by Steve the Builder
Ancient Faith Radio
I spent most of my high school years and part of my early adult life as a radical pacifist. I registered as a concientious objector during the Vietnam War. I was anti war, anti self defense, anti death penalty, and when I became a member of a Bible Church, I gathered scriptures to justify all my convictions. Years later, when I finally got to a point that I could be brutally honest with myself, it was about the 60's and being cool with my friends in the art department and a "Jeremiah" to the "establishment" in my Church ...and it had more to do with Woodstock sentimentality adorned with scriptures than true personal conviction. My hazy philosophical views started shifting when I began living in the real world and not in the dazed and confused world of the hippie subculture and seeing the world from penthouse view of the ivory tower of theoretical theological speculation culture of my protestant seminary.
I know for certain the concrete shift in my thinking happened when I took a job running a residential treatment center for severely emotionally disturbed boys who had tendencies toward uncontrollable rage or calculated sociopathic violence. Soon after I arrived, the teacher in our self contained classroom on campus called me from the office because one of the boys had gotten angry and picked up a baseball bat and was demolishing the classroom. I was all of 110 pounds and despised athletics, and it showed. I opened the door of the classroom and Terry looked at me and shook the bat at me. "You come near me you (blank blank) and I'll bash your head in!" The rest of the kids stood outside the door and watched to see what I would do.
Non-violence and pacifistic non-resistance might make good classroom discussion and arm chair philosophizing, but being faced with being beaten to death with a baseball bat by a 180 pound hyperactive kid with rage issues and an IQ of 65 is not an abstract discussion question on an essay test, it is real. I was too new at the job to make the wise decision to just call the police (who I later found out in other situations don't believe in passive non-resistance), so I went in the room and started trying to talk him down. I got close to him and he raised the bat over his head to hit me. He was big and slow and I managed to get under the bat and tackle him and I took him down. Fortunately for me he didn't try to wrestle with me. He got up and ran away like he always did after a physical confrontation... and he always returned by suppertime because he got hungry and was afraid of the dark. The public confrontation laid a foundation for my reputation as the director of the home. But it also laid a foundation for my shifting view of the world. The incident was told and retold by the kids over the next few days. It eventually became mythical over the next five years. Because I'm half Chinese, the apocryphal story that was always told to the new kids who entered the program eventually took on Bruce Lee fighting Chuck Norris proportions. The fear of being wheel house kicked into the year of the Ox kept most of the new kids from some violent behaviors, at least while I was on campus. Once a new kid decided to take me on and took a swing at my wife with a pool cue. Fortunately there were several staff people in the house at the time and we managed to restrain him. The next week, I signed up for street fighting classes at a karate studio.
I had finally and pragmatically faced the fact that fear of retributive violence was a deterrent at least for some people. Someone once told me, "Principles are what you have until you have real needs". The world of the treatment center was a microcosm of the fallen universe. I lived with kids who were damaged, some perhaps incurably. I watched a kid beat another one so mercilessly his calculating coldness and brutality was frightening. (I truly believe he is probably a sociopathic serial killer by now.) The rules and culture of the treatment program was also a microcosm of how society deals with fallen human beings. I realized that radical pacifism in the end is the open door to anarchy and proliferation of evil. In a societal structure if there is no fear of retribution, innocent people WILL become victims. Fear of punishment protects the innocent from the evildoer. So, I could have, out of pacifistic conviction, let Terry beat me to death, but when faced with a snap decision the visceral response was, out of love for 12 other kids and a teacher, I could not stand by and let him beat them to death. It was my Woodstockian seminary classroom philosophy versus my gut. Which was right? For the next few decades I wrestled with my position of being anti-death penalty. Across the years I've mentally collected stories of all manner of human evil, heinous and horrific and perverted destruction of human lives. Beneath the weight of the evil of the world, and through what I believe is the clear Biblical witness that human beings are indeed capable of unimaginable evil, I've changed my view on capital punishment. In August 1989, the OCA 9th All American Council issued a statement against the death penalty based on an affirmation of life, the inhumanity of execution and the call of the gospel. In a pastoral letter published in "The Orthodox Church" magazine in January 1999, Bp Seraphim, the OCA Bishop of Ottowa and Canada, said:
I am saddened whenever I hear Orthodox Christians defend capital punishment, even though I know that there are, were, and always will be various and opposing opinions in our Church, and that these opinions may be justifiable within their own systems of logic. I cannot square capital punishment with any of my Christian experience. The Old Testament may be quoted, but I do not see it in the New. I cannot square it with the introduction to the Ten Commandments. I cannot square it with the Gospel. I cannot square it with the words of the "Our Father." I cannot square it with "The Beatitudes." I cannot square it with my knowledge of our canonical tradition. I cannot square it with my knowledge of the teaching of the Fathers. I cannot square it with my reading of any one of our saints. And most certainly I cannot square it with the teaching of Saint Silouan, that the real test of a Christian is being able to forgive one's enemies. Since we Christians stand for repentance, and are called to live this daily, it is perhaps our responsibility to help the persons incarcerated for serious crimes to move in that direction also. Perhaps we Orthodox Christians should at last take seriously our call to visit those in prison, to become qualified for a prison ministry, even, and to bring some hope, consolation, and witness of something better to these persons who otherwise could well die without knowing anything else except misery. We always say "Talk is cheap." Perhaps it's time we proved we are Christians by doing something instead of philosophizing.I find it personally ironic that Bp Seraphim says "talk is cheap" and Christians should visit prisons instead of supporting the death penalty. It was because of and exactly the realities of my involvement with such ministries that my philosophical views of capital punishment have changed. Since my days at the Boy's Home I've hired and worked with ex-everythings, and have a former drug addicted employee who is currently on death row for the brutal murder of his mother and girlfriend. These reflections are not written from a safe distance from human evil. They are because I've been in the trenches with it in various ministries for the last 40 years. I wholeheartedly agree with him that we should bring the hope of the gospel to those in prison, but I do not believe that automatically translates to being against the death penalty.
So, I'll say up front that this discussion is not an attack on Bp. Seraphim, but his statement can be viewed as the creed of the anti-death penalty position. His statement succinctly summarizes the arguments against capital punishment, not just within the Orthodox Church, but within the broader Christian tradition. His statement and the one issued by the OCA's All American Council might lead one to believe the Orthodox Church uniformly and universally stands opposed to capital punishment, or at least leans heavily in that direction and those who support it lie on the fringes of the Tradition. But it is interesting that the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Diocese of the South on its website supports capital punishment. St. Theodore the Studite in the 8th century argued against capital punishment for heresy but supported it administered by the state for capital crimes. I am not a Church historian but I think I'm safe to say that at the height of "Byzantium" (and I would also conjecture in "Holy Russia" in its heyday, and in every other "Orthodox country") where the Church has had the most influence on the State in matters civil, the States have practiced capital punishment for capital crimes. I am not in a position to judge who is more holy in regard to capital punishment, the OCA or the Coptics, America or Byzantium, Bp. Seraphim or St. Theodore, but it is clear historically that the issue has more wiggle room within the Church than Bp Seraphim implies. This is part two of the series on Capital punishment. I've already received quite a bit of listener feedback (for and against) and I've not even gotten into the meat of the issue. So before I begin, let me say this IS a work in progress. I am already revising future podcasts and adding more material based on comments I've received, so it is kind of taking on a life of its own. Depending on how it goes I may go through all my material and then do a Q and A and response to comments podcast at the end of the series. The other thing I need to say is, I am not past changing my mind on this topic even though I've wrestled with it for years. I'm too old and have changed my thinking too many times on too many important issues to be absolutely sure I have it all nailed down. So...with that, I will say up front, I am going to deal with the issue from a Christian and atheistic perspective because both have anti-death penalty advocates and the arguments converge and diverge at different points worth exploring. I am not going to deal with all the current manners of amorphous "spiritualities" that amount to ambiguous and often self contradictory philosophies and personal feelings and sentimentalities rather than a coherent world view about ultimate issues. It is my experience that the well thought out Christian position against capital punishment generally expresses the general substance ofthe arguments of those who oppose it because they are loving, compassionate and "spiritual" but would not claim to be Christian.
So, let's begin our walk through the issue. To begin with, the question of capital punishment often is framed as: restraint or deterrent versus retribution and punishment. For the most part the argument about capital punishment whether one is religious or not, boils down to life in prison or execution and which is, from a moral or ethical perspective, more humane or just. Some arguments will appeal to a utilitarian consideration regarding which is less economically burdensome and risky to society in some long run, but no one uses this argument exclusively. Since the Christian (and even most humanistic atheists, though there are notable exceptions) do not believe that human life is ultimately defined by economic burden on society but by the intrinsic value of the human person. (This is not the place to get into the pro-abortion stance which amounts to human life defined by its convenience and burden on parents). But in the realm of the death penalty, very few people solely argue dollars and cents in decisions to preserve human life. On the other hand, in Arizona a jury just sentenced a serial killer to life in prison and when the verdict was announced the talk show phones lit up. Several of the pro-death penalty folks who called in yesterday said, "I don't want MY tax dollars keeping that piece of garbage alive." I don't know how many of those people would have claimed to be Christians, however. That's about all I'm going to say about the economics of the death penalty because I don't think it is truly a fundamental issue for anyone. But if it can be shown its cheaper to keep someone alive or to kill him, it is just a bonus point for the sake of argument because well, money matters to us.
