Category Archives: Capital Punishment

Content related primarily to capital punishment, a Core Content subject

St Nicholas Halts an Execution

St Nicholas stopping an execution

Saint Nicholas wrote no books nor have any of his sermons or letters survived, but few saints have been the object of such universal affection. He is the patron of prisoners, seafarers and orphans.

Born in Asia Minor about 280, he was the only child of wealthy parents who arranged for their son to receive a Christian education from his uncle, the bishop of Patara. Taking literally the words of the Gospel, when his parents died, he distributed their property to the poor, keeping nothing for himself. Though drawn to monastic life, he felt led by God’s will to serve as a priest in the world. After his ordination, he was chosen as archbishop of Myra. During the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian at the end of the third century, Nicholas was among the many thousands imprisoned and tortured.

Over the centuries, Nicholas’s life was embroidered with many legends, yet there are several stories about him which seem solidly historical. One of these relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra came to him with urgent news: the ruler of the city, Eustathios, had condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the city outskirts, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field where he found the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the surrounding crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Eustathios later confessed his sin. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.

Nicholas was one of the bishops participating in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 where, according to legend, he was so angered by the heretic Arius, who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, that he struck him on the face. For his violent act, he was briefly excluded from the Council.

Tireless in his care of people in trouble or need, he was regarded as a saint even during his lifetime. At times, it is said, his face shone like the sun.

He died on December 6, 343 and was buried in Myra’s cathedral. In the eleventh century, his relics were brought to Bari, Italy, where they remain.

— Jim Forest

The icon detail is a panel from the border of a large St Nicholas icon, probably painted in Moscow, dated early 16th century, now in the collection of The Hermitage, St Petersburg.

Ilya Repins’ painting of this event:

Bishop Demetrios Attends Signing of Death Penalty Abolition Bill in Illinois

by Maria A. Karamitsos


Posted on 11 March 2011

St Nicholas stopping an executionOn March 9, Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation to end the death penalty in Illinois. In attendance was Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, and spiritual advisor to the last prisoner executed in the state. Bishop Demetrios praised the decision of the Governor to sign the bill and commute the remaining sentences of 15 death-row inmates as a victory for all Illinois citizens and a major moral accomplishment.

“This is not only a political and legal achievement, but a spiritual triumph of the conscience for all those opposed to capital punishment,” His Grace said in a statement.

Bishop Demetrios is a staunch advocate for abolition of the death penalty, and has worked tirelessly in this effort. He was spiritual advisor to Andrew Kokaraleis, the last prisoner executed in1999. Following Kokaraleis’ execution, Bishop Demetrios became more active in the movement to end the death penalty. He has served as President of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and is still a member.

Following Kokaraleis’ execution, and well-publicized exonerations of death-row prisoners, Governor Ryan announced a moratorium on the death penalty and commuted many sentences. The moratorium continued under Gov. Blagojevich. Bishop Demetrios has remained active in the effort to make the moratorium permanent. Now that effort moves forward.

bishop demetriosThe bishop praised Gov. Quinn. “On behalf of the leader of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, Metropolitan Iakovos, and all our faithful, we may give thanks for this major change in public policy.Yet the struggle for justice and the sanctity of all life is not over. Illinois is just one of 16 states that have abolished the death penalty, so there is much work yet to be done in our nation and, indeed, around the world.”  He noted that the Metropolis of Chicago spans six Midwestern states, and he pledged to continue working for abolition, specifically in Indiana and Missouri, “so that along with Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, every state where we have parishes will be death-penalty free.”


Regarding the Church's opposition to capital punishment

by Fr. Ted Bobosh

Any pastor living in a country in which executions are still carried out is likely to be asked why the Orthodox Church throughout the world has for so many centuries opposed, and still opposes, the death penalty. It is all the more confusing to many Christians because the death penalty is sanctioned in the Old Testament. Let me try to explain, even though I am well aware that such a brief reflection cannot provide a final word.

The scriptures that sanction the death penalty are part of the 613 laws of the Jewish Torah. The keeping of these laws was understood by the Jews to be the only way to be righteous in the eyes of God. For Christians, on the other hand, righteousness is no longer attained through the keeping of the Torah. As we see in such passages as Acts 15:28-29, the keeping of the Torah is not regarded as possible or even desirable.

Jesus Himself, most of the Apostles, and nearly all the early martyrs were themselves victimized by laws allowing capital punishment.

