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Therefore Be It Resolved . . .

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lakeland, Florida – October 9, 2005
(used with permission)

Unitarian Universalists know a lot about capital punishment and the death penalty! Over the centuries, we have been the victims of it. For example: On October 27th, 1553 in Geneva, Switzerland, that great Christian, John Calvin, caused our own Michael Servetus to be burned at the stake on the charge of heresy because he had written a book entitled On the Errors of the Trinity. [Schulman, 188] On October 19th, 1562, in Venice, Italy, Giulo Guirlada was taken out to sea, wrapped in chains, placed on a plank between two boats, and executed by being caused to sink and drown when the boats separated. The crime? Belonging to a Unitarian society! [Schulman, 185] On December 16th, 1611, in Warsaw, Poland, Iwan Tyszkiewicz, had his tongue cut out for blasphemy, had one hand and one foot cut off for throwing a crucifix on the ground, was beheaded and had his body burned, all for defending what his accusers called his Unitarian heresy. [Charlie’s; cf. Wilbur, 168f.]

Of course, over the centuries, things gradually improved. But, in England, prior to the American Revolution, there were still over 350 capital offenses, and many of those crimes continued to be considered capital offenses in the American colonies. Besides murder, treason, rape, and theft, a person could be executed for blasphemy, idolatry, witchcraft, and sodomy. [Anderson, 405] Although the number dwindled to only 12 capital offenses in the average colony by the 1700s, the number had grown much beyond that by 1900, and in 1994 Congress added 70 more crimes to the list. [Skorneck, A4]

Being blasphemous or heretical no longer gets you executed in the United States, thank goodness! However, there remain dozens of crimes for which you can be sentenced to death, and the chances of that happening rise dramatically if you are poor or are a person of color. You might think that the physically handicapped or the mentally retarded would be exempt. But in America, that has not been the case. [Greenberg, A14] In fact, not even being a child or being innocent has protected Americans from being executed! [Barbosa, B1f.; Anderson, 438, 432; “Methods,” 877; Word, B3]

I’m here today to tell you that there are some things that ought to be considered so immoral, unethical, unjust, and disgusting that they ought not to be tolerated within a civilized society. I’m sure you have your own list, but a few of the things on my list include: cruelty to animals and children, pedophilia, abuse of women, discrimination based on age, sex, race, religion, or sexual orientation; heinous crimes such as murder, robbery, rape, or treason, and the cold-blooded killing of imprisoned convicts who are no longer a threat to society precisely because they are in prison.

Before I give you reasons for believing that capital punishment ought to be abolished, let me bring you up to date on where things currently stand.

Out of the world’s 196 nations, 120 have “abolished the death penalty in law or practice.” [Faith, 12] Many of the remaining nations “shroud their death penalty systems in secrecy” so that no reliable numbers are available concerning their executions. However, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning [1977] Amnesty International (whose executive director is our own former U.U.A. President, William F. Schultz) has documented 3,797 executions in 25 countries just in the year 2004. “97% of these took place in China, Iran, the United States and Vietnam.” Indeed, since the United States’ Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the U.S. has executed more than 950 people, and, as of April of this year, some 3,500 men and women are on death row in America. [No More Killing; Arbitrary] 38 out of our 50 states continue to condone capital punishment; and even in those states which do not, it can still be administered under U.S. federal and military law. [Faith, 16, 29] It is also worth noting, that America’s “Bible Belt is the killing belt.” [Lowery, in Faith, 17] President Bush’s own state of Texas “leads the nation in executions, with over one-third of the 974 total executions…since 1976.” That number exceeds the number of killings performed by the “next five executing states combined.” [Join]

Another shocking fact is this: “Until the U.S. Supreme Court declared the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional on March 1, 2005, the U.S. had led the world in executions of juvenile offenders.” [No More] That hasn’t stopped other countries, of course. Neither has the existence of international human rights treaties which outlaw the execution of anyone under 18 at the time he or she committed the crime in question. Since 1990, 8 countries are known to have executed juvenile offenders: China, Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States which executed the most, 19. [Faith, 14]

Other countries also use capital punishment as “a tool of political repression and a means to forever silence political opponents or eliminate ‘troublesome’ individuals.” [No More]

In a nutshell, that’s the current sorry state of affairs with capital punishment.
Why should we care?
Why should we consider abolishing the death penalty?