So on to the more fundamental issues. If one is a Christian (or generically "spiritual"), it seems like the answer to capital punishment is simple: the gospel (or gods, or THE God) are ultimately about mercy, forgiveness and affirmation of life, hence capital punishment is antithetical to what God is or wants for human beings. Thus, "life in prison" is then the only permissible humane restraint in order to avoid death as a consequence of a capital crime. But I've come to the conclusion that it is not quite that simple, nor is God quite that easily or simply defined. It doesn't matter how you define God or the gods, God may be love but God has been intimately involved with death since the beginning of the human race. We cannot deal with the nature of God without dealing with a definition of the nature and meaning of death because ultimately if God defines all things, who God is (or for the atheist, what the universe is) defines what death is for the human being. So, can a spiritual person who believes in a loving God view death as restraint? It is true that life in prison restrains the evil doer. But then so does death. When you really get down to it, "life in prison" is really "living in prison until one dies". So the question is not "life or death", it is really about "life until a death by legislation or death by natural causes." Here is where the definition of death needs some precision. Both the Christian and the atheist know two things: We ALL know (both Christians and atheists) that people do evil things, and some do grossly evil things. And we all know everyone and everything dies.How we explain those two things and their relationship is the key to everything else about the universe. A coherent theology of a fall, or a coherent philosophy of the nature of matter is the key to understanding both evil and death. From a Christian perspective, the scriptures tell us that death is our ultimate enemy and a consequence of the fall. The Orthodox Church clearly teaches that death is unnatural, even death by "natural causes". Death is foreign to our nature, we were not created to die, and nature was not intended to be our enemy and kill us. ANY death whether by an act of evil, mandated by laws of man or a consequence of the laws of nature is unnatural for the human being. According to the Fathers of the Church, death and evil are inter-connected. Death IS the ultimate constraint on evil. Death is actually called by the Fathers "the blessed curse" and it was added to humanity because it cuts short the days of man so he cannot wax grossly evil. In the days of Noah, God cut the lifespan of man short to 120 years to cut off the human decline into ever more pervasive evil. The Old Testament is replete with stories of both God and man dealing out death to the grossly immoral and ungodly. Contrary to Bp. Seraphim's division of the God of the two Testaments, the Christian must deal with the same God of Moses in the New Testament.
A recent document called The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church which was signed by all the Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church summarizes the Church's historical view of the death penalty in the Old and New Testaments and subsequent "Church age". It says, "The death penalty as a special punishment was recognised in the Old Testament. There are no indications to the need to abolish it in the New Testament or in the (capital "T") Tradition or in the historical legacy of the Orthodox Church either." In the same document it mentions that under the influence of the Church capital punishment in the period from the mid-18th century to the 1905 Revolution in Russia, it was applied on very rare occasions. It is notable that Prince Vladimir abolished the death penalty in Kiev when he converted to Christianity in the 10th Century. But I found the Russian Church's bishop's statement interesting because it seems to indicate that Holy Russia, in spite of Prince Vladimir's influence, was not uniformly anti-death penalty across its 900 year history.
So, back to the original point...is there a difference between the God of the "Law" of the Old Testament and the God of the "Gospel" in the New... or perhaps more accurately, does God deal with the human race differently in the two Testaments? I think part of the answer is in Acts 5, shortly after the establishment of the Church. This is the story about how God immediately strikes Ananaias dead before the congregation for lying about his tithe. When his wife, Sapphira shows up, the Apostle Peter asks her a loaded question which she answers wrong, and he tells her that her husband was struck dead for lying to God and the same fate awaited her for participating in her husband's lie and she is struck dead too. While it was God who did the killing, St. Peter did not pray to God for mercy, clemency or life in prison for either of them. And St Luke records that the result was great fear came upon the Church and all who heard about it. I take that tobe biblical language for "public capital punishment for lying to the apostles and the Church was a deterrent".
In one sense death is indeed fearful, but it is also referred to in our readings for the Saints during the Vigil services as a blessing: God takes the righteous early so that they will be spared the evil days to come. So the real question surrounding capital punishment is not "death or no death", the question is "death by whose hands" and "when" and "for what purpose"? In the final analysis both the atheist and religious person will agree, death is inevitable, we will all die. How death comes to anyone is at the bottom line inequitable and a tragedy, whether a person dies because a god personally killed them, or of cancer, a random accident or even if it is at the hands of an imperfect juridical system that seeks to maintain a "civil society".
So, according to the Christian faith and its scriptures death is a mixed curse or mixed blessing depending on how you look at it. So when we consider capital punishment as a form of death, we have to look at it as more than a one dimensional evil. The concepts of death as penalty, or as just retribution, deterrent and consequence did not come from the gods of paganism or from atheistic philosophy.
If we look at the biblical history of capital crime beginning with Cain (though one could argue the first human capital crime was Adam and Eve's sin since it resulted in death)...God's response to Cain in Genesis 4 was essentially solitary confinement and a warning to the rest of humanity to not participate in his murderous ways lest God take vengeance on Cain's murderer sevenfold. But murder became part of human society anyway. In Genesis 6 God exacts capital punishment on the whole human race which had become exceedingly evil except for Noah and his family. In Genesis 9, after the flood the "culture of death" comes to full fruition on the earth. Man is allowed to kill and eat the animals and the animals will now fear man, but more importantly God now requires capital punishment for murder.
There is a lot to think about there, but most interesting statement for our discussion is in Genesis 9:6: " Whoever sheds man's blood, By man will his blood be shed, FOR IN THE IMAGE OF GOD HE MADE MAN" The rationale FOR the death penalty is exactly the rationale used against it by most modern Christians, that we cannot kill someone because they are in the image of God. It seems to me that God is saying to Noah, "I require that you kill the murder because he has violated the image of God in his fellow humans, and perhaps more importantly within himself." This predates the Mosaic Law and seems to initiate a new era that will be the way the universe works from then on. The promise to not destroy man by a flood and the status of man and the animals is still true... why not capital punishment? It seems we have a lot of unpacking to do.
So we fast forward to Moses. Capital punishment is undeniably commanded by God to His people under the theocracy of Judaism. There are arguments that capital punishment under Mosaic Law, though it seems administered for slight or even non-offenses by modern standards, had more stringent boundaries and checks and balances of justice thanthe surrounding pagan nations. That may be true, but it does not shed any light on the issue at hand...why capital punishment AT ALL?
I think we could legitimately ask, IF Israel was a type of the Church and a foreshadowing of the ministry of Christ, why didn't God tell them: passive resistance to evil, no death penalty, no armies, negotiate everything and let evil run over you...you are to be a type of the forgiving, Crucified Savior. Not to second guess God or His powers and ability to bring good from evil, but it seems to me that He could have gotten Jesus born of a virgin just as easily in that scenario as the one we find in the Scriptures if He so willed. But we have the reality that God commanded death, both on an individual level and a national level, and He Himself killed the disobedient and unrepentant, and through His permitting the Assyrians and Babylonians to punish idolatrous Israel was responsible for a lot of collateral damage to the innocent and righteous within Israel.
I have heard it argued that even though God commanded capital punishment that it was rarely carried out and reconciliation and forgiveness were more the focus of Mosaic justice in practice. That might be true, I don't know...but it seems to beg the question that perhaps it is precisely because they disobeyed God's law is why Israel was idolatrous, spiritually adulterous and immoral and had so many evil kings. So, it seems clear to me that fear and death, and the death penalty are not just a Mosaic institutions but universal principles under which the cosmos and the human race now functions because of the nature of mankind after the fall. The Mosaic Law foreshadows the Gospel and yet demands capital punishment. And if we think about it, it is through capital punishment unjustly administered through both Moses and the Gentiles that our salvation comes and through which one thief is saved,... but more on that later. So, next week, civil authority, secular laws, the Church and the State, and utopian society. Until then, I welcome comments, suggestions, challenges and clarifications on what I've presented so far. There's a lot more left to come... thanks for joining me. See you next week on Steve the Builder.
Welcome to part three of the ongoing series on capital punishment. Before I begin this week's thoughts, let me say that I've gotten a lot of very kind and well thought out responses to the series so far, on both sides of the issue. Several people emailed me about last week's podcast and the general thoughts were that while God may have killed Ananais and Sapphira, He didn't kill David or St. Paul, and Jesus does not stone the adulterous woman to death. Hence, we can conclude that Christ is not in favor of the death penalty, but rather uses people's sins to bring them to repentance. A couple people noted that no where in the NT does God justify one human being taking the life of another for any reason.
The last comment is what this whole series is about, so I'll just have to say stay tuned. That said, I completely agree that it is an inescapable fact that a lot of people "got clemency" in both the Old and New Testaments, and that God is ultimately a God of love. However, His acts of mercy are not the only expression of God in either Testament, there's plenty of death to go around. Jesus in His ministry did the same things God did in the Old Testament, He showed mercy on some sinners. Even though Jesus never "personally killed" someone during His ministry, in His parables of judgment, He likens God to an angry King who kills the evil vineyard keeps and warned the Jews of the coming judgment of God on Israel which resulted in the deaths of thousands. So I don't think we can say "Christ is by nature anti-capital punishment" solely based on His earthly ministry any more than we can say God is based on His forgiveness of David etc.. If we isolate the ministry of Christ from the realities of God's death dealing activities with evildoers we run the danger of bringing a raft load of problems into our theology of the unity of the Trinity. If we divorce Christ from the Father and say He had nothing to do with the coming Roman demolition of Jerusalem and Judaism, that would put us in danger of becoming Marcionites, separating the "God of the Old Testament" and the "God of the New" (another point that will have to be more fully explicated in a future podcast).
Ultimately, our theology does affirm that God desires the death of no man and desires the salvation of all. However it also affirms that the death of the all, including the evildoer, is in the hands of God as an event within the providential Love of God... even if He deems to kill them personally or permits them to be killed while still impenitent, like the thief on the left. (And that too is another whole issue worth exploring...nothing about this topic is simple). So if we accept the reality of God's direct and permissive dealings with the death penalty in human history, the issue does at one level boil down to WHO is making the decisions of life and death and does any human being in the "gospel age" have the wisdom, right (or responsibility) to do that according to Scripture.
