Capital Punishment

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The conviction that human life is sacred has generally but not uniformly meant that Mennonites sanctioned neither war nor capital punishment. Opposition to capital punishment is based on biblically oriented arguments. The stipulation of "life for life," was not enforced with Cain, the first murderer (Genesis 4:8-15), nor with David (2 Samuel 11:11-2:23). Jesus refused to advocate stoning for the woman caught in adultery John 8:12-11), though biblical law so prescribed. The direction in the Bible, it is claimed, is from an older severity to a stance of grace, from retribution to rehabilitation. Genesis 9:6, which on the face of it calls for the death penalty for murderers, is explained as being in the nature of an atonement. With Christ's satisfactory atonement, such demands fall away.

Other arguments against capital punishment draw on judicial, sociological, and psychological considerations. The legal system is not foolproof, and innocent persons have been convicted and executed. Frequently, members of minority groups suffer the ultimate penalty, while wealthy or influential people do not. According to some sociological studies, the enforcement of capital punishment has not been a deterrent to crime. Life imprisonment, rather than the death penalty, is a more humane form of punishment. To cut short a criminal's life is to cut short the opportunity to repent. Psychologically, capital punishment is evil because it feeds the desire for revenge. The death penalty is a form of retaliation. Moreover, by putting the criminal to death, society commits the very evil it protests.

Mennonites who favor retaining capital punishment have argued that sociological surveys are flawed. The Bible substantiates that the death penalty is a deterrent (Deuteronomy 13:10-11). Capital punishment is not venting one's vengeance; there is a large difference between proper judicial process and revenge. As for cutting short the criminal's opportunity for repentance, the criminal, since he knows the time of his end, has greater reason for immediate repentance. If the legal system is faulty and innocent people are consigned to execution, then the solution is not the abolition of the death penalty but the reform of the legal system.

The interpretation of Scripture has for Mennonites been the center of the debate. Those who support capital punishment also stress the sacredness of life. It is precisely because men and women are made in God's image -- a permanent factor in the creation order that anyone taking human life forfeits his own right to life (Genesis 9:6). The directive in Genesis 9:6 has not an atonement context, but is intended to restrain disorder in society. Nor has this command been rescinded or revoked. Those who do wrong have reason to fear, for the governmental authority "does not bear the sword for nothing" (Romans 13:4). Nor did Jesus' statement to the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11) set aside the death penalty. Had they indeed observed protocol, the accusers would have brought the male offender also, as the law stipulated (Leviticus 20:10). The reason Cain and David were not summarily dealt with shows that these laws are not to be mechanically or routinely enforced. There is a place for leniency, grace, even forgiveness. The death penalty could be incurred for 18 different offenses, yet the law was tempered by its provision of cities of refuge. For all offenses except murder (Numbers 35:31), a redemptive alternate was in place. Since the laws calling for capital punishment were tempered in this way, some Mennonites have argued that the death penalty is required and right.

While the discussion on capital punishment is theoretical, its application is practical, and real people must participate in the killing of a person. Mennonites have traditionally refused absolutely to participate in the killing of another human being in war and have protected themselves from participating in capital punishment until the 20th century by often absenting themselves from government.

A more subtle form of participating in killing occurs in countries whose legal system includes capital punishment. Here Mennonites may be part of the government making and keeping the laws or part of the judiciary as defenders or prosecutors or prison staff or even jury members. Though the number of Mennonites participating in these arenas are few, some are faced with the choice of carrying out, or refusing participation in the process leading to ultimate act of capital punishment.

One notable example occurred in 1965 when Edgar Willis Epp was prison warden of the Prince Albert Correctional Institute for Men in Saskatchewan, Canada. In his prison the provincial gallows was located and he held an inmate who was condemned to be hanged. On receiving the judicial order to carry out the hanging, Epp refused absolutely and wrote to the Privy Council for Canada informing them of his refusal and in effect telling them that if they wanted this hanging to be done then they should come to Saskatchewan and do the work themselves.

This refusal event by Epp occurred at a time when vigorous and divisive public discussions on the question of ending capital punishment in Canada, was being held all across that country. Rather than inflame the discussion, the Canadian Prime Minister commuted the condemned man's sentence to life in prison. Epp was not disciplined for his refusal to carry out the judicial order. The surprising effect of Epp's refusal is that from that day forward, all capital punishments in Canada have ended forever.

See also Peace; Politics; Reconciliation


Kehler, Larry and others. Capital Punishment Study Guide. Winnipeg: MCC, 1985.

Redekop, John H. and Elmer Martens. On Capital Punishment. Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1987, 31 p.

Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (1974): 104-5.

The Church, the State, and the Offender. Newton: Faith and Life Press.

Wiebe, Victor G. "The Mennonite Edgar Epp Encounters The Murderer Waring Emele." Saskatchewan Mennonite Historian. Vol. XXIII, No.2, (2016): 11-13.

Yoder, John H. The Christian and Capital Punishment. Newton: Faith and Life Press, 1961, 24 pp.

Zehr, Howard. Death as a Penalty. Elkhart, IN: MCC U.S. Office of Criminal Justice.

Additional Bibliography (Published Subsequently to the Above Article)

Hanks, Gerald. Capital Punishment and the Bible. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2002.

Lind, Millard. The Sound of Sheer Silence and the Killing State: the Death Penalty and the Bible. Telford, Pa.: Cascadia Publishing, 2004.

Marshall, Christopher. Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001.

Snyder Belousek, Darrin W. "Capital Punishment, Covenant Justice, and the Cross of Christ: The Death Penalty in the Life and Death of Jesus." Mennonite Quarterly Review. 83 (July 2009): 375-402.

Author(s) Elmer A. Martens
Victor G. Wiebe
Date Published June 2021

Cite This Article

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Martens, Elmer A. and Victor G. Wiebe. "Capital Punishment." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. June 2021. Web. 1 Aug 2021.

APA style

Martens, Elmer A. and Victor G. Wiebe. (June 2021). Capital Punishment. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 August 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 125. All rights reserved.

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