Amnesty International
Encourage Worldwide Abolition
Around 124 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Despite international human rights standards, some nations still execute people. Around the world, the death penalty is used as a tool of political repression and a means to forever silence political opponents or eliminate politically "troublesome" individuals.

Witness to Innocence

Since 1973, 122 people throughout the United States have been exonerated of the crimes which put them on death row. Our broken death penalty system puts us in constant danger of killing innocent people.
The Witness to Innocence project will let you hear the voices of the exonerees. Who are they? How could this happen to them? How could we let it happen?
If the imposition of the death penalty is a disgrace to a nation that was founded on principles of justice, human rights and civil liberties, it is even more appalling when death sentences are handed out to those who are innocent. The American criminal justice system is failing to fulfill its highest duty: to protect innocent people from wrongful convictions and death sentences.

  • Since the mid-1970s, 122 people have been exonerated and released from death row, innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.*
  • For every eight prisoners executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one innocent person was condemned to die and later exonerated. How many equally blameless but less fortunate prisoners still await execution or have already gone to their deaths?

The American criminal justice system provides no reliable safeguards against this danger....
Once convicted, a death row prisoner faces enormous obstacles in convincing any court that he or she is innocent.
As long as the death penalty remains a part of the American “justice” system, innocent people will continue to be sentenced to death. Some will be executed. It is inevitable. Ultimately, the abolition of the death penalty is the only guaranteed protection against such tragic mistakes.