'Eye for an Eye' Challenges Faithful

By: Caryle Murphy, Washington Post Staff Writer
Source: Washington Post, 12 May 2001
Source URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A20242-2001May12.html

This is what Richard Trodden the Roman Catholic thinks about the death penalty: It's not immoral, like slavery, and "there are good arguments on both sides." But, he adds, "I don't think Jesus would do it."

This is what Richard Trodden, Arlington County commonwealth's attorney, does in capital cases: He vigorously prosecutes the "truth-telling" part, the trial. But in the sentencing phase, he steps aside to let a deputy handle it.

"I could not in good conscience ask a jury to kill somebody, but I think it would be wrong for me to say we're not going to enforce the law," he said. "It's a very difficult area . . . for Catholics."

Trodden is in a minority in a country where a clear majority supports the death penalty. But many religious leaders are pushing to change that. In a trend that began even before the scheduling of Timothy McVeigh's execution and the controversy over how the FBI handled the case, a broad swath of the nation's faith community has increasingly lent its voice to the national debate over the death penalty, giving stronger emphasis to condemnations of it on moral and theological grounds.

"More and more," said Davison M. Douglas, a professor of law at the College of Williams and Mary, "religious communities are looking at the issue afresh, scratching their heads and asking, 'Is the widespread use of the death penalty in this country consistent with the moral and religious teachings of our faith traditions?' "

The new activism is evident in statements from such leaders as Pope John Paul II and Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie. It is also apparent at the grass roots as congregations, taking more seriously their denominations' rejection of capital punishment, lobby state and federal officials and seek to give the issue more prominence in worship services.

The Religious Organizing Against the Death Penalty Project, for example, founded in Philadelphia in 1996 by the American Friends Service Committee, has sent out 5,000 booklets of sample sermons against capital punishment and responded to 20,000 requests from congregations, campus ministries and individuals for information. "The response has been far greater than we ever imagined when we started," said project coordinator Pat Clark.

Some 1,700 organizations, most of them faith communities, have signed on to "Moratorium Now," a campaign to halt executions launched in 1997 by the Quixote Center in Brentwood, a mainly Catholic group. "There are more people focused on the morality of how the death penalty is applied," Quixote's co-director Jane Henderson said, "which is raising the broader issue of the morality of the death penalty itself."

Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, challenged a 1997 conference of 5,000 Reform Jewish leaders to "put an end to this grisly march of legalized death."

Two years later in St. Louis, the pope said human life should never be taken "even in the case of someone who has done great evil" and appealed "for a consensus to end the death penalty." His bishops have since denounced it as part of "the culture of death" -- words long used in condemning abortion. And the Catholic catechism no longer states that capital punishment can apply "in cases of extreme gravity."

But with most Americans still favoring the death penalty -- 67 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll -- what effect is this having? Any faith leader will tell you, it's not an easy sell in the pews.

"I'm comfortable with [the death penalty] because I'm seeking justice . . . . I've done it fairly, and I've abided by due process," said Robert Dean, deputy state's attorney in Prince George's County.

Dean belongs to the United Church of Christ, a denomination opposed to capital punishment. He has considered "what various churches say" on the death penalty, he said, but "the church doesn't condemn people for having their own views on things . . . . I'm still comfortable going to my church. I'm discharging my job."

Even in churches with clear official stands against capital punishment, the clergy is sometimes slow to follow. "You don't hear many sermons because a lot of priests are probably afraid of touching sensitive social issues," said Frank McNeirney, who runs Bethesda-based Catholics Against Capital Punishment.

But there are signs of change.

As a career officer in the U.S. Army, Gene Betit, 56, spent 20 years in a profession "that pretty much lives with death." He believed that life, at times, calls for killing. As Catholic leaders increasingly deplored the death penalty, he began to think more about it. "I was kind of perking along trying to figure out where I stood," he said.

A few weeks ago, Betit, the deacon at Our Lady Queen of Peace church in Arlington, decided: "The fourth commandment -- there aren't any exceptions or footnotes -- it says, 'Thou shalt not kill.' "

Most Christian evangelicals, believing that the Bible condones the death penalty, continue to back it. But some are rethinking it since Texas's 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who became a born-again Christian in prison.

"One should not underestimate the significance of [her] execution to the psyche of American evangelicals," said Richard Cizik, spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals. "It's left a long-standing impression. It certainly did with me. It was wrong."

Her death also led the influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today to declare that the death penalty "has outlived its usefulness."

Not every denomination has embraced this activism. The Southern Baptist Convention, the country's second-largest denomination, backs "the fair and equitable use of capital punishment . . . as a legitimate form of punishment." And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, and the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal denomination of U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, have no official position.

As for Islam, the Koran prescribes the death penalty for murder under certain conditions. But it also teaches that God prefers forgiveness, said Muhammad Sahli, 65, former head of Richmond's Islamic Center of Virginia and a death penalty opponent.

Expanding the reach of forgiveness is a dominant theme of many clergy who seek to sway their congregants against capital punishment. The Rev. Gerard Creedon, pastor of Arlington's St. Charles Borromeo Church, has found more Catholics are now willing to explore the issue.

"As people are becoming educated to church teaching itself," he said, "they are more open to questioning their own cultural attitudes about the death penalty." Creedon helps them, he said, by quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s observation that "An eye for an eye is a law that makes the whole world blind."

He also reminds his flock, he said, that "Jesus was the object of capital punishment and he called for forgiveness. He told Peter to put up the sword."

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