The Christian understanding of capital punishment cannot be reduced to quoting a few Bible passages. It is rather seeing the issue in the context of the overall message and witness of Christ, who came to destroy death, the final enemy of humanity. It is this Paschal dimension of Christianity that causes Christians to proclaim the sanctity of human life. Christ died on the cross to save sinners, not to condemn or punish them. In destroying death, Christ doesn’t transform death into a useful tool for overpowering the nations of the world.

St. Paul portrayed the Christian struggle as the defeat of spiritual powers and principalities and specifically rejected the idea that our warfare was with flesh and blood. Christians are not meant to conquer the world with armed forces, like a jihad, but rather to engage in spiritual warfare for the hearts and minds of all people. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Also, we should bear in mind St. Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Satan claimed the political world was his dominion, a claim Jesus doesn’t deny.

Apart from the Gospel message and the Paschal experience, it is not surprising that capital punishment was not viewed in a positive light in the early Church for it allowed the punishment of both righteous people and those, even if not righteous, who might still find their way to conversion.

The relationship of Christians to the death penalty has a long history. For the first 325 years of Christianity, Christians were a persecuted minority with no share in government power. Christians saw many practices of the Empire as the very opposite of what was expected of those who had, through baptism, become citizens of the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom “not of this world” in which there was no capital punishment or an army sanctioned to kill anyone, not even Christ’s enemies.

Early Christians saw military service as incompatible with the life and teaching of the Crucified Christ. Likewise, from the Roman point of view, Jews and Christians were forbidden from being in the army since neither Jew nor Christian would recognize the emperor’s divinity, nor would they honor the gods of the Roman pantheon. Both the Roman Government and the Christians were in agreement that Christians could not participate in the military or in executions. Inevitably a problem arose for those like St. Martin of Tours who found their way to baptism while in the army. Martin explained to the emperor, “I am a soldier of Christ. To kill is not permissible for me.” Remarkably, in his case he was given a special discharge and went on to become one of the great bishops of the fourth century. But not all soldier converts were given a discharge – some died as martyrs.

Once emperors began to accept Christianity, a serious tension was created between the apostolic values of Christianity, which forbade killing, and the demands of the state, which sanctioned killing. In the first centuries of the Church’s existence, Christians could not be in the army nor be gladiators, could not authorize or carry out executions, nor were they permitted to commit murder in any form even in self defense.

What happened for numerous emperors and public officials who knew they might have to kill or order an execution as a consequence of their office was the postponement of baptism until they retired from office or were on their deathbeds (as was the case with Constantine) so that through baptism they would be forgiven for any killing they had done in the past and, now so close to death, would never have any role in killing once they became a Christian.

One can see in the New Testament the struggle of Christians with government authority. St. Paul writes:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:1-4)

St. Paul assumes that government is necessary for civilization to exist and so Christians should have a proper respect for such a God-authorized institution, including the government’s authority to punish wrongdoers. His statement is exceptional, because Jews in general did not defend Roman authority in their lives. But, as many have noted, Paul oversimplified his case. He does not take into account government persecution of Christians (he may have written his letter before persecution of Christians had begun) or the possibility of an evil government punishing good citizens. Note, however, that for St. Paul government authority is limited – it is not supreme or divine in itself; the emperor is not divine, just God’s servant – but receives its power from a higher authority, the one God, to whom it must answer. He is in fact making a case for the Lordship of God over government, even over a pagan government or an emperor who was considered a deity.

One need only look at the Book of Revelations, written when persecution was in full swing, to see a Christian view in which the government, far from being blessed by God, is identified with Satan and all that is evil. Since most ancient governments were totalitarian, by the time Revelations was written early Christians no doubt assumed they would always be dealing with such a grim reality – as indeed they have, time and again, down through the centuries right to our own day. One could hope for a benevolent and just government, but even if the government opposed all righteousness, Christians would have to live with that. After all, their real citizenship was not in a kingdom of this world. The martyrs gave the most powerful witness of being citizens only of the kingdom of heaven – a witness many Christians are still giving even in the present day. It is no surprise that Christians living in situations of oppression view capital punishment as a tool of oppression that has the approval of the devil himself.

After Constantine’s conversion came the time of government officials and emperors who had been either raised in Christian families or been baptized as adults. Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Virtually all public officials were Christians. At the beginning of the fourth century, it was forbidden both by Christians and by the Roman government for Christians to be in the military, but by the end of that century, the Roman government required everyone in the army to be Christian. The Church faced the reality that its members would be killing others or authorizing killing. In the centuries which followed, a reality emerged which Christians of earlier generations could never have imagined: an all-Christian army.