Well, I’m going to give you some reasons. First, I’m going to appeal to your highest moral, ethical, and spiritual values. Next, I am going to appeal to your lowest, basest, crassest instincts; and, finally, I am going to remind you of where Unitarian Universalism stands.
From the perspective of moral, ethical, and spiritual values, I would offer you the following nine items:

[1] “The death penalty defies international human rights standards.” Since 1948, there have been at least ten international declarations prohibiting capital punishment. In that year, the United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaimed every individual’s right to life and stated that no one shall be subjected to cruel or degrading punishment. More recently, in 1993, the International War Crimes Tribunal refused to endorse the death penalty even for the most heinous crimes such as genocide. [Defies. Emphasis added in all nine topical items.]

[2] “The death penalty violates the rights of foreign internationals.” Since 1988, 21 foreign nationals have been executed in the United States—with virtually none of them having been informed of their legal right to communicate with their own nation’s consular representatives as required by the Vienna Convention which the U.S. ratified in 1969. Indeed, two international courts have declared that the U.S. is guilty of “arbitrary deprivation of life” in these cases. There are currently around 120 foreign nationals on death row in America. [Foreign]

[3] “The death penalty disregards mental illness.” International law prohibits the execution of persons who are “insane.” In the United States, “the execution of the insane…violates the U.S. Constitution.” (Ford v. Wainwright, 1986) However, “insanity” means only that a person does “not understand the reason for, or the reality of, his or her punishment.” Legal protection for other forms of mental illness is minimal, and persons with severe mental diseases, such as paranoid schizophrenia, have been executed. [Mental Illness]

[4] “The death penalty is racially biased.” Studies show that there is “differential treatment of African-Americans at every turn in the [American] criminal justice system. From initial charging decisions to plea bargaining to jury sentencing, African-Americans are treated more harshly when they are defendants, and their lives are accorded less value when they are victims.” Indeed, in the United States, “the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (over 80%) have been executed for killing white victims, although African-Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.” There is also the fact that all-white juries are still commonplace. [Racially]

[5] “The death penalty is arbitrary and unfair.” In 1994, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote: “Twenty years have passed since this Court declared that the death penalty must be imposed fairly, and with reasonable consistency, or not at all… [Yet, today,] the death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake.” American capital punishment is unfair because (a) 95% of death row inmates cannot afford their own attorney, and many court-appointed attorneys are poor in quality, overworked, underpaid, and unmotivated; and (b) prosecutors seek the death penalty far more frequently when the victim is white. American capital punishment is arbitrary because: (a) co-defendants charged with the same crime often get different punishments; (b) each prosecutor decides whether or not to seek the death penalty based upon local politics, plea bargaining and random factors; and (c) 80% of executions occur in “the South” making geographic location an issue. [Arbitrary]

[6] “The Federal death penalty is arbitrary and overreaching.” Even within states which do not have the death penalty, the U.S. Attorney General can conduct executions, as can the U.S. military. Over 60 different offenses can bring about the death penalty. As in regular criminal cases, racial and geographical disparities abound. [Federal]

[7] “The death penalty costs more” than other punishments. Studies show that death penalty cases cost far more than life imprisonment cases, ranging from 48% more in Tennessee to 70% more in Kansas. Abolishing capital punishment would save every state “tens of millions of dollars” annually. The surprising news is that “the greatest costs…occur prior to and during trial, not in post-conviction proceedings.” Moreover, it should not be forgotten that “the death penalty diverts resources from genuine crime control measures” such as crime prevention programs, mental health treatment, education, rehabilitation, drug treatment and services to crime victims. [Costs]

