As leaders of Christian churches in New Hampshire, we are compelled by our ordinations and by our faith to interpret the Gospel and to stir up the conscience of our people. The recently submitted bill to repeal the death penalty represents an important moment for us to come together in our witness to work for a more holy and just society.
Debate surrounding the death penalty is so serious and so emotionally charged because everyone concerned upholds the sacredness of human life. We are justifiably horrified and outraged when we hear of any assault, and we are especially enraged when we hear of such crimes that are aggravated and result in physical or emotional impairment or death. We are right to be angry. We are right to demand a reckoning and a response for the sake of the victims, their families, and for the whole of society. Our recourse is found in our penal system that relies on the certainty of incarceration — indeed, in some cases, incarceration for life without possibility of parole, for sake of justice and for the public’s safety.
Our faith teaches that we are not justified to take another life out of a desire for retribution. As we are committed to learning the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, we believe that killing for the sake of retribution is equal to what Jesus called the unforgivable sin, that of “grieving the Holy Spirit.” The death penalty precludes any possibility for the offender to repent, to amend his or her life, to seek forgiveness from God and from those most affected by the crime. Faith tells us that we are to hold up the possibility of this Spirit-led change of heart even, perhaps especially, in the face of all evidence to the contrary — that remorse is impossible and not forthcoming from the convicted.
In a society that is increasingly marked by anger, hatred, revenge and violence, to hold out the possibility for repentance and forgiveness is hard and even offensive. Yet, for the Christian, it is the way of the cross. Though the initial human instinct may be to seek retribution, people of faith are called to the more faithful path of mercy. For this we look to Jesus who freed a woman from being stoned to death by demanding those who condemned her to examine their own complicity in sin. We see how Jesus also chose to take the place of a condemned murderer to display how the power of God’s love renders punishment by death a futile way to order a just society.
Practically speaking, the death penalty neither deters others, nor brings the perpetrator to understanding. Instead, in the worst of ironies, capital punishment publicly validates the act of taking a human life. The death penalty does not lead a criminal to understand the magnitude of what he or she has done. Instead, because capital punishment is state-sponsored homicide, it reinforces the obscene notion that there is no offense in the taking of human life. It only perpetuates the cycle of sin and violence from which our churches pray and work to be free.
We urge all people of good will to join us in prayer so that we may witness to the truth as Christ taught us — all life is sacred, and forgiveness is the mark of a Christian. We offer special compassion for those most directly affected by violence who grieve the loss of family members and loved ones. We urge our Legislature and governor to abolish the death penalty in New Hampshire, and with the savings the state would realize through the repeal of the death penalty, we encourage lawmakers to devote more resources to helping the families and loved ones of murder victims.
The Most Rev. Peter Anthony Libasci is Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. This column is also signed by Rev. David Abbott, district superintendent of the New Hampshire District of the New England Conference, the United Methodist Church, Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, bishop of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, Bishop James Hazelwood, bishop of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Rev. Gary M. Schulte, conference minister of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ.