A billboard sitting on a hill next to Plymouth United Church of Christ in Oakland reads “Abolish the Death Penalty,” and there’s a “Yes on 34” placard pinned just below. More posters supporting Proposition 34 are scattered around the church—on a bulletin board in the sanctuary and on the door outside.
Like many of Oakland’s religious leaders, the leaders of Plymouth Church have endorsed Prop. 34. If passed on November 6, it would repeal the death penalty in California and force inmates on Death Row to instead serve life sentences without the possibly of parole, while also requiring them to pay restitution to the families of victims.
Several leaders in Oakland’s Christian and Jewish communities say capital punishment goes against the sanctity of life that is preached in these religions. “The sign is a statement to the community,” said retired Pastor Bob Matthews as he opened a door leading to the church’s garden, which overlooks the sign. “This is what we stand for.”
“Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek,’” Matthews said. “What we seem to say as a society is, ‘Turn the other cheek so I can cut it off.’”
Rabbi Burt Jacobson of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland is also advocating for Prop. 34 through his sermons and an article distributed to his congregants, urging them to vote to repeal the death penalty. “The Jewish position is that every human being was made in the image of God and, for the rabbis, what that implies is that no one has the right to take another person’s life,” said Jacobson. “The government doesn’t have that right either.”
Or, as he put it in the article circulated to his congregants, “[E]xecuting a murderer is just as wrong as the murder of an innocent person.”
“The death penalty is an antiquated form of retributive justice that should be abolished immediately,” agreed the Rev. Daniel Buford, Minister of Prophetic Justice at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland.
Some faiths are advocating on the state level for the death penalty’s repeal. The California Catholic Conference, a group representing the state’s 11 million Catholics, issued a press release on September 28 supporting Prop. 34. “We appeal to Californians to end a failed system of justice and choose life. Violence does not end violence. Killing in the name of the state will not end killing. The death penalty will not give us justice worthy of a good society,” read the bishops statement.
A similar statement, produced by California’s eight Episcopal bishops, read: “The Episcopal Church has based its opposition to the death penalty in our understanding of God’s justice, our regard for the sacredness of human life, our commitment to respect the dignity of every human being, our desire to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and our mission to continue Christ’s work of reconciliation in this world.
California had the death penalty from 1850 until the California Supreme Court ruled it illegal in 1972. It was reinstated in 1977 by the state legislature. Since then, California has executed 13 people, with the state most recently executing Clarence Ray Allen on January 17, 2006.
The death penalty is currently applied to those convicted of treason or first-degree murder. As of October 5, 726 inmates were on Death Row in California, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Prop. 34 was put on the ballot by SAFE California, a coalition of law enforcement officers, murder victim family members and political parties, and written by Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison, and Gil Garcetti, a former Los Angeles District Attorney.
SAFE California maintains that abolishing capital punishment would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees and eliminate the possibly of executing an innocent person. In a video on the SAFE California website, the campaign claims that “California has spent $4 billion to execute 13 people since 1978” in legal fees and prisoner detention.
But opponents of Prop. 34 view the death penalty as a fair punishment for criminals who carry out heinous crimes. “Voters understand the importance of keeping the death penalty as an appropriate punishment for the worst criminals,” read a press release issued last week by Californians for Justice and Public Safety, the group that runs the “Vote No on 34” campaign.
Former California Governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian are co-chairs of the Vote No on 34 campaign. Organizations opposing Prop. 34 include the California Police Chiefs Association, the California Coalition of Law Enforcement Agencies (CCLEA) and the California District Attorneys Association.
But some Oakland religious leaders argue that executing the perpetrators of serious crimes does not restore justice, but is instead a form of retribution, which does not benefit anybody. Matthews, who used to run an outreach program in Oakland that sought to help sex workers and drug addicts, has visited inmates on Death Row in San Quentin. He has also counseled grieving parents after the murders of their children. “Yes, your son has been murdered, and you have a life to live,” he tells them. “Do you want to live it wallowing in anger and bitterness and vengeance or do you want to begin anew?”
Rather than focusing on the punishment of an individual, Matthews believes the Christian religion encourages people to strive towards bettering themselves and their communities. “Christianity is about creating whole and healthy individuals, families and communities, and if we’re not doing that, then were not practicing Christianity in my view. I cannot fathom how a Christian can say that it is right to kill somebody because they killed somebody else,” said Matthews.
Matthews and Jacobson have also encouraged their congregations to focus on fundraising and campaigning efforts that benefit entire communities rather than punishing inmates. “It costs so much more to execute a criminal than life imprisonment. With our California budget being as problematic as it is, we need all the help we can get to make sure those monies go to education and anti-poverty programs,” said Jacobson. “It’s really a tremendous waste of money to execute criminals.”
“What are we doing, what are we accomplishing?” said Matthews of capital punishment. “We’re making a whole bunch of people’s lives miserable, and we’re spending millions of dollars a year to do this.”