Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample delivered a strong repudiation against Oregon's death penalty law Thursday night, vowing to work with other religious leaders in an effort to overturn it.
"I stand with all of you to do whatever we can together to oppose and get rid of this blight on our state," Archbishop Sample told an interfaith gathering at First United Methodist Church in Portland.
At the end of a night when a group of more than 100 death penalty opponents heard from 15 Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, and Sikh officials, leaders of an ongoing campaign to end capital punishment in the state announced they would aim to place an abolition measure on the 2016 ballot.
"We will get rid of the death penalty in Oregon," said Ron Steiner, director of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the group that organized the dinner and talks. The crowd gave a standing ovation to Steiner, a member of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem who helped overturn the death penalty in New Mexico.
Archbishop Sample grew up and served until early this year in Michigan, a state he said "proudly" rejects capital punishment. Killing encourages the idea that violence is a solution to problems, he told the group of faith leaders and laity, adding that death row too often houses innocent people. He denounced the death penalty as a failed deterrent, a tool that unfairly targets poor and minority Americans and a high expense that diverts resources from effective crime and social policy.
"But for Catholics, opposition to the death penalty is rooted in our conviction that all human life has a dignity and a value that must be respected from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death," the archbishop explained. "We believe that every human life has an innate dignity and value that we do not have the power to take or give away."
During a 1995 visit to the United States, Blessed Pope John Paul II said that modern methods of incarceration make the reasons for maintaining the death penalty very rare, "if not practically non-existent." That teaching is now part of the Catholic Church's official catechism, the archbishop told listeners.
The archbishop lauded Gov. John Kitzhaber as "courageous" for declaring a moratorium on executions while in office, saying the move should continue to prompt dialogue.
"We need to share our conviction with courage and clarity," Archbishop Sample said. "We need to reach out to our teachers, to those in our parishes and congregations."
Oregon voters have moved back and forth on the death penalty for more than a century. The last executions were in the mid-1990s, when Gov. Kitzhaber was in office the first time. But in the past six years, six states have nixed capital punishment and Oregon opponents say a trend has begun.
Leaders from other faith groups made strong statements throughout the night.
"We are here to transform the way this state lives and be that community where everybody has life and has it abundantly," said the Rev. Mark Knutson, pastor of Augustana Lutheran in Portland.
The Rev. Kent Harrop of First Baptist Church in McMinnville said during his first post as a pastor, a youth in his congregation was convicted of murder. "I knew he was not some monster as depicted in the press. He had a story," Rev. Harrop said. The American Baptist Church has long opposed capital punishment.
"Killing the criminal only signals our weakness," said Arthur Davis, a Portland Buddhist leader. "That is a cry of despair when we kill people. True justice must have compassion and understanding."
Rabbi Daniel Isaak of Portland's Congregation Neveh Shalom says that while scripture allows for executions, Jewish tradition over the millennia has purposely imposed so many conditions that the practice is "null and void." Israel, he pointed out, has only execute only one person — Adolf Eichmann, one of the key organizers of the Holocaust.
"When Jesus said love your enemy, he probably meant don't kill him," said J. Colleen Michael, executive minister of Church of the Brethren.
The Good News teaches redemption and forgiveness and reconciliation, said Rev. Rodney Page, former executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and a leader of the Disciples of Christ. "The death penalty gets rid of that forever."
"When Jesus told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek, he meant it," said the Rev. Rachel Ringenberg-Miller of the Mennonite Church of Portland. "The cycle of violence is just what Jesus was trying to break when he preached against violence, even when someone was wronged." Rev. Ringenberg-Miller said that every person must have a chance to be redeemed, or else there is no good news.
"Vengeance is not what we are called to be as God's children," said Rev. Barbara Campbell, pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Portland.
Episcopalian Bishop Michael Hanley, whose church has opposed the death penalty for more than 50 years, said the life of the individual is in the hands of God, not society. He called capital punishment "morally corrosive."
Sukhsimranjit Singh, a Sikh and a professor at Willamette University Law School, said the death penalty violates his tradition's core belief that all people are equal. He explained that immigrants like him look to the United States as an enlightened nation, but the death penalty mars the reputation.
"Jesus speaks against the desire for retaliation and calls on us to face hatred with love," said the Rev. Walter John Boris, executive minister of the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ. "When the justice system offers the death penalty as punishment, the desire for vengeance is fed, and hatred is nurtured."
"Honor life as the indisputable gift of God," declared the Rev. Margaret Lofsvold, superintendent of the Cascadia District of the United Methodist Church.
"We call for effective and humane alternatives to the death penalty," said the Rev. Rick Davis, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Salem. In 1993, outside the Oregon State Penitentiary, Rev. Davis saw a crowd cheer an execution. He felt angry, but then recalled the words of Jesus: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Catholic presence was evident Thursday. The audience included tables sponsored by St. Francis Parish in Portland and Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego. Also on hand were members of Holy Redeemer Parish in Portland and St. Joseph Parish in Salem. Mary Jo Tully, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland, attended.