Rev. John Lund, director of Emmaus Campus Ministry, says the death penalty in Montana adheres to "the myth of redemptive violence"—the notion that violence can prevent violence.
"In a sense what we're doing is perpetuating violence by using violence as a deterrent," say Lund, a member of the Montana Abolition Coalition, a group committed to repealing the state's death penalty. "I think for me, biblically, Jesus, his work seems to be about breaking that cycle—to love your enemy, to forgive your enemy, to uphold that. That's not easy. That's huge. But he called us to that higher level of reconciliation."
Last week, Lund joined about 220 religious leaders from around the state in signing a letter to the Montana Legislature urging it to pass Senate Bill 185, which would abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The letter marks state religious leaders' most organized and extensive effort to end capital punishment to date.
"The death penalty not only applies disproportionately to the poor and to people of color, but also continues to make fatal mistakes, with 138 people now freed from death rows across the country due to innocence," the signers wrote. "The more we execute, the more likely it is that we will execute an innocent person, if we haven't already."
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, narrowly passed the Senate in February, and a House Judiciary Committee hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday, Mar. 15. That committee hasn't been particularly sympathetic to arguments like Lund's; in 2007 and 2009 it rejected bills abolishing the death penalty after passage in the Senate.
But the issue has fostered a modicum of bipartisanship. Three Senate Republicans voted in favor of Wanzenried's bill, including Sen. Jim Shockley, of Victor, and Sen. Carmine Mowbray, of Polson. Lund says that since the Catholic Church and many evangelical churches defend the dignity of all life, there's reason to believe some House representatives' religious affiliations will trump political ones.
"We uphold some sense of grace, that there's a possibility of forgiveness," Lund says. "It's not like we're going to let the person out on the street again."
The Montana State Prison currently has two inmates on death row.