[8] “The death penalty is not a deterrent.” Studies show that in states with capital punishment, the homicide rate remains between 50 and 100% higher than in states without it. In fact, 10 out of the 12 states that do not have the death penalty have a homicide rate that is lower than the national average. It should further be remembered that “the threat of execution…is unlikely to enter the minds of those acting under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, those who are in the grip of fear or rage, those who are panicking while committing another crime…or those who suffer from mental illness…” Furthermore, studies also show that “the death penalty has a brutalizing effect” on society with homicide rates going up in jurisdictions that have resumed capital punishment following a moratorium, and with higher violent crime rates existing in jurisdictions with the death penalty compared to those without. [Deterrent]

[9] “The death penalty claims innocent lives.” Since 1973, more than 115 people have been released from death rows because their convictions were shown to have been wrong due to their innocence, their having had inadequate legal representation, there having been police and/or prosecutorial misconduct, perjured testimony, or racial bias. Most important of all, is the fact that the death penalty is irreversible: there is no way to say “I’m sorry” or to compensate an innocent person who has been executed! [Innocent]
If those nine arguments fail to turn you against the death penalty, then you probably belong to that group of blood-thirsty people who are more motivated by vengeance than reason. So let me now appeal to your lowest, basest, crassest instincts instead as I point out the following:

If revenge and horrible punishment is what you want, then capital punishment is not the answer! Let’s be serious here, and put aside all the mythological mumbo-jumbo that, like small children afraid of the dark, we turn to for false comfort when we contemplate our own deaths or the deaths of our loved ones. In our mind and in our heart of hearts we know that there is no reliable proof of life after death. We understand that this life is all there is. We now need to apply that knowledge to capital punishment.

If there were a Hell, we might hope that Satan would eternally punish the villains of this world. But, as Unitarian Universalists, we long ago dismissed Hell as an evil myth.

If we still believed in that other place, that would mean that executing someone would instantly send him to Heaven to be with God to enjoy everlasting rewards, not punishments. How inappropriate and ironically atrocious would that be?! But, most of us have let go of the myth of Heaven as wishful thinking.

That leaves only annihilation and nonexistence as the outcome of execution. As frightening and unpleasant as execution may be, it is still over with in a few minutes. Then the criminal no longer exists. He no longer fears anything. He no longer suffers. He has been set free from every worry and care he ever had. What kind of terrible punishment is that?! How fair is that in comparison to the ongoing suffering that survivors of his victims will endure for decades! Their pain and suffering will not end until they, too, are dead.

The death penalty is not so much a punishment as it is an escape hatch!

However, there are fates worse than death. One of them is to be locked up for life without parole in a prison surrounded by evil people who can at any moment rape you, cripple you, or beat you into a bloody pulp! If you really want revenge on the scum of the earth, forget about the death penalty which sets them free. Think instead about a life sentence!

It disgusts me to make such a primitive appeal. I do so only because I know that for all too many people capital punishment is a hate crime. They hate the criminal. Nothing will satisfy them that is not as evil as what they think the criminal did. Appeals based on reason, justice, and compassion do not faze them. They are driven by blood-lust. Ironically, they have not given enough rational thought to the death penalty to realize that it releases the executed from all suffering and punishment.

Another irony is this: most people who support capital punishment are fundamentalist whether their religion is Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. They quote that Bible passage about “an eye for an eye,” and yet, in no other crime do they cite that scripture, for no society steals from a thief or rapes a rapist. [Exodus 21:24; Deuteronomy 19:21] Moreover, the Christians among them refuse to admit that there is nothing in the teachings of Jesus that justifies the death penalty. Indeed, the opposite is true for the Bible quotes him as saying: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye…’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil… If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” [Matthew 5:38-40, 44]

Despite what ancient people wrote in their scriptures, many modern religious people are enlightened enough to understand that our lives today must not be held hostage to the primitive and often vicious ideas of the past. That is why, when you survey the official pronouncements of many modern American religions, you find statements such as these [Faith, 56-61]:

“The National Council of Churches [of Christ] in the U.S.A. reaffirms its opposition to the death penalty…”

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship [in America] declares that “we oppose all executions, in keeping with the first precept of Buddhism, which says not to harm any living thing.”