So, last week we looked at God's dealings with fallen human society before and after the Flood, which, as I indicated seems to be a sharp line of demarcation in how the world functions in terms of death and fear both among the animals and humans; and it also introduces a subset of that new order among humans: capital punishment for capital crimes on the basis of the Creation story. The covenant with Noah was not abrogated by the Mosaic Law and, I believe, neither by the Gospel. Under Moses, the world still functioned as it did after the flood, but what the Law did was introduce a new level of revelation of God into the world through a national structure rather than through a family structure. The Mosaic Law taught an ethical and moral structure that lifted Israel out of the cruelty and evil of the surrounding nations. Specifically the laws of crime and punishment set boundaries that explicated further the reasoning given to Noah regarding a life for a life because man is created in the image of God. When Christ manifested God in flesh, the reasoning is brought to its full exposition in the person of Jesus: Without a doubt, the human being IS in the image of God because God becomes flesh. But we have to remember, this is God's revelation of Himself to mankind. However ignorant WE may have been of the depth of meaning of being in the image, God has dealt with the human race on the basis of that fact from the beginning. He made it clear in the pronouncement to Noah that the rationale FOR the death penalty is that man is in the image of God, everything since then has merely been further explication of some aspect of that truth and what that means to God and for us. We know what that looked like under Moses, so theissue now is what does that mean to the Christian and how does that work in the world since the revelation of God in Christ?
What is different now is the presence of the Church within the world. But what we have to unpack is the fact that, as Christ said, His kingdom is not of this world. Even though it is called to be leaven on the earth, the world in fact is not the Church nor does it submit fully to God nor to the Church; and the Church is in the world but not of it. And therein lies the problem we need to unpack today.
So what IS the role of the Church and its relationship to civil authority? Christians, spiritual pagans and atheists all agree that the human being somehow innately understands something of the necessity and value of societal order and justice that supercedes the anarchist individual. Social order reflects some sort of "collective conciousness" that rises above any single individual's level of perfection in an imperfect world. This has been philosophized and theologized about for several millennia. But the point here is, no matter how we frame it or explain it, it undeniably exists. The Christian and the atheist would basically agree that one individual with unchecked power does not generally work well as a system of government because we know "absolute power corrupts absolutely". According to Scripture, all "governmental systems" and civil authorities are established by God and are a necessary concession for the good order of the world due to the fall. But "systems of government", even if ordained by God, are run by fallen human beings. This fact is not lost on anyone who knows anything at all about government and politics. St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on Romans 13 talks about how we should regard civil authority and evil politicians:
For do not tell me of some one who makes an ill use of (the institutions of government), but look to the good order that is in the institution itself, and you will see the great wisdom of Him who enacted this law from the first....whether in punishing, or in honoring, the state is a Minister, in avenging virtue's cause, in driving vice away, as God wills."Systems" of government and societal order are a collective hedge against individual human anarchy which tends toward evil, and it also provides more or less for some definition of "the common welfare" of the members of society. And, realistically, some systems might be better than others, but NO system however elegant, if occupied by evil people will keep people from doing evil things.
The specific issue of the "common welfare" that we are concerned with is the protection the innocent from the evildoer. Regardless of comparative degrees of due process and specific definitions of what is a capital offense among different societies, the common denominator is a recognition that there is good and evil and there is a necessity to isolate evil from society somehow. If nothing else, the atheist can at least grant that the God of the Bible is a realist: there are real evil individuals who need restraint by the collective...and I'll add so I don't sound like Judge Roy Bean all the time, on the other hand, mercy is also a virtue.
So when we talk about God and societal order, the Scriptures do not say that Judaism was the ONLY civil order or government established by God. It was however, specifically a nation formed and its governance was directed by God for a foreshadowing of the Gospel. Its laws and rituals were tutors until the fullness of the revelation of God was realized in the gospel of Christ, which is unconditional love for our neighbor, which includes our enemies who are in the image of God. And it is here that the real issues get knotty.
Bp. Seraphim (and every other Christian anti-death penalty advocate I've read), calls for society to "forgive our enemies" because Christ calls on us to forgive our enemies. I agree that I as an individual Christian am called to forgive my personal enemies, which I struggle to do. (And of course in a future podcast we'll have to unpack "What is the nature of forgiveness" and does it necessarily mean removal of consequences ...) But if we say the state must forgive because Christians are called to forgive, then we are also commanded to turn the other cheek and give to those who ask without question and take no thought for food, clothing or tomorrow in that same sermon. The question is do all or any of these commands extend to civil order? Should human society, regardless of belief in the gospel, be universally constrained to forgive the enemies of all human beings who have been violated by evil? Why should this only be applied to the death penalty? Why then prisons at all if we are to forgive 70 times 7? It seems we are cherry picking from the commandments and applying them according to some vague (or at least unarticulated) principle of Church/State relations. Is the State called to forgive every evildoer in the name of the Christians within the State who were not personally violated by them? Should secular civil authority govern and order itself according to the law of Christ as applied to individual Christians? I think not for two reasons:
The Theocracy of Judaism is fulfilled in the Church, not the secular State. The call of the Gospel is ultimately to persons, not institutions. Living according to the gospel requires belief in it, not MERELY following legislation. That said, I believe it is entirely appropriate to legislate against evil for the same reason Noah was commanded to institute the death penalty: because we are created in the image of God. The God ordained order of the State, at some level, reflects the image of God in that it exists for the "good of society" which calls for defining good and evil through civil law. However, the question at hand is, "is the death penalty intrinsically evil"? Even if civil institutions were filled with Christians, those institutions would still have to deal with the fallen order and unbelieving members of society who indeed do evil...which begs the question: What does forgiveness look like and what is really demanded by it if Christians were the sole civil rulers?
In Old Testament Judaism God dealt with human beings on a revelatory moral and religious level, but the Jews at that time had no knowledge of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. Judaism, even if it is viewed as a shadow of the Gospel, was still God ordained. Apart from its unique religious rituals, it was a revelation to the world of universally applicable moral and ethical precepts, and it included the death penalty. I would conclude that these aspects of the Law of God, which included capital punishment apart from the fullness of knowledge and belief in the Gospel of Christ, is still a functional way to order a non-Gospel based human society. The modern world may disagree with the Bible about WHO should be put to death for what, and how. But from Genesis to Revelation the overarching principles of law and order that include justice, fear of consequence, punishment and restraint that deal with evil are universally recognized to be necessary for civil order, even by atheists.
This brings me to my second point. As I read it, nowhere in the New Testament do we see the State held to the standard of the Gospel in how it orders society. Since its establishment, the Church has existed and functioned within many political systems. We don't find the New Testament writers confusing the roles of the Church and state in the lives of human beings, probably because the state in NT times was either indifferent of hostile to the Church. Thus the apostles held up no political system as "the one true gospel party", and Christians were constrained to pray for all civil leaders, godly or not. Jesus Himself told Pilate as he was condemning Him that he had no power except that which was given him from God. In Romans 13, St. Paul, who suffered unjustly under both Jewish and Roman law, teaches that the state has the God ordained responsibility to punish the evil doer and even to exact capital punishment if it deems it necessary. St. Paul, in spite of the injustices he personally suffered, does not even deal with the possibility of civil law being unjustly administered. St. Paul does not seem to have an issue with the possibility of the State being in error or unjust at times between the parentheses of the loss of Paradise and the fulfillment of the Kingdom. Both he and Christ personally stood above the civil order and the injustice they suffered and in doing so personally transformed the world around them without legislating "Christian values" through governmental systems. While the Church exists within the context of a state, it is interesting that the Church flourished the most when it had no state support or political influence for the first 300 years of its existence.
So, next week we'll talk about utopian societies, Church/state political systems, personal convictions, and why God ordained civil authority knowing human beings are imperfect. Let me say if you want to mull all this over, there are transcripts of all these podcasts on the Steve the Builder page at Ancient Faith. And as always your comments and thoughts are welcome.
Welcome to the fourth installment of the ongoing series on Capital Punishment. To begin this week, I'd like to respond to a couple of emails that said essentially, "As Christians we shouldn't be promoting capital punishment." Basically the purpose of these podcasts is not to PROMOTE capital punishment as much as to defend it as a legitimate Christian doctrine which has been held from the beginning by many prominent Church Fathers, east and west, and not by just fringe elements of the Church. Among modern activists and scholars, there seems to be aspects of the issue that are completely ignored, not fully explored or downplayed. The issue is too critical to be discussed in sound bytes lifted from scripture, patristics and social research, not only for the sake of the life of theevildoer facing execution but also for the lives of the innocent and the wellbeing of society.
So, last week we began talking about the Church and the state which are both ordained by God and their mutual and exclusive roles in the world. As we noted the theocracy of Judaism which included capital punishment based on the covenant with Noah is fulfilled in the Church through the Gospel. However, we also noted that civil government outside of Judaism's theocracy is also ordained by God. Nowhere in the Old or New Testaments do we find the State held to the standard of the Gospel in how it orders society, nor do we find any evidence that the covenant with Noah has been abrogated in the divine order of civil authority.
So this week I want to continue the discussion of some of the relevant nuances of Church and State relations and their God ordained roles in the fallen order. We'll also examine some of the patristic and modern church's writings about the Church's relationship to the State.
Bill Gould and I were having lunch last week and were discussing the concept of the possibility of a "Christian State" and what that might look like. Would civil authority be utopian (or at least more perfect) under Christian rule? Bill had quite a few good things to say that I'll summarize here:
The ancients understood that their moral and religious frameworks were not easily divorced from civil concerns, and throughout Church history it has always been considered, by most Christian expressions, a possibility to have a Christian State. Israel's history is the story of the "Christian State" imperfectly administered by a series of kings that would bring either blessings or curses upon the people at large depending on their actions. It was never Utopia, but it was most assuredly an integration of Church and State.
