“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” – Genesis 9:6
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment.” – LDS Church official statement (www.lds.org)
The senseless killings in Tucson this weekend present as good an opportunity as any to discuss capital punishment, which may very well be applied in the future to the deranged Hitler lover who attempted to murder a Jewish congresswoman. Many Jews are surprised to learn that the LDS Church, which publicly and passionately opposed gay marriage and the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, does not take positions on many other controversial moral issues of the day. While other churches line up on all sides of the debates on evolution, stem cell research, and capital punishment, the Mormon Church asks members to let their conscience be their guide on these issues.
With regard to capital punishment, the five books of LDS scriptures can be used both to justify and oppose the killing of murderers by the state. While the Hebrew Bible clearly sanctions (indeed, commands) the shedding of murderers’ blood, the New Testament seems to promote the turn-the-other-cheek, recompense-to-no-man-evil-for-evil approach (Matt. 5:38-41; Romans 12:17-21). Similarly, capital punishment was practiced by the societies in The Book of Mormon that observed the Law of Moses, but there is no record of murderers being killed after Jesus appeared in the Americas and taught the people there the same principles that He had taught in the Holy Land. Verse 19 of the 42nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants clearly states “he that killeth shall die,” but 60 verses later we read that killers “shall be delivered up and dealt with according to the laws of the land…and it shall be proved according to the laws of the land.” The latter approach is the current policy of the Mormon Church.
While the scriptures may be ambiguous, there was no ambiguity in the actions of the LDS Church leaders who established capital punishment in the state of Deseret and the Utah territory in the 19th century. The State of Utah has always had the death penalty for murder, and it was the first state to resume executions after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment in 1976. Nevertheless, Mormons’ views on such issues tend to reflect those of their societies unless they directly contradict the doctrines of their church. For example, Most Mormons in this country almost certainly favor the death penalty for murder, but I have yet to meet an Italian Mormon who does. I suspect that the same is true for most Mormons living in Western Europe. Given the modern LDS Church’s status as an international organization with a presence in nearly 180 countries, I think it is wise for it to avoid taking a position on state-sanctioned killings. The death penalty is not applied uniformly throughout the world, and any statement in support of it could reasonably be interpreted as Church support for the stoning of adulterous women in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, public executions in Iran, etc.
By way of comparison, the rabbis of the Talmud effectively outlawed capital punishment in Judaism, and the State of Israel (which is not governed by Jewish law) bans executions except for perpetrators of genocide and wartime traitors. The only person executed by Israel to date was the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in 1962. [Having visited Auschwitz, I think that the witnesses to his execution should have applauded].
Truth be told, capital punishment has never been a front-burner issue for me. My home state of Michigan abolished the death penalty for all crimes except treason in 1846, and completely abolished it in its 1963 constitution. No one has ever been executed in the state. However, I do think that each state should have a terminal sentence (for Ohio State fans who may not understand the term, it means execution or life imprisonment without parole) to give to murderers like Charles Manson who should never walk the streets again. Would I support the death penalty with more fervor if a close family member were brutally murdered? Quite possibly. Whatever one’s views on capital punishment, people of all faiths should agree that if the State of Arizona intends to execute people who commit heinous murders, it has just found its poster child.
I would like to interview Mormon converts to Judaism for a future post. Please contact me if you would like to share your experiences.
I will be speaking at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City on January 12 at 7:00 p.m. I will also be speaking with Rabbi Alan Cohen at the Lenexa Stake Center in Lenexa, KS on January 16 at 7:00 p.m.