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The Rev. Kathleen McMurray joins a Good Friday vigil at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock to protest planned executions of seven inmates. McMurray is associate pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Conway, Ark. Photo by Amy Forbus, Arkansas United Methodist

Photo by Amy Forbus, Arkansas United Methodist

The Rev. Kathleen McMurray joins a Good Friday vigil at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock to protest planned executions of seven inmates. McMurray is associate pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Conway, Ark.

United Methodist pastor Jay Clark leads a crowd at the Arkansas Capitol in singing “This Little Light of Mine,” during a vigil to protest planned state executions. Clark is from Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church and chair of the Arkansas Conference Board of Church and Society. Photo by Amy Forbus, Arkansas United Methodist

Photo by Amy Forbus, Arkansas United Methodist

United Methodist pastor Jay Clark leads a crowd at the Arkansas Capitol in singing “This Little Light of Mine,” during a vigil to protest planned state executions. Clark is from Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church and chair of the Arkansas Conference Board of Church and Society.

The Rev. Maxine Allen (center) joins death penalty protesters at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock. Allen is assistant director for mission field engagement for the Arkansas Conference and a board member of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Photo by Amy Forbus, Arkansas United Methodist

Photo by Amy Forbus, Arkansas United Methodist

The Rev. Maxine Allen (center) joins death penalty protesters at the Arkansas Capitol in Little Rock. Allen is assistant director for mission field engagement for the Arkansas Conference and a board member of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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Clergy react to Arkansas execution

UPDATES with execution on April 20
By Kathy L. Gilbert

April 21, 2017 | UMNS

Legal challenges stopped three of four planned executions in Arkansas this week, but Ledell Lee was put to death on April 20. United Methodist clergy are among those who spoke out against the plans for multiple executions.

“More vigils, more prayers, more efforts continue,” said the Rev. Britt Skarda, pastor of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

“Arkansas death row inmate Ledell Lee's last meal request before being executed last night? Holy Communion — the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This heinous act at the hands of the state does not make us bigger or better or more godly. Rather it makes us smaller and meaner and less human. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy,” said Skarda.

Three of the original eight men on death on death row who were supposed to be executed in April are still scheduled to be put to death before the end of the month. Two are scheduled for April 24 and one for April 27.

Multiple legal challenges this week cancelled three planned executions in Arkansas – two that were scheduled for Easter Monday – and a fourth inmate received a stay. 

Skarda and other United Methodist clergy were among those speaking out against the  “unprecedented” pace of the original plan to execute seven men by April 27.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that plan the week of Ash Wednesday.

No other state has killed so many people in a single month since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1977, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Arkansas’ last execution was in 2005.

Hutchinson said he scheduled the executions because one of the drugs in the lethal injection cocktail the state uses expires at the end of April. He signed the orders on Feb. 27 for eight executions; however, one of the men had his execution stayed after the state parole board recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In a statement to National Public Radio, Hutchinson said, “In order to fulfill my duty as governor, which is to carry out the lawful sentence imposed by a jury, it is necessary to schedule the executions prior to the expiration of that drug.”

Hutchinson acknowledged he was “uneasy” about the timing of the executions.

United Methodist clergy noted the timing of the executions during the Easter season.

“I was appalled that our governor announced these executions the week of Ash Wednesday and that they would be carried out the two weeks after Christians celebrate life through the risen Christ,” said the Rev. Jay Clark, an associate pastor at Pulaski Heights. 

Be sure to add the alt. text

United Methodist pastor Jay Clark leads a crowd at the Arkansas Capitol in singing “This Little Light of Mine,” during a vigil to protest planned state executions. Clark is from Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church and chair of the Arkansas Conference Board of Church and Society. Photo by Amy Forbus, Arkansas United Methodist.

The Rev. David Freeman, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Little Rock, spoke about the executions from the pulpit on Palm Sunday, April 9.

“I simply said that just as Jesus’ palm parade was a form of political protest, we should exercise our own form and stand against these executions. I said that our state scheduling eight and thankfully now seven executions in the 11 days after Easter seems eerily similar to Pilate’s scheduling executions during the Passover to quell any rebellions.”

The Rev. Michelle J. Morris, pastor at Wesley and Cavanaugh United Methodist churches in Fort Smith, writing in a blog, said the dates of the executions “feel a little like the leaders and soldiers who mocked Jesus.

“It feels a little like the state is saying, ‘Oh, you believe in the resurrection? In forgiveness of sins? Well, watch this. Where’s your forgiveness and resurrection now, huh?’ ” 

The Methodist Church took a stance against the death penalty in 1956, an opposition that continues today

Morris said she opposes the death penalty for four reasons: innocent people are executed; people are asked to kill other people; people are denied an opportunity for repentance, and Jesus never chose retaliation.

“I am called to follow Jesus, to try to model my life after his,” she said. “He didn’t face the cross, then come back resurrected and start putting people to death for what they did to him.”

The Rev. Steve Copley, chair of the board of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and a United Methodist pastor, said a letter signed by clergy from several denominations asked Hutchinson to stop the proposed executions.

“I just feel that it is not our job to decide who lives and who dies,” said Clark. “We discredit God’s redemptive power when we take a life into our own hands.

“As a United Methodist, I have heard all of my life about our unique view of grace and why grace is important — it’s time for United Methodists of Arkansas to practice what we preach.”

Gilbert is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.orgTo read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests