Religious leaders talk death penalty
A panel of area religious leaders with moderator Sister Helen Prejean had a dialogue about the death penalty last week at Zilkah Hall in the Hobby Center. Prejean is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.”
Her book was turned into a major motion picture, a play and an opera. The Houston Grand Opera’s production of “Dead Man Walking” is running through Feb. 6.
Karen Clifton from the Catholic Mobilizing Networks in Washington, D.C. and Master of Ceremonies Patricia Gross of Houston PBS hosted the event.
“Our country needs dialogue,” Gross said. “Our city needs to come together for conversation.”
Like the play and book, the opera “Dead Man Walking” is an opportunity to visit both sides of the death penalty issue, she said.
“I didn’t always understand about Jesus and the poor,” Prejean said. “I started out to be a nun, as holy as I could be, maybe a saint and serving, but not understanding about justice and really not understanding about poor people very much because I grew up as a child of privilege.”
Prejean was awakened through her experience working with prisoners, and eventually through Matthew Poncelet.
Victims’ rights is one of the arguments offered for using the death penalty, but there are many organizations comprised of murder victims who speak out against the taking of a life for another.
“To use violence as a deterrent is opposite to the mandate to love your enemy and to pray for them,” Rev. Harvey Clemons, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, said.
Clemons gave various references from the Bible that supported not using the death penalty — like the one in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It states that people should not take vengeance themselves but that, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” Clemons said that capital punishment is statistically unbalanced and that those given the death penalty are mostly black men, typically poor.
He gave information that 25 percent of the death row lawyers aren’t equipped to represent the defendants, and that percentage has been reprimanded by the state with disciplinary actions and even disbarment.
Representing the Texas United Methodist Church, Bishop Janice Huie spoke upon her experience prior to coming to the Texas Conference. She was the chairperson at the Arkansas assembly and a layperson stood up offering a resolution that would overturn UMC’s position against capital punishment.
Huie said it was likely that most would probably agree with the man and was “more than dismayed” the resolution could overturn the position. When the time was almost over, a well-respected layman stood and gave a speech reminding the group who they were.
“We are the people who believe that every human being is made in the image of God, even the most hardened of criminals. That is who we are,” the layman said. “We believe no human being is beyond reach of an all-loving and all-powerful God. That is who we are.
“In Torah there is a litany of offenses in which the penalty of death is allowed,” Rabbi David Lyon, senior Rabbi at Congregational Beth Israel, said. “This includes murder, idolatry, adultery, violating the Sabbath, such as sorcery and even rebelling against one’s parents.”
Looking for an explanation should not stop there, he says, but one should look to the Talmud and other Jewish case law that follows.
Rabbi Lyon spoke of the one instance when the State of Israel allowed capital punishment since 1954 and that was for Adolf Eichman, who was executed for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
“An eye for an eye and the whole world is blind,” Bishop Michel Rinehart of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church said.
One of the questions often posed by supporters of the death penalty is, “What if it was your child?” Bishop Rinehart said that he hoped there would be someone there to stop him.
If he committed violence in retaliation he said, “Am I not then becoming that which I abhor?”