“Therefore, the General Board of the American Baptist Churches [U.S.A.] recommends the abolition of capital punishment.”
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) proclaims that “we believe there is a Christian mandate against capital punishment…. Therefore, be it resolved, that the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)…supports a permanent moratorium on capital punishment.”

“The Church of the Brethren [announces that it] has consistently opposed the death penalty.”
Be it “resolved, that…the Episcopal Church [U.S.A.] urge the provinces, dioceses, parishes, missions, and individual members of this Church to…work actively to abolish the death penalty.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declares: “It is because of this Church’s commitment to justice that we oppose the death penalty.”

“Be it resolved that…the Orthodox Church in America supports the abolition of the death penalty.”

“Therefore, the…Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.]…declares its continuing opposition to capital punishment.”

The Reformed Church in America goes on record “as opposing the retention of capital punishment.”

Therefore, “be it resolved that…the United Church of Christ reaffirm opposition to the death penalty.”

The United Methodist Church “declares its opposition to…capital punishment.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops takes “a strong and principled position against…the death penalty.”

The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that “both in concept and in practice, Jewish tradition found capital punishment repugnant… We oppose capital punishment under all circumstances.

You may not be Jewish or Christian or Buddhist. But you do claim to be Unitarian Universalist, and so I will close by reminding you what our own denomination’s General Assemblies have said, repeatedly, on this subject:

Therefore, “be it resolved: that the…Unitarian Universalist Association continues to oppose the death penalty….and urges all Unitarian Universalists and their local churches and fellowships to oppose any attempts to…continue it in any form” whatsoever.
So may it be.

Anderson, Patrick R. Introduction to Criminology. Details on this Florida Southern College
prof’s textbook unavailable; source is a photocopy of Chapter 14, “Capital Punishment,”
pp. 402-438, of what is probably the 1993 edition from The McGraw-Hill Companies.
Barbosa, Susan. “Youths Executed Until 1987.” The Ledger. 12 September 1991; B1.
Charlie’s Heretics History Tour—Warsaw, Poland.
Faith in Action Resource Guidebook 2005. Washington, D.C.: Amnesty International USA, 2005.
Flyers from Amnesty International USA, 2005, list in order of use above in items 1-9:
“The Death Penalty Defies International Human Rights Standards.”
“The Death Penalty Violates the Rights of Foreign Nationals.”
“The Death Penalty Disregards Mental Illness.”
“The Death Penalty Is Racially Biased.”
“The Death Penalty Is Arbitrary and Unfair.”
“The Federal Death Penalty is Arbitrary and Overreaching.”
“The Death Penalty Costs More.”
“The Death Penalty Is Not a Deterrent.”
“The Death Penalty Claims Innocent Lives.”
Greenberg, David. “While Experts Argue Value of Death Penalty, Executions Exceeded 200.”
The Ledger. 16 May 1993; A14.
“Join the Texas Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing October 14-30, 2005.” Flyer.
“Methods of Execution.” TIME Almanac 2000. Borgna Brunner, ed. Boston:
Information Please, 1999.
“No More Killing. Abolish the Death Penalty.” Brochure. Washington, D.C.: Amnesty International USA,
Schulman, Frank. This Day In Unitarian Universalist History. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2004.
Skorneck, Carolyn. “Death Penalty OK’d for 70 More Crimes.” The Ledger. 15 April 1994;
Wilbur, Earl Morse. Our Unitarian Heritage. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1925.
Word, Ron. “Former Inmate ‘Could Taste Scent of Death.’” The Ledger. 5 July 1996; B3.
See also:
Tucker, Robert P. “Stop the Killing!” Faith in Action Resource Guidebook 2005. Washington, D.C.:
Amnesty International USA, 2005, pages 49-55.