In light of this, the prophet/king relationship, the patriarch/emperor relationship, Pope/Monarch etc, and the wielding of power in their respective spheres is quite natural - and it has yielded, at times, good outcomes for citizens even up to the modern era. But it is also clear from Church history that religious coercion by the State does not generally yield good results. The Church AS the State is untenable and cannot be justified either scripturally nor pragmatically. As an example we can look at what John Calvin established in Geneva to see how his theology of Church and State got worked out in praxis, (which included capital punishment to Severus' chagrin)...and a Christian Taliban essentially describes his church/state experiment. But this does not mean that the State cannot or should not align itself with the Gospel. However, we must understand that there are boundaries between the roles of the Church and the State and not ALL of the Gospel's demands on the Church and the individual Christian can be integrated into a civil order . The soteriological mission of the Church in the world does not cancel God's divine order that the evildoer is restrained by means of the State. The Christian State is one that promotes freedom and justice for all, and not the conversion of souls by its civil powers, and the Church within the secular State does not seek to use the State for its own ends. The Church understands that the State is in and of itself a manifestation of God'swisdom that does not need the Church's meddling or even direction for it to be at work for the good of the people.
So if we reject the Church AS the state as an unscriptural and unworkable concept, the Church influencing the State is another matter entirely. The monolithic witness of the Church fathers is that Christian influence on anyone is a matter of persuasion, not coercion. The question is, do Christians especially in a free society such as the USA and other democracies, have an obligation to engage the civil dimension of their existence? Should we use our influence in the political realm for "good" as defined by the Gospel, and admonish evil as a prophetic voice, flawed as we are and regardless of the fact that, in an ultimate sense, it is doomed to fail because of the Fall? There's a lot here in Bill's comments and we're going to unpack some of them in this podcast.
So for the sake of this week's discussion we need to flesh out a point I made last week: What if the state actually governed unbelieving society by the selected Christian ethic of forgiveness of enemies as some Christian anti-death penalty advocates seem to imply it should? Let's use this as an example (and bear with me, this is not going to be a straw man argument): Say a Christian forgives an unrepentant pedophile for raping and murdering his child, and the state sets him free because he has been "forgiven by his enemies". He is still a pedophile and will now victimize other kids. Whose responsibility is it to see that the "forgiven" evildoer does not victimize others and does the one who set him free bear any responsibility for the evil he perpetrates after being freed? (This is not a hypothetical, by the way...there are plenty of stories of people who, through the help of activists, have had sentences commuted who have raped and murdered after getting out of prison but more on that later...)
If we take forgiveness to the ridiculous extreme of removal of all consequences, the only restraint of the evildoer is the individual...me, my gun and my definition of justice. And if that was the case, we'd STILL have the same issues of evildoers, restraint, retribution, punishment, death penalty and protection of the innocent, only boiled down to an individual level instead of a corporate one. But, if we equate "forgiveness of enemies" to removal of the death penalty, which is a legitimate God ordained consequence for capital crime, then the question is, where DO we draw the line and by what principles and authority do we draw it at one place or another? So the issue is not, as I mentioned before, "forgiveness", but "what does forgiveness look like" in the context of civil order and the State. Nor is the issue, as Bp. Seraphim seems to imply, that those who believe in the death penalty are not upholding Christ's command "to forgive one's enemies". It is clear that forgiveness cannot always mean removal of consequences or removal of the state's responsibility to protect the innocent from the evildoer. So really, all Christians, when it comes down to pragmatics and belief, do not hold that forgiveness means removal of consequences for sin or evil, and most will actually acknowledge that. The Church may forgive the sin of embezzlement by one of its members, but it cannot commute the sentence of restitution. It forgives adultery, but it does not pay the child support of the adulterer. It forgives the negligent homicide but it cannot serve the prison sentence for the drunken driver. It forgives even premeditatedmurder, but in doing so does not commute the civil sentence. So while we all essentially agree that consequences are not always abrogated by forgiveness, for some reason when it comes to the death penalty, some people make a categorical leap and connect the removal of the death penalty to "the forgiveness of enemies". It is clear that this is bad rhetoric at best and bad thinking at worst. The discussion is really then, "Is the death penalty a legitimate consequence?" Not, "Christian forgiveness of one's enemies". In summary, to be blunt, do not lay "unforgiveness" at the feet of those who believe in capital punishment.
But, on the positive side of the coin, as Bp. Seraphim admonishes, and I would agree wholeheartedly with, the Church IS called to visit those in prison, and to preach Christ crucified to the incarcerated sinner. The Church can affirm life, repentance and forgiveness, and at the same time permit the State to deal with the good order of the society within which the Church functions...and there will be more on that later, but for now, the bottom line is, the State might be INFLUENCED by the Church, but it cannot BE the Church. It is only the Church that is held to the gospel. No Christian who supports capital punishment believes the Church should execute the evildoer, or even its own sinners and heretics or apostates (although in the Church that has been the case at times in the past). We all agree (this includes me), that the Church exists for the redemption of the human being and an agent of the Gospel of forgiveness, the giver of the sacraments, the bearer of grace to the fallen race.
So we are still left with, what are the boundaries and inter-relationships of the Church and State when it comes to capital punishment? The historic concensus of the great theologians of the Church, both East and West uniformly affirm the existence of the State as a God ordained power separate from the Church, and its authority to exact capital punishment as an option for the good of society. One of the quotes from St. John Chrysostom that is usually put forth by anti war and death penalty advocates is, "in our case (as Christians) the wrong-doer must be made better, not by force, but by persuasion". However, the full quote is from "On the Priesthood":
"Christians above all men are not permitted forcibly to correct the failings of those who sin. Secular judges indeed, when they have captured malefactors under the law, show their authority to be great, and prevent them even against their will from following their own devices: but in our case the wrong-doer must be made better, not by force, but by persuasion"St. John is not denying the authority of the State, nor its responsibility to punish and restrain the evildoer. What he is saying is the Church does not use force to convert souls. In the Christian West, St. Thomas Aquinas sums up the consensus of the Western Fathers in his commentary on I Corinthians 5: "if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump' (1 Corinthians 5:6)" (ST II-II q. 64, art. 2).
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states in section 2267 :"Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."
The Lutheran Church in America, in a statement issued by the Third Biennial Convention in 1966 states that Martin Luther and its historical confessions recognized the inherent authority of the State to resort to capital punishment in order to protect society. I cite the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions because they are still essentially rooted in and refer to many of the pre-schism traditions of the historical Church. Both of these reflect not just isolated quotes from their respective Fathers, but the corpus of both pre- schism and post schism patristic witnesses. However, the statements I quoted are not the full story and they have both, in the last few decades, issued statements essentially saying there is no good warrant for the state to exercise its authority in this realm for various reasons. And I will address those issues and reasons in later podcasts. The point for the purposes of this topic is to show that the universal Christian witness from the beginning points to the State's divinely ordained permission to execute evildoers if it deems it necessary for the common good.
On the Orthodox side of things, in the "Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church" the Russian bishops underscore St. John and Bill Gould, and essentially concur with the Catholic and Lutheran statements. It says, "The Church should not assume the prerogatives of the state, such as resistance to sin by force, use of temporal authoritative powers and assumption of the governmental functions which presuppose coercion or restriction. At the same time, the Church may request or urge the government to exercise power in particular cases, yet the decision (to do so) rests with the state.... There are no indications to the need to abolish (the death penalty) in the New Testament or in the Tradition, or in the historical legacy of the Orthodox Church either.... Keeping in mind that mercy toward a fallen man is always more preferable than revenge, the Church welcomes these steps by state authorities. At the same time, she believes that the decision to abolish or not to apply death penalty should be made by society freely, considering the rate of crime and the state of law-enforcement and judiciary, and even more so, the need to protect the life of its well-intentioned members." One might argue that the patristic witness supporting the death penalty was written in the context of a predominantly "Christian world view of the inherent value of life" and therefore may not be fully applicable within our modern "culture of death" as Pope John Paul wrote. I don't believe that holds up in the face of the covenant with Noah, the fact that the Church at times in its history executed people for heresy under the rubric of "the value of life", and most importantly that the words of St. Paul were written in the context of a pagan culture and government that had far less regard for human life than our modern era."The state does not bear the sword for naught", St. Paul says. St. John Chrysostom comments on this passage in Romans 13 and says: For he bears not the sword in vain. You see how (God) has furnished him with arms, and set him on guard like a soldier for a terror to those that commit sin. For he is the minister of God to execute wrath, a revenger upon him that does evil."
Last week we essentially looked at the historic Christian view of the relationship of the Church to the State in general. It is clear that both East and West see the state having its own realm of authority ordained by God and does not need the Church to validate or direct its operation in order for it to be an agent of God's will for humanity. However, it is also clear that the Church is called to be leaven and there is no prohibition of the Church influencing the State's decisions in matters moral and ethical. So, I believe that a big part of the tension about capital punishment is that we have a muddled mix of our "personal convictions" or what we feel compelled to do in individual relationships and our understanding of how the State should function for the good of society. If we accept the essential separation of the gospel's demands on the Church and the State, the issue boils down to these questions: Can I, as a Christian, personally participate in killing a human being? And, am I by default participating in it by not protesting the act through the political system? (And of course a larger question is, can a Christian keep his soul and participate in the political arena at all?) At another level, if we accept that civil authority is God ordained and human beings are invested with the powers of life and death, we have to ask: How does an individual who is finite and imperfect whether a Christian or not, perfectly join justice and mercy within civil order? If an individual cannot accomplish that, how can society or systems of government do that when the offices are occupied by fallen, finite humans? If civil authority cannot be trusted to judge justly in every capital case, what is our responsibility as a Christian?
I'll address the second question first, because it lays a foundation for our discussion of personal convictions. It is undeniable that human beings are neither personally nor collectively omniscient, but does that mean necessarily that we can only take a life if we can know everything that only God knows? If we accept that as a legitimate boundary against the use of the death penalty, then we have to ask, if God knew we could not know what only He knows, why then did He ordain civil authority for both believing and unbelieving pagan societies and give it the power to judge and punish evildoers by death? We might ask, "Is God concerned about the possibility of injustice due to human limitations and even human evil occupying authority?" And the real bottom line is, if someone dies unjustly under a flawed civil system, which is one of the primary arguments against the death penalty, is that an eternal issue?
