United Methodists don’t like the death penalty.
We have always been strongly against it. You’ll find the opposition in our Book of Discipline, Book of Resolutions, and in a myriad of statements, declarations and direct actions in local expressions.
But why? Is it a historical accident? Or because our boards skew toward progressive social policy? Is it our concern for justice? What is it about the death penalty in particular that seems to engage a sensitive spot in United Methodists?
It’s simple to me – it’s our doctrine of salvation. I believe that Wesleyan theology implicitly rejects the taking of any life, because it denies the possibility of grace to that human being.
If John Wesley believed anything, he was convinced that every human being is caught in a web of grace, from the beginning of life to the end. Wesley wanted to be part of spinning that web, and so he committed his own life to spreading the good news of grace to as many people as possible, including death row inmates.
Using the simple schematic of Wesley’s “stages of grace,” we find a powerful three-fold argument against the death penalty:
1. The death penalty prematurely stymies the work of God’s prevenient grace
According to Wesley, every person, no matter how hardened or embittered, has been given a measure of God’s grace:
Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world … So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he has.
This vague sense of God’s love, this “transient conviction of having sinned against Him,” this longing for God – these are all signs that the Spirit is at work wooing the heart. This is prevenient grace.
For Methodists, this is the beginning of salvation, even if it takes a lifetime to become aware of it. This is our strongest argument against retributive justice – we believe that no one is so far gone that he cannot be reached by God. No one is beyond redemption; no one has wandered so far that they cannot return.
But when a person is executed, the work of the Spirit is cut short. The executioner says, in effect, “You are beyond hope.”
2. The death penalty precludes the possibility of God’s justifying grace
In Wesley’s eyes, the crux of the meaning of justification is forgiveness of sins. One is justified when she, through faith, repents, receives forgiveness, and is restored to right relationship with God. This is conversion, regeneration, or the “born-again experience.” The Methodist emphasis in conversion has traditionally focused on the righting of relationship, not only with God, but with each other.
Regardless of the stereotype of the “jail house conversion,” the fact is that conversion can, and does, happen anywhere. People who have committed heinous crimes DO need to repent, and DO need to be forgiven.
This was the story in the film, Dead Man Walking – Sean Penn’s hideous character hid behind a façade of victimization until Susan Sarandon, as Sister Helen Prejean, drew him out into the light of God’s forgiveness through her unrelenting compassion. The inmate was truly converted before he was stretched out on the gurney.
Besides the matter of one’s relationship with God, however, there is a relationship with the human community that needs restoration. And this relationship is forever severed when one is executed.
3. The death penalty prevents people from going on to perfection
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of Wesley’s theology of salvation is his insistence on the possibility of sanctification and Christian perfection. He believed that justification was only the beginning of the true Christian life. Through the power of the Spirit, once we are forgiven, we begin to grow in the love of God and neighbor. God begins to work in us, not merely for us.
The goal of our life then becomes living in such a way that we do everything out of the love of God. This is the essence of perfection. And we are all to be “going on to perfection.”
Assuming that an inmate has responded to the love of God, feels the assurance of the forgiveness of sins, and has begun to grow in grace, why would we dare to cut short this process? Why would we say, “You cannot go any further in perfection; you are flawed enough that your life must end now?”
These arguments will not likely be persuasive for the non-Methodist, and certainly not for the non-Christian. However, I could distill these arguments down to an even more basic sentiment:
When we exercise the death penalty, we claim we know better than God.