Christians struggled with this new reality. Many found it intolerable. To a large extent, the monastic movement was a reaction against imperial Christianity. Not only monks but many others felt that the values of the Kingdom of God were incompatible with the values of the Roman Empire. One of the attractions of flight to the desert was that, in desolate places, one was out of reach of imperial interference.

Despite the monastic protest, the embrace of the Church by the Empire was completed. Many Christians now found themselves in positions where they had to participate, directly or indirectly, in killing others, or face severe punishment.

St. John Chrysostom remarked, “Our warfare is to make the dead to live, not to make the living dead.” Like many others, he was troubled by the Church and state becoming identical. It is hardly surprising that he suffered so much at the hands of the state.

St. Basil the Great lamented the situation by declaring that Christians could serve in the army if called by the state to do so, but then afterward they had to serve a three-year penitential excommunication for having participated in such activity – even if they had not actually killed anyone. No matter what their role, they had been part of activity that led to others being killed and thus had to repent. St. Basil saw the continuing need for the military as a terrible consequence of the failure of Christians to convert the world.

The Byzantines believed that somehow as Christians they were to create an empire “on earth as it is in heaven.” Their earthly empire was to conform to their notions of heaven – including love, forgiveness and mercy. But this ideal proved impossible to realize, especially since they found themselves so often threatened by invading armies – Persian, Arab, Rus, Bulgar, Turk, and Latin armies. Short of surrender, the Byzantines found it all but impossible to uphold purely Christian practices in dealing with their enemies.

Christians, no matter what their rank. St. Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, when he accepted Christianity and was baptized, abolished the death penalty in his kingdom, on the grounds that it was incompatible with Christian faith. He did not want to be responsible before God for deaths that were committed in his name or by his decree. Two of his sons, Boris and Gleb, the first saints to be canonized by the Church in Russia, preferred to accept death rather than defend themselves against their murderous and ambitious brother, Sviatopolk.

Even once the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, there was a real struggle with the Christian message and Christian ideal about life and how it relates to such things as capital punishment. The Canons of the Church command bishops, as part of their normal duties, to go to the courts and plead for mercy for prisoners and the condemned. Church buildings throughout the empire became sanctuaries, where persecuted and condemned people could take refuge. In this same tradition, all the Orthodox Patriarchs and self-governing Churches still condemn the death penalty as an excessive power abuse by human governments.

This does not change the reality that we live in a fallen world, in which not only individual people do evil, but evil is a force to be reckoned with by both Church and governments. Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from murderous people within the society. Armies and wars are part of this fallen world, and, though undesirable, can in some cases be seen as a “lesser of two evils” or an “evil necessity,” but an evil nonetheless.

Jesus said there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends. Strangely, many Christians have come to understand these words as a justification of warfare, though the statement only blesses dying on behalf of others, not killing to protect them.

Since the basic message of Christianity is forgiveness, mercy, love, peace, and the defeat of death itself, Christians have had a fairly consistent belief in the sanctity of human life and have struggled with the use of capital punishment and armies to deal with the evil present in the world. Christ did not teach his disciples to kill anyone, nor did he advocate warfare or killing as a means to spread His faith, nor indeed did he bless any of his followers to kill. He even gave the example of rescuing from death a woman who was awaiting her execution by stoning. The early Christians conquered the Roman Empire without having any army or police on their side and without killing anyone.

Sadly, it is true that once the Christians came into power within the Roman Empire, some of them were not shy to use and rely on the police to enforce their teachings and to persecute nonconformists, heretics and non-Christians. Constantine placed the police at the disposal of Christian leaders, and Constantine demanded the Christians to conform to a uniformity of belief and practice which they had never had before his embrace of Christianity. Constantine used his powers exactly as he had as a pagan – there was no change in his totalitarian methods even after he granted toleration to Christianity. He even had his own son killed, when he believed his son had become a threat to his reign.

Perhaps because the Christians were not prepared to be regarded so favorably by the government, or because they didn’t take time to envision what a Christianized government would look like, many uncritically accepted the old ways of government as the inevitable ways of government and the only possible way of governing.

The partnership of Church and State ended up with a large scale acceptance by Christians of government practices that were in most respects unchanged from pre-Christian times, though over time efforts were made by the emperors to modify some old practices – crucifixion as a form of capital punishment was abolished and gladiator fights and chariot races abolished.