I don't think it's an accident that the groundswell of anti-death penalty activism began predominantly in Europe on the heels of WW II and the experience of the gross abuse of power manifested in the Nazi regime, and in the context of post enlightenment Western Europe's decline of faith. Avery Cardinal Dulles, a noted Roman Catholic Jesuittheologian, observes that without a belief in the afterlife, humanistic and utilitarian philosophy has essentially defined physical death as the ultimate evil and insult to human worth and dignity. (And this could easily segue into several discussions of the parallel rise of abortion, the utilitarianism of de facto eugenics, and the cult of youth, health and virtual immortality)...but regardless of the self contradictory manifestations of the humanist's view of the value of the human being and death, it remains a fact that the decline of Christianity and a belief in eternal life, went hand in hand with the rising opposition to the death penalty in Europe by humanist activists. Cardinal Dulles notes in a 2001 article in "First Things", that "many governments in Europe and elsewhere have eliminated the death penalty in the twentieth century, often against the protests of religious believers. While this change may be viewed as moral progress, it is probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel."
So, in the end, I believe that the issue has been largely framed for modern Christians by the atheists. Christians have accepted the Godless categories of secular humanists (and I use that term not pejoratively, but with exactitude) and their reframing of the death penalty as unjust, contrary to the dignity of the human being, and cruel and inhuman in the face of the biblical rationales for the validity of the use of the death penalty. It is clear from the Biblical witness that it can and should be applied even in the fallen order, it is applied precisely BECAUSE of the dignity of human life, and cannot be defined as "inhuman" because the creator of humanity, God Himself, not only commanded it but exacted it Himself.
So the root of the issue comes back to what we discussed in the second podcast: a definition of death. If death is the end of the human being then yes, it is to be avoided at any cost (or on the other hand, it can be dealt out without fear of any ultimate consequence beyond it.) But for the Christian, death, in the end, is NOT the final affront to the dignity of our humanity, it is the loss of our humanity in eternity separated from its true source and definition in God.
Thus, the philosophical waters of the death penalty get even muddier when we begin talking about "life". The humanist will attempt to frame the definition of life and point up that it is inconsistent to believe in capital punishment and be "anti- abortion" or in other words, "pro life". Some Christians have accepted the humanist's philosophical definitions and would hold Christians to the false categorical equality of "Christian pro- life", anti-abortion, and "anti-capital punishment". This ignores several underlying qualifying assumptions of Christian theology regarding definitions of life, evil, guilt, innocence and justice. The taking of an innocent life through abortion or eugenics and the taking of the life of an evildoer are not categorically the same based on a right understanding of Genesis 9:6 in which God requires the life of the murderer because man is created in the image of God.So, again, we cannot let the humanist define the categories of life and death for the Christian. Being "pro-life" because we believe the human being is created in the image of the "Living God" does not necessarily mean one must believe in the prolonging of the life of the evildoer any more than not believing in God and man in His image means someone should be de facto pro death penalty. As we mentioned, one can be anti capital punishment and an atheist and much of Western Europe is anti-capital punishment but pro abortion derived from secular humanistic philosophy. But it seems to me that the atheist has a harder time justifying being anti death penalty than the Christian.
If one is a true materialistic atheist, the bottom line is that murder is merely one mechanically materialistically determined biological unit doing something driven by his chemicals to make another biological unit to cease functioning. "Justice" and "mercy" are merely chemically determined brain constructs that ultimately have no objective teleological meaning or purpose. One cannot even say they are utilitarian or the marks of an enlightened society because then that would become a metaphysical statement requiring an objective standard for defining what is or is not enlightened or morally and ethically progressive. In the grandest scheme of deterministic materialistic atheism, murder doesn't matter and neither does murdering the murderer. Any meaning attached to any of it (or to anything or everything for that matter) is a personal fantasy created by my chemicals in MY head. But if we take even a small philosophical step out of the boundaries of materialistic determinism and into the realm of "something more", then we are forced to define what that "something more" is, where it comes from outside the material order, and what it does. Is it malevolent, disinterested, engaging, controlling, mad (in both senses of the word), or in love with us? In other words, we have whole ‘nother thing going on here.
To the Christian, because we believe that the "Whole ‘Nother Thing" is a personal God who is indeed in love with us, ultimately retributive justice is about love, even under the Mosaic Law which demanded capital punishment. At the root of it, because we believe in objective love, the killer is killed because more than mere biology has been violated, something more than just a mass of chemicals has ceased to function, and our reaction to that is more than just vague evolutionary sentimentality and another mass of chemical interactions in my head. Objective love has been violated. At the core of our existence because we are created in the image of God who is love, we know that if we have no love, we have no life. Whether we affirm a Judeo-Christian theology and ethic or not, we must still must come to terms with the innate human notion of "Society". Even a secular humanistic definition attempts to define society by love in some way. What is society? ...an amalgam of beings that economically join together in a community mutually respecting and affirming life for the wellbeing of all: which is really a dim definition of "love" at a primeaval level. This is what makes murder and other heinous crimes inhuman even within a humanistic framework: The killer exhibits no love and kills someone who is loved by someone else thus not just violating the individual but also the community.
From a Christian theological perspective that community includes God. However, it is in the Orthodox theology of iconography that we have the fullness of the exact exposition of Genesis 9:6. It is on the basis of the Incarnation of God in Christ that we believe that thehonor given to a material icon passes to the person whom the icon depicts. Materiality and the spiritual are not divorced. It is in, by and through the material that we ultimately honor the spiritual. God ultimately honors the image of Himself in man by becoming man. It this reality that Genesis 9:6 points us to: Murder is not merely the ending of a material existence. It is a sin against the entire man created in love by God in His image, thus, and this is the crux of the matter, the disregard for and destruction of the image passes to the one in whose image man is created: it is ultimately a rejection and desecration of God Himself. The murderer rejects the entirety of the order of the cosmos both external to himself and within himself. It is because of this that God ordains civil authority with the power to condemn and kill the ones who are so un-human and anti- social that they do not live according to their own created image in respect and honor for the love of God and the love of man in others. In short, the death penalty honors the image of God in both the perpetrator and the victim by holding the perpetrator responsible, AS A HUMAN BEING in the image of God, for his actions.
So now we go back to the original question, why does God allow fallen, finite human beings to make life and death decisions? When we are discussing the pragmatics of human justice, both the Christian and the atheist will acknowledge that the world is not just. (And just to let the listeners know, I am very aware of the research regarding the wrongfully convicted and executed, the racial and poverty issues surrounding the justice system, but more on that later.)
That said, I don't believe we can interpret scripture according to a hermeneutic based on statistics of injustice. We cannot say, "the death penalty is categorically wrong" because of travesties of justice. We CAN say, "a particular person was unjustly executed". Those are two different issues for the Christian. So, what we are discussing at this point is the scriptural validity of the death penalty in the fallen world, not specific cases of injustice and how the Christian can or should respond to human failure within a particular civil order. (More on that later too.)
So no one has any illusions about the perfection of our justice systems in this world, including God. Why did God command the human race to execute evildoers? Because, like us, God has no illusions of either the human potential for evil nor of the possibility of humanity to achieve a perfect justice system. The fallen human condition is bent toward sin and virtue is an uphill struggle. Unrestrained, and dare I say, unpunished, evil generally results in greater evil. While we affirm the image of God in the human being is never lost, it seems God is more realistic than most humans about how deeply that image can be buried in evil, and as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, how that leaven can influence society. Hence God requires the death penalty. The corollary, that God has no illusions about the possibility for humans in the civil arena to rise to perfection either individually or corporately is important. No matter how meticulously crafted a system of justice is, even the American legal system that has 28 separate processes and steps and within them hundreds of procedures before an execution, it will never rise above human failure. There will be injustice, both purposeful or through negligence and ignorance. The hard fact of the matter is innocent people will die, both directly from evildoers and as a consequence of the limitations of humanity in this fallen order. The Christian world viewincludes the tragedy of random injustices and does not cringe from the possibility of it occurring due to human error for greater purpose of the curtailing of even greater evil and the stability and order of human society. In the end, both the atheist and Christian must come to terms with an imperfect world. Legal injustice is not the only affront to our sensibilities of "what is fair". The world is full of "normal" injustices like being a victim of random human evil, natural calamities, poverty or handicap by virtue of birth, and tragic accidents visited on the undeserving or innocent. Civil injustice is merely another sorrowful reality of the fallen order.
Within the civil realm, unlike the "natural realm", there are avenues for righting purposeful injustice, which includes war, righteous civil disobedience, and the use of the civil order and the political structures of a particular governmental system. For the Christian, if all these things fail, there is a higher justice that will deal with the ones in authority who abuse the power or use it in an evil way. The humanist on the other hand, because of his materialistic concept of death as finality, the Romantic philosophy of the upward evolution of humanity, and having no theology of a fall appeals to the necessity of the achievement of perfect human justice and construction of perfect restraint instead of exacting the death penalty. Christians on the other hand, because of our understanding of death and the consequences of the fall, should have a higher tolerance level for the fact the world will NEVER be perfect and human beings are fallible. Christians have no illusions that imperfect and even evil men occupy places of God ordained authority and they make life and death decisions for members of society. The best we can hope for is that those in authority are sober, humble and fearful of the great burden of the sword they are bearing. The fact of the matter is many are not. I read an estimate that in the 20th century over 160 million innocent people have been killed by despotic rulers or governments. The call to abolish the death penalty for justly tried and guilty evildoers is a separate issue, and the abolition of the death penalty would not keep despotic rulers from genocide or rule by terror. So the Christian call for justice notwithstanding, death, even an unjust death, is not the end of the story. The Cross of Christ, and the two crucified with Him, is a microcosm of the divine order. It is the ultimate witness that the power given from above is, in human hands, both just and unjust, but that gross injustice in the providential hand of God in a much grander scheme of the universe than we can imagine, is in the end redemptive in some way. It is with this understanding that the Saints could command us to submit to unchristian, imperfect and even unjust civil rule.
