By KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Christian Action Council, joined by the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, stood on the steps of the state capital May 17 urging for a moratorium on the death penalty along with representatives from other communities. For the Christian groups, the hope is that the moratorium will eventually result in the abolition of the death penalty.
“The response for which we hope is one of dialogue and study in the light of the Faith, and in the light of our common discipleship. May God bless and illuminate our minds as we reconsider our witness as Christians on this crucial moral issue for our state and for its people,” said Bishop Robert J. Baker, one of the speakers at the press conference.
Bishop Baker was instrumental in bringing the topic of the death penalty to the forefront with LARCUM, an interdenominational group that includes Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and United Methodists and their leadership.
While LARCUM was completing their unified public statement similar to the one drafted by Bishop Baker in Florida, the S.C. Christian Action Council was beginning their own efforts against the death penalty. It was fortunate that they discovered that they had this common cause, and the groups have been working together ever since to produce change.
Another speaker, Bishop David Donges of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, South Carolina Synod, thanked Bishop Baker for his leadership in making the issue of capital punishment a priority for Christians in the state.
“As a community, there is a moral consensus on capital punishment and we would hope that the state would listen and take the brave step, the morally courageous, morally responsible and morally right step,” he said.
Msgr. Leigh Lehocky, vicar of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the diocese and pastor of St. Peter Church in Columbia, who was present at the press conference, said the religious communities felt a growing discomfort about the death penalty and wanted to bring the Christian perspective to the debate.
The event was just the first step according to the Rev. Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the S.C. Christian Action Council, who proclaimed after the press conference, “This is the beginning. We are not going away.” The council represents 15 denominations and 20 judicatories.
Kneece’s hope is that the moratorium will result in the fair administering of the death penalty cases, elimination of the accidental execution of the innocent, and stop the execution of the mentally disable and any person under the age of 18. These changes would be seen as a move in the right direction.
“If there is going to be a death penalty, at least let us work to make it just,” said Julia Sibley Jones, associate director of the council, who said she hopes to see executions end all together some day.
Joe Waters, a student at Furman University and member of the Newman Catholic Fellowship also spoke. “As Catholic Christians we value human life based on the belief that all people are made in the image and likeness of our Creator. Therefore, we believe the death penalty to be unacceptable. We call on Governor Hodges to institute a moratorium so that a sense of humanity and dignity might be restored to our justice system.”
Waters also quoted Pope John Paul II, who calls the followers of Christ to be unconditionally pro-life. “Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”
In his speech, Bishop Baker expressed his solidarity with the relatives and loved ones of the victims of violent crime as well as the families of the perpetrators who also suffer the consequences of the crimes. Acutely aware of their trauma and grief, the bishop helped start a ministry in Florida that assisted victims and their families. He hopes to initiate the same type of outreach for the diocese.
The Rev. Roger Harris, a retired Episcopal bishop, called those family members who forgave their perpetrators, true heroes, especially those who speak against the death penalty. “Some may think that the death penalty helps the victims and their families but they are wrong. It only makes the pain worse by perpetuating violence,” he said, because healing comes from forgiveness not revenge.