Death Penalty Tests a Church as It Mourns

The United Methodist Church here is the kind of politically active place where parishioners take to the pulpit to discuss poverty in El Salvador and refugees living in Meriden. But few issues engage its passions as much as the death penalty.

The last three pastors were opponents of capital punishment. Church-sponsored adult education classes promote the idea of “restorative justice,” advocating rehabilitation over punishment. Two years ago, congregants attended midnight vigils outside the prison where Connecticut executed a prisoner for the first time in 45 years.

So it might have been expected that United Methodist congregants would speak out forcefully when a brutal triple murder here in July led to tough new policies against violent criminals across the state and a pledge from prosecutors to seek capital punishment against the defendants.

But the congregation has been largely quiet, not out of indifference, but anguish: the victims were popular and active members of the church ”” Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. On July 23, two men broke into the family’s home. Mrs. Hawke-Petit was strangled and her daughters died in a fire that the police say was set by the intruders.

The killings have not just stunned the congregation, they have spurred quiet debate about how it should respond to the crime and whether it should publicly oppose the punishment that may follow. It has also caused a few to reassess how they feel about the punishment.

Read it all.


Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Religion News & Commentary, Capital Punishment, Methodist, Other Churches, Religion & Culture

2 comments on “Death Penalty Tests a Church as It Mourns

  1. Words Matter says:

    Restorative Justice is more than “rehabilitation over punishment”. In fact, I suggest that it functions outside that (tired) template. From [url=]a restorative justice [/url] website, run by Prison Fellowship International.

    Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.

    Practices and programs reflecting restorative purposes will respond to crime by:

    identifying and taking steps to repair harm,
    involving all stakeholders, and
    transforming the traditional relationship between communities and their governments in responding to crime.

    Some of the programmes and outcomes typically identified with restorative justice include:

    Victim offender mediation
    Victim assistance
    Ex-offender assistance
    Community service

    Three principles form the foundation for restorative justice:

    Justice requires that we work to restore those who have been injured.
    Those most directly involved and affected by crime should have the opportunity to participate fully in the response if they wish.
    Government’s role is to preserve a just public order, and the community’s is to build and maintain a just peace.

    Restorative programmes are characterized by four key values:

    Encounter: Create opportunities for victims, offenders and community members who want to do so to meet to discuss the crime and its aftermath
    Amends: Expect offenders to take steps to repair the harm they have caused
    Reintegration: Seek to restore victims and offenders to whole, contributing members of society
    Inclusion: Provide opportunities for parties with a stake in a specific crime to participate in its resolution

  2. Sidney says:

    Awesome article. Thanks for posting it, Kendall. Articles like this make one think that God is out there tossing us new things to think about, just when we think we’ve got it all figured out. Really, just how likely is it that a congregation active on the death penalty issue would have this kind of tragedy?

    This reminds me of what happens when a family – which feels very strongly about homosexual behavior being a sin – has a gay child. In both situations, the reality of an issue coming home to roost has a way of toning down the rhetoric and providing a new perspective.

    This is a good illustration of why it’s good for a congregation – or even the national church – to be careful about taking controversial political positions. Controversial issues usually are that way because good people can be found on each side, and each side deserves the respect of not having a majority appropriate the name of the church to promote its position.