Welcome to part six of the ongoing series on the death penalty. I appreciate those who have taken the time to respond to the podcasts with good questions, challenges and comments. A couple of folks who emailed me mentioned Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, and basically cast the anti-death penalty people in the role of Jesus and its supporters as Pharisees or legalists. This goes back to the muddy thinking I mentioned in previous podcasts regarding the boundaries of the roles of the Church, State and the individual. I think at the bottom line we'd all agree that it is absurd to believe that the state should bring each felon before the court and tell them "Go your way, sin no more" and release them back into society with no penalty for their crimes in the name of Jesus. We may as well dismantle the entire justice systems of the world if we really believed that. Again, the issue is not Phariseeism or Jesus-ism, but "what hath God said", and whatdoes that look like in terms of civil order? The particular instance was in the context of "the Church" (Israel's religious leaders) and their conflict with Christ's authority. Jesus knew EVERYONE'S heart in the situation and responded wisely...this was not a commentary or instruction on the function of and nature of civil order in general.
I was also admonished by a few people to "Judge not, lest I be judged..." I have to say that in these podcasts, I'm judging no one in particular, I'm merely presenting the Church's historic Tradition that God indeed has given civil governments the authority to do just that...judge good and evil and reward both appropriately according to the divine order. And again, it would be absurd to apply that gospel command to individuals to civil authorities or even Church authorities. No where in the Scripture is "judge not" applied to civil rule, or even to the governance of the Church.
And finally, someone asked point blank, "Would Jesus give a murderer the electric chair?" I admit the imagery gave me pause, but after some thought, I had three responses to that question: First, He had the ability as God, but He didn't "save" the thief on the left. As I mentioned in the last podcast, the crucifixion scene is a microcosm of the fallen world and civil order: One murder is justly condemned, another's punishment might have been disproportionate, and one was unjustly condemned. In the providence of God, one saves, another is saved and the other exemplifies the unrepentant human even in the presence of the love of God. Even though it would have been a perfect object lesson regarding capital punishment and forgiveness, Jesus died and let two die with Him, one saved and one damned. So perhaps we should go a little deeper and see the crucifixion scene as God's view of civil authority, divine love and the fallen world fully explicated. Secondly, if we hold to the Orthodox view of the Trinity (or even if we were Seballian modalists) we could ask, "Would Jesus kill all the firstborn of Egypt, over 50,000 in I Samuel 6, the entire populations of Sodom and Gomorrah, much less the entire planet?" And we've covered those issues in depth already in previous podcasts. But, thirdly, even if I thought I know Jesus well enough to grant that He would not give someone the chair, or "personally pull the switch", the Scriptures make it clear that He will come again to judge the living and the dead and cast the evildoers into a lake of eternal fire as punishment if they are unrepentant. (And eternal punishment and retribution will probably be next week's topic...so again, stay tuned.) So if we remove the emotional impact from the question, it gets more complicated.
So to begin this week, I want to summarize a bit of last week's thoughts. We looked at the question, is the death penalty inhuman and ungodly? I concluded that the issue has been framed in this way for Christians by the atheist humanists. It is not "ungodly" because God Himself did it and required it of His people. It is not "inhuman" because it addresses what "true humanity" looks like from God's point of view. It is, in some way even if we cannot fully grasp it, a Godly order for the communion of human beings in the context of the fallen world. In the Orthodox theology of the incarnation and the icon, we get the fullness of the meaning of Genesis 9: we fulfill our personhood in relationships, and we lose it in the same way. If we reject our proper regard and relationship to other human beings through murder, the desecration of the image ultimately passes to God. Thus, Godly justice is holding a person accountable, who by doing evil, rejects not only God, but his own personhood created in the image of God. He has defiled the entirety of the meaning of what it is to be human in relationship to others, himself and God.Now, before I go on to more meaty issues, I want to touch very briefly on the emotional aspects on both sides of the issue. I'm not going to spend more than a paragraph on it because it IS emotional and has little true bearing on the issue except to a few individuals.
There are those who cannot imagine participating in taking the life of another human being directly or indirectly because well, they would feel horrible about it. (And of course our convictions play into our feelings...I'm not implying that anti-death penalty people are all codependent bleeding hearts with no substance). And there are those who demand the death penalty because of the anger they feel about the depth of depravity exhibited by some evildoers (nor am I implying that pro-death penalty people are angry, rage driven vigilantes.) These visceral responses are at one level both legitimate reactions to the reality of the unnaturalness of death on the one hand for both the victim and evildoer, and to the horror of evil on the other, both for the harm done to the victim and the evildoer. However, on both hands we ultimately realize we cannot order a society on the basis of any individual's "feelings", or visceral reactions. That is why the death penalty is (or should be) a multi-layered, slow deliberative process and not handed over to individual victims, codependents, zealots or vigilantes. So, I don't believe it is proper to say "Because of my personal convictions, I could not imagine "flipping the switch" to kill someone, therefore the state should not mete out a death penalty". Nor is it proper to say, "Because vigilantes are out for retributive vengeance based on blind anger, therefore the State should not mete out death as a consequence for evil." Systems of justice and objective civil laws are put in place in order to both reflect the proper anger and grief at human evil, and proper restraint and prudence in response to it. Thus a judge or court can take into account the depth of evil of a crime and acknowledge its impact on loved ones and society at large, and still exact a just and proportionate response to it apart from one individual's feelings or conscience.
So finally, I want to get into the issues that are usually presented as the core of the controversy: Life in prison, deterrent, restraint, and punishment or retribution. The first issue I want to deal with is the idea that we cannot kill the murderer in order to provide him with ample time to repent. Should we allow an evildoer to die a "natural death" while being restrained by the state from further crimes through some form of secure incarceration in hopes that he will come to repentance?
We all die from something sooner or later. So I think we have to ask, in the end is it just about the "timing" of the death of the evildoer? Is "sooner" as a consequence for doing evil categorically evil in itself, and how can we state that in the face of the clear command of God? Or, if we believe God is love and all consequences for sin are ultimately chastisement with the goal of repentance, did God intend that there is something redemptive about the death penalty for the evildoer that we as "innocents" can't see or understand?
The reality is, except for isolated cases of crimes of passion, most murderers have long histories of criminal behavior. So we have to ask, what about the time they've already had to repent? How have they used it? As Christians we believe that the opportunity for repentance abounds every minute of the day and God is constantly at work in people'slives to bring them to repentance. It is always KAIROS, "the opportune time" to repent. One of the ways God brings us to repentance is through temporal consequences for our sins. One temporal consequence for exceedingly gross evil is death by the state. The sentence of death on a killer is the first step to redemption because it is a clear statement that his sin is particularly depraved and a violation of all creation. The sentence of death is also redemptive in that it provides the evildoer the only true motivation most sinners initially understand to repent: we are going to die and face eternal judgment for our sins. Even though one of the Orthodox spiritual disciplines to keep ourselves in a repentant frame of mind is the "constant remembrance of death", most of us do not live like we know we are going to die until we know we are going to die. The criminal having a date of execution has what most of us don't have: a sure and exact knowledge of impending death. In that sense he has more of a chance and motivation to repent than the person who was unexpectedly murdered, or someone who is T-boned in an intersection or keels over at the dinner table from an undetected aneurism.
Dr. Gervas Carey, a Quaker Bible scholar and past President of George Fox College, says that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: In his book "A Bible Study" on capital punishment he says of the death penalty that, ". . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy." (p. 116, A Bible Study).
St. Thomas Aquinas says, "The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.) "... if he be not converted, it profits to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore." (Summa Theologica, II-II, 25, 6 ad 2.) So, in the end, we say we fear playing God by taking a life prematurely, before the evildoer has time to perhaps repent. But there are more ways to play God than killing... we can play God by letting people live whom God has commanded to die. And it is clear from the OT that there are grave consequences for that too. St. John Chrysostom in "On the Priesthood" says more priests fall from compassion than from lust. It clear from scripture that it is possible to be too merciful to the sinner and in every case I can think of that happens in scripture it is in disobedience to a command of God to separate or even kill the evildoer. In regard to the death penalty an old Rabbinic saying seems to apply well, "Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator."So, in the end, a juridical system that forces society to carefully premeditate its killing is probably one of the more "fair" deciders of who dies how and when in the fallen order. Unlike the natural order, at least the state gives you a fair warning, a last meal and a chance to say goodbye to your loved ones before you are handed a swift and painless departure from this world. For the Christian who would argue against the death penalty because "God is just, or God is love", I'd say it seems that the state is more fair than God who allows people to die in their sins with no warning. And for the atheist, the state is more fair than their gods of nature, fate, blind chance and other human beings who randomly commit evil.
If we are to make a decision for permitting the evildoer to live, I would say it must be made on some other basis than a vague hope that more time might be helpful...for some, more time is opportunity to do more evil. We don't know who is which, but we do know what God has commanded to do with the evildoer. Just as God will judge those who might have done more evil, He is also the judge of those who may have repented if given more time. He knows the depths of the heart, we can only guess. And I submit that we should not second guess God who has established the role and responsibility of civil authority in this area.
I read somewhere in one of the Fathers (and I confess I can't remember who), that capital punishment is a temporal judgment and exacts the first death in order to bring about the fear of the eternal second judgment and second death. If a Christian believes in eternal life, this is ultimately humane. We cannot push all matters of earthly order, consequences for sin, and judgment of evil onto God in eternity. Romans 13 and I Timothy 2 make it clear that God did not remove Himself from the civil affairs of the human race after the Cross, nor did He remove Himself from judging sinful people within the Church. We are not given the luxury of deferring all judgment of human behavior to the last day in either civil or Church governance. We do not believe the God of the Old Testament is no longer concerned about civil law and order in the New Testament world. Civil authority is still God ordained and has its authority from God even under the Gospel. Death is still the blessed curse and a motivation to repent whether it comes from nature or the state. And the scriptures also make it clear that the fear of immanent death brings some to repentance and some to curse God and die in their sins, even when they are being killed justly along side God Himself.
