By Rev. Geoffrey Black, Rev. Linda Jaramillo, and Rabbi David Saperstein
Many December holidays – Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa alike – involve the lighting of candles. This symbolizes the spirit of peace, hope, and new beginnings, illuminating the winter days and warming the soul.
The festive lights also recall for us the time, 20 years ago, when the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP) and the National Interreligious Task Force on Criminal Justice (NITFCJ) launched a year-long campaign called “Lighting the Torch of Conscience.” The purpose of the campaign, later joined by Amnesty International USA, was to mobilize faith communities and encourage local involvement in the collective effort to end capital punishment.
“Lighting the Torch of Conscience” began with a meeting at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Broad and diverse participants, including Presbyterians, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Southern Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, Unitarians, and Methodists, signed a statement following the meeting, which read in part, “As we light this torch of conscience, we commit ourselves and our faith communities to do everything within our power to abolish the death penalty. We will use our moral leadership to change attitudes through education and engagement in faithful witness, service, and advocacy toward that end.”
Throughout 1989, participants carried the abolition message to churches, universities, schools, and other venues in 36 states. The campaign closed on May 18, 1990 with a march from the state prison in Starke, Fla., back to Atlanta’s King Center. Since then, step by step, progress has been made toward ending the death penalty. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed executions for people with mental retardation, and in 2005 it ruled death sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.
Presently, 35 states implement capital punishment, three fewer than before, as New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have abolished the death penalty since 2007. Maryland enacted a law this year severely restricting its use, and legislation to abolish the death penalty passed Connecticut’s legislature only to be vetoed by the Governor.
A recent Gallup Poll confirms that support for the death penalty is significantly lower than its peak support in the early 1990s. Three in five Americans believe an innocent person has been executed within the last five years, and death sentences are at a low for the modern era.
Despite these noteworthy gains, much remains to be done. A disproportionate number of death row prisoners are people of color and the economically disadvantaged. Protections against wrongful convictions and executions are weak, as evidenced by the 139 people who have been exonerated from death row since 1973 as a result of evidence of innocence; nine have been exonerated in 2009 alone.
Even the American Law Institute (ALI), a leading independent organization of attorneys, judges and law professors instrumental in shaping existing and emerging U.S. law for more than 50 years, has now formally acknowledged that there is no model death penalty system, indicating that capital punishment is broken beyond repair.
Current faith-based efforts to end capital punishment launched this year, such as the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Death Penalty which collaborates with existing death penalty abolition groups and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to educate and activate their congregants. People of faith can do no less than to reassert the principle that capital punishment is morally wrong, perpetuating the cycle of violence when it kills people who kill. As noted in the Lighting the Torch of Conscience statement 20 years ago:
“. . . Each human is created in the image of God, and thus we believe in the inherent worth of human life and the inalienable dignity of the human estate. The value of human life is not contingent on the moral rectitude of human beings or human institutions.”
During this holiday season and in the months ahead, we encourage people of faith nationwide to put belief into action by embracing the commitment and determination of the “Lighting the Torch of Conscience” campaigners. By joining forces with abolitionists working to rid our country of the barbaric practice of capital punishment, we can together seek out humane, alternative punishments and more effective crime prevention programs that will keep our neighborhoods safe. As the “Lighting the Torch of Conscience” statement concludes, “The religious community’s opposition to capital punishment has been on record for years. Now is the time for it to be on fire.”
Geoffrey Black is the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, a participant in the Lighting the Torch of Conscience campaign. Linda Jaramillo is the United Church of Christ’s Executive Minister, Justice and Witness Ministries. David Saperstein is the Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the advocacy branch of the Union for Reform Judaism, which also participated in the campaign.