As state wrestles with death penalty, a call to remember redemption

Rev. Stephen J. Copley

Rev. Stephen J. Copley

By Stephen J. Copley
Special Contributor

Governor Asa Hutchinson recently scheduled eight executions in Arkansas over a four-month span of time. They were to occur once per month, on designated days in October, November, December and January, with two executions per day.

All eight executions have since been stayed, pending a court case regarding Arkansas Act 1096 of 2015. The act prohibits the public disclosure of the supplier of execution drugs, except through a court order, which an attorney for the inmates is seeking.

As I write this commentary, I reflect on the lives involved in each of these situations, from the family and friends of the person whose life was taken to the person who did the killing and their family. It is a time of great pain and struggle. It’s hard to make sense of what happened in a senseless situation. As a pastor, I find it is a difficult time to assist people in dealing with their feelings of anger and pain. When an issue stirs so much emotion, it becomes challenging to deal with the legal and political dynamics involved in each case.

The United Methodist Church has long opposed capital punishment in our Social Principles (and predecessor statements dating back to Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Church, 1956). The Social Principles are the manner in which the church attempts to address issues in our society through the lenses of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. The denomination’s position is as follows:

“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness…” (Social Principles: The Political Community, Paragraph 164G)

At the heart of the United Methodist Church’s understanding is the belief that all life is sacred. In spite of the deep challenges that the loss of life brings, we must remember that God has valued the redemption of life in Jesus Christ.

Where does the situation in Arkansas stand at the moment? At this writing, the case challenging Arkansas Act 1096 of 2015 was in Pulaski County Circuit Court. The argument was made that there was a need to identify the drug supplier and manufacturer to determine whether the drugs and protocol for administering them would cause cruel or unusual pain or suffering during executions. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled after the Circuit Court that there should be a stay of executions until the lower court could resolve the constitutionality of the Arkansas act.

The lower court began hearing the case Oct. 27. It will be mid-November before the court rules whether state prison officials can keep secret the source of execution drugs. Much of what comes next will be determined by the lower court’s ruling.

I believe deeply that all life is sacred to God, and that the death penalty removes the chance for the redemption and reconciliation of a relationship with God that each of us has experienced. In the midst of the many issues that are involved in the loss of life during a homicide, we must not lose sight of every person’s deep need for a relationship with God. For this reason, I will continue to work for the abolition of the death penalty in Arkansas.

The Rev. Copley, an elder in the Arkansas Conference, serves as a Church and Community Worker through the General Board of Global Ministries, and as chair of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.