In this podcast we're going to deal with what are usually the hot button issues brought up regarding the "effectiveness" of the death penalty. Is it a deterrent to capital crime? Does it restrain the evildoer? Does punishment accomplish anything? In one sense these are secondary issues because as I mentioned last week we do not use utilitarian "effectiveness based on statistics" as a hermeneutic by which we decide "hath God said..." But they are indeed talking points about the seriousness of taking the lives of human beings even if they have committed capital crimes. So let's take a look at the issues of deterrent, restraint and punishment.
Is the death penalty a deterrent to those who might do evil? For some, yes. Realistically, for others, no. St. Paul says fear of retribution by the state is a fundamental basis for civilorder. Does that work? Yes. Even the most enlightened and spiritually advanced people would have to admit they obey some civil laws at some level out of fear. Some people probably do obey laws from a higher ethical and moral plane than others, but most of us don't speed because we fear getting a ticket. We don't cheat on our taxes, not because we love how the government spends our money but because we fear the IRS. But we also have to face the reality that there are human beings so bent and broken that not even certain death will deter them from planning and doing evil any more than the threat of a speeding ticket keeps some of us from driving too fast. There will always be those who do not fear a particular consequence for breaking some law. So, the death penalty is not for those people, at least not as a deterrent. As with all other civil laws, we do not remove what works for many because it does not work for a few. We can all agree that the deterrent effect will never be 100% for any law and consequence, so then the question is, what percentage even if it could be proved would be an acceptable level? And yes, I've read tons of statistics on deterrent and there are tons. The bottom line is that they are inconclusive. For every paper that says the death penalty is not a deterrent, there is another that says it is, all based on statistics. The problem is, regardless of how many people DO murder with or without the death penalty, we really do not know how many people DON'T murder because of fear of the consequence. The fact that numbers go up or down does not prove causality either way. Hyam Barshay made the following observation, "The death penalty is a warning, just like a lighthouse throwing beams out to sea. We hear about shipwrecks, but we do not hear about the ships the lighthouse guides safely on their way. We do not have proof of the number of ships it saves, but we do not tear the lighthouse down." Prof. Ernest van den Haag, "On Deterrence and The Death Penalty", Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, vol. 60, no.2 (1969).
Deterrent framed as the primary consideration whether to exact the death penalty or not is ultimately a red herring. Killing the evildoer has never been done ONLY to put the fear of consequence in others. It is PART of the reality of the fact that we are social beings, but the consequence ultimately addresses the anti-social act of the evildoer and it is addressed to HIS violation of humanity and social order.
A second issue with the death penalty is the concept of restraint. Does the death penalty restrain the one who has done evil? You bet, once and for all. But, we can legitimately ask, can he be restrained by confinement? Maybe. I remember Banzai Bob here in Arizona who, while awaiting execution for murder, killed two fellow death row inmates. He strangled one and finished him by stabbing him multiple times with a sharpened toothbrush, then carving his name in the corpse. The other (while again, still on death row) he burned to death by tossing a makeshift firebomb into his cell. Six other inmates died from smoke inhalation from the blaze. Restraint, like the death penalty doesn't always work perfectly it seems. In a sense Banzai Bob executed eight people before the state finally took his life. The reality is, that if Arizona had been a "life in prison without parole", his last eight murders meant nothing to anyone except the judicial formality of adding more life sentences, and he had even less motivation to not murder again.One could argue that the death penalty is unnecessary because of improvements in the prison system and society is protected from repeat offenders because we have the technology to build nearly perfect restraint now. In Pope John Paul II's "Gospel of Life" he states that the only time executions can be justified is when they are required "to defend society" and that "as a result of steady improvements . . . in the penal system that such cases are very rare if not practically non existent." I believe this is another red herring on two levels. The first and practical one is, unfortunately, like the fallibility of the death penalty, no system of restraint is perfect and it is clear from recent news articles that prisons are not currently safe and people get killed in them, both guards and prisoners, and people escape from them. One could argue that we should continue to execute capital offenders until it is clearly demonstrable that the perfect prison has indeed been built. But secondly, and more importantly, I don't believe that, like deterrent, the "defense of society" is the paramount rationale for the death penalty in the Scriptures. If we reduce the issue down to keeping the evildoer from repeat offense then the concepts of moral responsibility, justice, and even rehabilitative punishment are irrelevant. The standard for the application of capital punishment in the Scripture has never been "how secure is your prison system to isolate the evildoer, it has always been a consequence for "what capital crimes do to the image of God in human beings".
And finally, we are left with the currently politically incorrect and ugly, but necessary topic of retribution. The notion of punishment as a pure consequence of an evil act has somehow been deemed "primitive", unspiritual, unchristian and unenlightened. Part of this is because retribution is often framed as a purely utilitarian act that somehow balances the cosmic ledger of the insult suffered by a victim (and in the penal substitutionary model of atonement, the insult to God Himself). But that begs the question of "what is punishment" and what is its ultimate purpose? In terms of the death penalty, opponents tend to frame the death penalty as merely visceral retributive punishment but life in prison is merciful opportunity for rehabilitation. What is a sentence of life in a ten by ten metal cage for someone like Banzai Bob who cannot be let out or he kills? We can call it "rehabilitative restraint", but it is still restraint as a consequence or punishment. So it is not truly about punishment per se, but a definition of punishment properly understood. To be forcibly removed from normal human society against one's will is punishment, to be put to death against one's will is punishment. The question is really, "are they legitimate and by what authority?" An ugly reality of fallen human nature is that inflicted pain or punishment relative to a behavior can be corrective, it can be an aspect of rehabilitation by its nature. This is clear in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and by human experience. If one rejects the concept as primitive, then one must reject the natural operation of the universe's laws and the reality of our own human nature. The fact of all human experience is that human beings mostly only learn "the hard way". We learn and are motivated to re-learn from personal pain and consequences, and if we are truly wise we consider the pain of others before doing wrong. No one can read Proverbs, the Psalter or the New Testament and escape the notion of suffering and even death inflicted either by natural consequences, directly from God or man as God's agent being discipline, chastisement and corrective.In the case of the death penalty we can indeed understand it merely as "an eye for an eye, a life for a life". We can see it as a juridical quid pro quo disconnected from any overarching theological, philosophical or metaphysical framework that addresses an ontological point for the human being. "Punishment" can be seen as merely pure retribution or just balancing the cosmic books of body counts and pain. "Payback" may seem primitive and passionate, but ultimately this visceral response to evil has its roots in the concept of the depth of relationship we have to other human beings. Why "payback"? Why "retribution"? If there is no one who cares, no connection between human beings, no communion, no responsibility to a greater thing than just my own existence, in short, no love, "payback" or retribution would have no meaning. When you "pay" someone for something, it is a transaction based on a relationship. The doing away with the concept of "retributive justice" is framed as a compassionate and enlightened response to evil, but I believe it is a step child of radical humanistic individualism, and ultimately a metaphysical denial of the interconnectedness of humanity. Retribution assumes the evil doer violated more than his individual personhood or just the sole life of another individual he victimized. His actions corrupted the entire order of the cosmos which was intended to shape him into a true human being. "Retribution", technically defined, is the payment of a tribute to someone for an action. When one is punished for evil, the tribute is an acknowledgment of and reward for the violation of what it means to be human for all to see. An eye for an eye is not merely accounting, it means my eye is inextricably intertwined with yours. A life for a life says we are all inextricably intertwined with God. In God I am related to all other human beings, body, soul and spirit. The existence of human society is the evidence of that truth, and human societies innately understand they must teach that truth to their members in some way.
The killing of the murderer is the ultimate statement of the importance of communion and the heinousness of the violation of it. The further we move toward individualism and away from a metaphysic of "communion", the more compassion we will have on those who violate it, but not because we are more loving, but because we are indeed less loving and unable to see the horror of the depravity of the violation of our Trinitarian imaged human existence. The notion that capital punishment only adds one more injustice or more suffering into the universe is not a Christian concept, it is pop eastern philosophy. Suffering exists in the world because of sin, but suffering is not always a manifestation of evil, one can suffer for the sake of love. Indeed it is through suffering and death motivated by love that the world is cosmically redeemed. Because of our fallen minds and hearts, God has prescribed as a cure for sin the punishment or chastisement of sinners or evildoers. Godly chastisement is a bitter pill whose ingredients are an amalgam of retribution, deterrent and punishment, each of which addresses a symptom of our human illness. As difficult as it is to hand out or to swallow, it is given for the purpose of healing the human person: a restoration of the image of a God-in-communion. One does not need to know the chemistry of a medicine for it to work, one merely needs to administer it or take it. Capital punishment is prescribed by God whether we as Christians or secular civil authority understand how it works or God's purposes for it or not. For Christians to lobby the state for the wholesale removal of the death penalty under the rubric of mercy, and make it unavailable for the sickest members of the human race, we are perhapsdenying them the only God prescribed cure left for their disease, which is the ultimate and eternal merciless act.
So, last week we left off with a discussion of punishment, vengeance and retribution. As I noted these words have fallen into disrepute in the last few decades, even among Christians, and the death penalty debate is often framed by definitions of these terms. Punishment, retribution and vengeance are seen as concepts unfit for the modern "Enlightened Man" who has evolved beyond belief in the primitive moralistic gods of religiosity. While we would reject the notion that the God of Christianity is primitive, the problem is that, as I mentioned, Christians are often letting humanistic philosophy define our vocabulary and thus frame our understanding of capital punishment as a consequence for heinous crimes.
