Loving God and opposing the death penalty

"Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." -1 John 4:11

By Carl H. Spitzer

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s in Marin County, California shaped my understanding of the death penalty. The state executed people on a regular basis, and my sisters and I were told that if a man escaped from the state prison of San Quentin or the federal prison of Alcatraz, he could show up in our neighborhood.  Death row itself was not discussed often, but when it was, it was only to say emphatically that the men on it were the ‘worst of the worst.’

Then, in 1971 I began active duty in the US Navy, and the next year served near the coast of Vietnam.  I heard about ‘draft dodgers’ who moved to Canada and about conscientious objectors, as well as what the general public thought about to them. The debate of how Christians could opt out of the military interested me, but at the time, it was unclear how the teachings of the New Testament fully supported either side. In 1972, one of my bosses was leaving the Navy with a conscientious objector discharge, and he and I talked about the process.  The next year I filed for discharge on the same grounds; however, my application was denied and I was told my evaluations did not support my request.

After a time of discernment, my next steps were to join the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF) in 1974.  I signed up for their newsletter and for The Catholic Worker and Sojourner publications.  In one of these, I saw an invitation to write letters to prisoners on death row.  The first person given to me as a pen pal was Joseph S. in Virginia.  We wrote to one another for 2 or 3 years, and then he requested to stop our correspondence.  A few years later, a small article in the newspaper announced that the State of Virginia had executed him. Joseph was a very troubled person, but I did not feel that his death was necessary. It upset me a lot at the time and still does to this day. It took a few years before I requested another pen pal on death row.

More recently, a friend joined me in the EPF and invited me join the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (WCADP).  This organization has an annual Lobby Day with senators and representatives, and I have also gone to the Capitol for many years to discuss faith and social justice. As with my stance about conscientious objection, I sometimes struggle to interpret what God has revealed to me:  that any act of taking a person’s life is a sin.

I wish others could experience what I have; however, it is a blessing to share my story so that others may understand how God’s love has shaped my journey.

This testimony was originally featured in an email by Death Row Support Project. It reflects a faithful expression of the Church of the Brethren’s vision to share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ. It also highlights our passion for ministries like the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy and Death Row Support Project. Learn about Church of the Brethren missions and ministries at www.brethren.org/greatthings.