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Death Penalty: A Letter to Governor Brownback

August 27th, 2011 No comments

Governor Sam Brownback
Office of the Governor
Capitol, 300 SW 10th Ave., Ste. 241S
Topeka, KS 66612-1590

Re: Abolish the Death Penalty in 2012

Dear Governor Brownback:

I would like to commend you for choosing to make a career of public service. Thank you for your love of our beautiful State and the many wonderful people who live here, and for the years you have dedicated to serving Kansas.

As you begin looking toward the 2012 legislative session, I believe you have a tremendous opportunity to put that love, dedication, and service into action by leading the State in abolishing the death penalty. Over the past several years, you have articulated your vision for a “culture of life.” As you know, a “culture of life” is far broader than a single issue and describes instead an entire orientation for life that upholds the sanctity and beauty of life “from the womb to the tomb.” In terms of public policy, it informs a political vision ranging from prenatal care; to use of the military; to community development; to care for the elderly; to eliminating poisonous circumstances breeding abuse, murder, and other violent crime; to support for the poor, victims, and minorities; to restorative justice; and much more. And, of special importance to this letter, any Culture of Life directly and dramatically clashes with the Penalty of Death.

I therefore urge you, Mr. Brownback, to uphold a consistent ethic of life and courageously lead our State in abolishing the death penalty in 2012. The stakes are too high to delay another year:

  1. The Death Penalty is poor fiscal responsibility. A 2003 legislative report found that cases resulting in a death sentence have a median cost 70% higher than that of non-death penalty murder cases. The life-without-parole sentence offers the same public protection without the additional fiscal strain. In a climate of budget shortfalls and major spending cuts, it is disturbingly ironic that programs and institutions promoting life, hope, and future are being cut, while the costly death penalty remains untouched. As I am sure you can appreciate, budgets are moral documents, and for those who are opposed to the death penalty, this fiscal failure turns paying taxes into a moral dilemma. I am troubled that my taxes are used so ineffectively, and deeply grieved that my tax dollars may one day pay for an execution. This funding could be invested so much better elsewhere: community development, support for victims’ families, restorative justice that truly rehabilitates previous offenders before they commit more serious crime, teachers and community leaders who invest themselves in the lives of children, etc. – initiatives to improve life rather than destroy it.
  2. The Death Penalty distorts and cheapens justice. There is no convincing evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent against violent crime. With its bias against poor people, minorities, and certain locations, the death penalty distorts justice. Moreover, the death penalty cheapens justice by trading its noble claims for those of a much different desire: retribution. We do ourselves and our culture a great disservice when we confuse justice with retribution. Justice puts an end to cycles of violence through restoration and healing, while retribution merely continues the cycles of our murderous desire. We know that “an eye for an eye” does not represent the fullness of God’s desire for humankind. Some suggest that the death penalty brings justice by providing closure for victims families, but lengthy legal processes in which families persistently relive their trauma do not provide closure, and the death penalty does not bring justice. Unfortunately, in the case of murder, there can be no justice on this side of eternity, for the requirements of justice in such a case (restoration of life) do not fall within the realm of human authority and power to grant. We dare not confuse retribution (death) with justice (life), though too often our culture does indeed choose death. Vengeance can never bring justice; the closest we can come is to offer our steadfast compassion and love to victims’ families while ensuring that perpetrators may not murder again (e.g. life without parole).
  3. The Death Penalty is morally bankrupt. Its oft-cited inner logic of “killing people because killing people is wrong” skews morality toward revenge and formally contributes to a culture of vengeance and death. It does not honor the conviction that all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore within God’s sovereign purposes and ability to redeem. Public policy should not stand in the way of that possibility. Denominations and organizations from across the Christian tradition have articulated their moral, Biblical, and theological opposition to the death penalty:1
  4. The life without parole sentence adequately accomplishes the State’s task to restrain evil, ensuring that violent offenders may never murder again. It honors God’s sovereign privilege to act redemptively, both in victims’ families’ lives for healing and hope, and in offenders’ lives for repentance and transformation. Unlike the death penalty, it at least provides the opportunity for the State to seek reparation in the case of wrongful conviction and punishment. It is a far less costly process, and eases the burden on victims’ families, who must relive their trauma throughout the appeals process. While this sentencing option, like the death penalty, does not offer any corrective to prejudice in the legal system and does not work to disrupt the conditions that lead to violent crime, it does offer a significant fiscal, moral, and just alternative to the death penalty. Given the choice, Americans favor life in prison plus work with earnings going to victims’ families over the death penalty by a factor of two-to-one.2

As a faith leader, I commit myself to the work of sustainable community development, character formation, compassion for victims and all who suffer, and love for enemies. I hope that you also will take this opportunity to move our State away from policies of death, and toward initiatives for life, preventing violent crime before it happens by minimizing its causes.

Thank you, Mr. Brownback, for your careful consideration of this important issue. I continue to pray for you for wisdom and compassion as you lead the great State of Kansas.


Pastor Peter Goerzen
[Contact information omitted for public posting]

Of Grace Hill Mennonite Church (Member, Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA)
[Contact information omitted for public posting]

1. I will add more links here as I find them. Clearly, not all Christians are opposed to the death penalty, however.
2. Glen Stassen, Capital Punishment: A Reader (Pilgrim, 1998), 34ff.

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