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A letter from the Virginia Conference Board of Church and Society

Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in the Commonwealth on March 24, 2021, making Virginia the first state in the south to do so. The Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church celebrates this action, remembering our Social Principles, which note that “the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings.” As Wesleyans, we believe that God‘s grace is ever reaching out to restore our relationship with God and with each other. We know that the death penalty denies the possibility of new life and reconciliation.

Our heartfelt thanks to the many United Methodists from across Virginia who wrote and called their lawmakers, asking for this change during, before, and after the annual United Methodist Assembly Day. Ending the death penalty in Virginia has been a priority of United Methodists for many years, including a resolution approved by the Annual Conference in 2012.

Virginia was the site of the first execution in the American colonies in 1608, the first of a long history of nearly 1,400 executions, more than any other state. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, but reinstated it in 1976 when certain conditions were met. Since then, Virginia has had 113 executions, second only to Texas.

Race has always played a central, shameful role in this history. During slavery in America, capital punishment and lynching served as tools for controlling large Black populations and discouraging rebellion. After the Civil War, “figures in a recent report about racial violence and the death penalty suggest that Virginia curbed lynching numbers by supplanting them with court-imposed executions,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Prior to 1976, the race of the perpetrator most often determined who received a death sentence. After that date, the race of the victim has been the primary factor. Such bias led the Rev. James Page, senior pastor of Galloway United Methodist Church in Falls Church and co-chair of the conference Board of Church and Society, to declare that the death penalty is “just a legal way to allow lynching to continue without the word ‘lynch’ inside of it.” The last execution in Virginia occurred in 2017.

We extend our thanks to the Virginia General Assembly and Governor Northam for at last abolishing this unChristian practice and its racist application. Our thanks also go to the many organizations, faith communities, and activists who have worked so long for this day.

Virginia Conference Board of Church and Society
Peace & Non-Violence Work Group