The reality is Christians do have some issues to dance with when it comes to a God that St. John says "is love". His responses to sinners in the pages of the Scriptures, including wrath, punishment, vengeance, retribution and yes, the eternal fires of hell just don't sound well...very loving. Like every other serious Christian, I've struggled with those concepts for decades now, and when I became Orthodox I was immediately taken with Alexander Kalomiros' article "The River of Fire" that outlines how many of the Church Fathers understand the wrath of God in light of His nature. Basically, Kalomiros explains hell in terms of Hebrews 12:29 that says "our God is a consuming fire": the fire is the love of God that is experienced by sinners as wrath, punishment or even hell. The typological Biblical illustration of this truth is put before us in every Matins service with the song of the Three Holy Children in the Furnace. There is one fire, and it consumes the Chaldeans but is experienced by the Holy Children as a "dewey breeze". So, there is one God and He is experienced by faith as "love" and by sinners as "fire". There is one Father and He is experienced by the Prodigal as loving, and by the elder brother as unjust and unfair.
I believe framing the wrath and punishments of God visited on sinners in this way makes sense, but it does not exhaust the Fathers' vocabulary and teachings on God's dealing with the sinner and ultimately with the unrepentant. One of the realities we have to face is that if the love of God is experienced by sinners as punishment, wrath, and even hell, it is still a very real experience and it is a proper definition of how they are experiencing God. You could tell someone who has jumped into a bonfire and is burning that what they are really experiencing is a dewey breeze, but the intellectual theological fine point will not lessen the heat or the pain. And we have to acknowledge that this vocabulary is the Scriptures' and the Church Fathers' definition of the experience also, even from the Fathers who in other places explicate "the river of fire" idea in other places. We could say that words like retribution and punishment are problematic when trying to communicate the love of God to the sinner, but they are only problematic if they are the only words that are used, just like it would be a problem if the only words we use are love, mercy and kindness. St. John Chrysostom mentions they had the same issue with the juxtaposition of a loving God and a just and punishing God in the 4th century in his commentary on Romans 2:14. He notes that there were those who denied the reality of God's punishment and justice because St. Paul says He is forebearing and kind. There isnothing new under the sun. So to deny the usefulness of these terms and their ability to communicate something of how God regards sin and unrepentance is to deny the entirety of the Biblical and Patristic witness. It's not that we need to eliminate these words from our vocabulary any more than Christ and the writers of Scripture did, but we need to use them wisely, fully and precisely when communicating the goodness and love of God and His action toward un-godliness. Pastorally, it is a harsh reality that there are people whose spiritual states require threats of punishment, vengeance and retribution to motivate them to repentance, and the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom for them. So when we look at the Fathers, we see that they did not shrink from declaring God's vengeance, retribution and punishment on sinners. Here's a few quotes I've gathered and I'm sure they could be multiplied.
St. John Chrysostom commentary on Romans: For now what takes place is for correction; but then for vengeance. And this also St. Paul showed, when he said, "We are chastened now, that we should not be condemned with the world." (1 Corinthians 11:32.).... But then the punishment from God shall be manifest, when the Judge, sitting upon the fearful tribunal, shall command some to be dragged to the furnaces, and some to the outer darkness, and some to other inexorable and intolerable punishments.
St. Polycarp: The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. XI: "Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but thou art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly." St. Justin Martyr: First Apology 12: "No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments."
St. Cyprian: To Demetrian 24: "An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life." St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lecture 18:10: "We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. ...Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past."St. Gregory of Nazianzus: -Oration on the Holy Lights, Ch. XXXVI: "I know a cleansing fire which Christ came to hurl upon the earth and He Himself is called fire in words anagogically applied....I know also a fire that is not cleansing but avenging, that fire either of Sodom, which mixed with a storm of brimstone, He pours down on all sinners, or that which is prepared for the devil and his angels, or that which proceeds from the face of the Lord and burns up all His enemies all around. And still there is a fire more fearsome than these, that with which the sleepless worm is associated, and which is never extinguished but belongs eternally to the wicked."... its is better to be punished and cleansed now than to be sent to the torment to come, when it will be time for punishing only, and not for cleansing."
St. Jerome in the 4th century addresses the modern psychological view of hell: Jurgens, Vol. 2, Commentary on Ephesians, pg. 193: "There are many who say there are no future punishments for sins nor any torments extrinsically applied, but that sin itself and the consciousness of guilt serve as punishment, while the worm in the heart does not die, and a fire is kindled in the mind, much like a fever...These arguments and fraudulent fancies are but inane and empty words having the semblance of a certain eloquence of speech but serving only to delude sinners; and if they give them credence they only add to the burden of eternal punishment which they will carry with them."
St. Basil the Great: Jurgens, pg. 21, On Psalm 28, No. 6: "The voice of the Lord divides the flame of fire. I believe that the fire prepared in punishment for the devil and his angels is divided by the voice of the Lord. Thus, since there are two capacities in fire, one of burning and the other of illuminating, the fierce and punitive property of the fire may await those who deserve to burn..."
St. John of Damascus, Exact Exposition, Ibid. Bk. 2:29: "Also one must bear in mind that God's original wish was that all should be saved and come to His Kingdom 1 Timothy 2:4. For it was not for punishment that He formed us but to share in His goodness, inasmuch as He is a good God. But inasmuch as He is a just God, His will is that sinners should suffer punishment."
And finally, a quote from the Synodikon of Orthodoxy which is to be read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy (but is usually shortened to just the section on iconography in most parishes...) Synodikon of Orthodoxy: "Those who prefer the folly of the so-called wisdom of the profane philosophers and follow their teachers and accept the migrations of human souls or that they are destroyed like the souls of the animals and return to nothingness and on account of this deny the resurrection, judgment, and final retribution of the acts of their lives, anathema."
So the bottom line is, as Christians we cannot appeal to "God is love" as a rationale for eliminating the death penalty as a retributive, vengeful or punishing consequence. St. John Chrysostom says, in his "Exhortation to Theodore" Letter 1, that the wrath of God is not a human passion but an expression of His tender care and lovingkindness. He sayseven if God threatens us with vengeance and punishments, He inflicts them in order to bring us to return to Him. God is like a doctor who does not listen to the insults and complaints of those he is treating and does not administer treatments for his own benefit but for the ultimate wellbeing of the patient. So within this framework, as I mentioned last week, the death penalty may in fact be the final medicine for the healing of the soul of the sickest of the human race.
EXACT QUOTE: For if the wrath of God were a passion, one might well despair as being unable to quench the flame which he had kindled by so many evil doings; but since the Divine nature is passionless, even if He punishes, even if He takes vengeance, he does this not with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving-kindness; wherefore it behooves us to be of much good courage, and to trust in the power of repentance. For even those who have sinned against Him He is not wont to visit with punishment for His own sake; for no harm can traverse that divine nature; but He acts with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness becoming worse by our making a practice of despising and neglecting Him. For even as one who places himself outside the light inflicts no loss on the light, but the greatest upon himself being shut up in darkness; even so he who has become accustomed to despise that almighty power, does no injury to the power, but inflicts the greatest possible injury upon himself. And for this reason God threatens us with punishments, and often inflicts them, not as avenging Himself, but by way of attracting us to Himself. For a physician also is not distressed or vexed at the insults of those who are out of their minds, but yet does and contrives everything for the purpose of stopping those who do such unseemly acts, not looking to his own interests but to their profit; and if they manifest some small degree of self-control and sobriety he rejoices and is glad, and applies his remedies much more earnestly, not as revenging himself upon them for their former conduct, but as wishing to increase their advantage, and to bring them back to a purely sound state of health. Even so God when we fall into the very extremity of madness, says and does everything, not by way of avenging Himself on account of our former deeds; but because He wishes to release us from our disorder; and by means of right reason it is quite possible to be convinced of this. So how can the Christian support punishment, vengeance or retribution as a legitimate response to evil?
In the The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Bishops note that the iconographic tradition of the Church can help frame this issue (and the issue of killing in war) for us. In the icons of St. George, the black dragon is trampled by the hooves of the horse always painted brightly white. This teaches us that evil is an objective reality, and our struggle with evil is another issue entirely. In overcoming evil we cannot participate in it. They say that the Scriptures and the Fathers do not condemn the struggle with sin, nor do they condemn the use of force to restrain and punish evildoers, and not even taking another's life in the last resort, but rather they condemn the passions in the human heart. One indeed can kill, but do so with sorrow at the necessity of it rather than hatred for one's enemies. Fr. Alexander Webster notes that our tradition is antinomical in the sense that one may be Orthodox and an absolute pacifist—or one may be Orthodox and a just warrior. While no person can be both at once, the Church embraces both the absolute pacifist perspective on war and that of the just warrior. And I would add, the Churchembraces both mercy and clemency and the necessity for the State to exact capital punishment.
Well, there is one final issue for both the Christian and atheist, and that is the question: "What if a convicted felon has repented, or learned to love, or has been reformed"? (However one determines "reformation" without an objective measure). If a murderer shows some sign of humanistic redemption or societal benefit, should society go ahead and execute them like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did to Tookie Williams in California recently, or give them clemency? Under the laws of the civil authority, that is for society to judge from whatever philosophical framework it wishes to use. His temporal fate is not the concern of the Christian because from the Church's perspective, God has already judged and forgiven him if he has repented. And if he has repented, he is prepared to meet his Creator. If that is the case, then he is ultimately better off than we who are left behind and have to continue the struggle to avoid evil, repent and prepare to meet our God. As St. Paul says in Romans 14, whether he lives or dies, he is the Lord's. If someone is prepared, physical death, whether sooner or later and by what means is not the ultimate issue for the Church. Let the atheist work out his own reasoning.
In the end, in light of Scripture and the Fathers, I believe that Christians cannot be categorically anti death penalty. However, we CAN be anti death penalty for individual persons, like Augustine was. In this sense Bp. Seraphim is ultimately correct: the call of the gospel is for us to visit those in prison regardless of what they are in prison for. In my opinion it is unchristian to light candles outside a prison wall when someone is executed and we've never met the person. It IS Christian to visit those in prison and then to advocate for justice or mercy based on a personal relationship. Jesus said, I was in prison and you visited me, not, I was on death row and you wrote philosophical journal articles, passed joint statements, blogged and lit a candle when I died.
So, ultimately, can someone believe in the sanctity of life and mercy, work with prisoners and convicts and still believe in the death penalty?
I think so. I do today.