Let me make a personal confession: I was present when, a number of years ago, the All American Council of the Orthodox Church in America took up the issue of the death penalty. Ours was at the time perhaps the only Orthodox body in the world which had not spoken out against capital punishment. A vote taken of the delegates solidly favored opposing the death penalty. I regret to say I was in the minority which voted against that resolution. My opposition stemmed from the fact that I could imagine people who would only see our mercy as weakness and who would move to destroy us when they could and who would show no mercy to us and would be quite willing to kill us since we hadn’t killed them. I could even imagine filling our prisons with such people and then not being able to control these prison populations. However, since that time I have been converted to the view of the early Church. I believe the execution of prisoners, even of murderers, is incompatible with the Gospel. This change occurred in me even as I watch al-Qaeda in action, well aware that those who embrace that movement would kill me in a second, both because I am a Christian and an American. But I do not want to become like them, embracing their values and methods. I want to be more Christ-like. I am a disciple of the Crucified Christ. God is the giver of life while evil is the destroyer of life. Human life is sacred and sanctified, even though any human being can become distorted by evil.

One Byzantine emperor boasted that his Christ-loving army could destroy evil. It never happened. Neither evil nor the evil one can be defeated by war or the death penalty. I have come to accept that the battle with evil will continue on earth until Christ comes in His Kingdom and the final enemy, death, has its final defeat. Meanwhile I will sing, “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death.”

Fr. Ted Bobosh is the pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Dayton, Ohio. His most recent book, Questioning God: a Look at Genesis 1-3, is published by Light & Life.

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49

Orthodoxy and Capital Punishment

St Nicholas stopping an execution

Capital Punishment: Points to Consider by Jim Forest

Blessed are the Meek: Capital Punishment and the Gospel by Fr. Thomas Mueller

St Nicholas Halts an Execution by Jim Forest

Regarding the Church’s opposition to capital punishment by Fr. Ted Bobosh

A bishop’s opposition to capital punishment by Bishop Seraphim of Ottawa

The Voice of the Victim by Fr. Jacques-Jude Lepine

Doing Justice, Loving Mercy by Catherine Brockenborough

Assessing the Death Penalty: Let the Punishment Fit the Time by Danny Abbott

Bishop Demetrios Attends Signing of Death Penalty Abolition Bill in Illinois by Maria A. Karamitsos

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Jurisdictional Statements

In “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” adopted by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, the death penalty is condemned, in part because it denies the criminal the opportunity for repentance:

The Orthodox Church in America condemned capital punishment without exception at its All American Council held in St. Louis in 1989:

Statements from Church Hierarchs

Patriarch Alexei likens the death penalty to premeditated murder:

Patriarch of Georgia condemns death penalty: , see also

Metropolitan Herman of the Orthodox Church in America issued statement condemning capital punishment, euthanasia and capital punishment in January 2005:

Metropolitan Evangelos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese applauded the State of New Jersey for being the first state to abolish the death penalty since its reinstatement in the 1970s:


Archbishop of Athens Christodoulos condemned capital punishment and calls for its abolition. See

Various Bishops condemn capital punishment

Archbishop of Ottawa and Canada (OCA) condemns capital punishment.

Bishop Demitrios (GOA) condemns capital punishment.,0,7764178.story

Other Orthodox condemnations of capital punishment

Pan-Orthodox Sanctity of Life Prayer Service at St. George Antiochian Church condemns capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion. See . In attendance were His Eminence Metropolitan Iakovos from the Greek Metropolis of Chicago, His Eminence Archbishop Nicolae, and His Grace Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos.

— this list of links is a work in progress; the page editor is Danny Abbott.

Assessing the Death Penalty: Let the Punishment Fit the Time

By Danny Abbott

Christianity in the United States has had a unique experience compared to the rest of the western world. U.S. church attendance is substantially higher than most other western democracies (noteworthy exceptions include Ireland and Malta). Since World War II, similar democracies with our shared western heritage – the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, France and numerous others – have become increasingly secular. American citizens still self-report in high numbers to be “born-again” Christians. The United States, however, despite its high level of self-identification with Christianity, has nevertheless retained the death penalty in the federal government and majority of states, and shows few signs of abandoning the practice.

Despite increasing secularization, the rest of the western world has in some ways caught up with mainstream Orthodox Christian teaching opposing the death penalty.

In a recent issue of In Communion, the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, Fr. Ted Bobosh recalled that years ago he was present when the Orthodox Church of America voted in favor of a resolution condemning the death penalty. Recently, Metropolitan Evangelos of the New Jersey Greek Orthodox Metropolis of New Jersey applauded the state’s abolition of the capital punishment. Perhaps most interestingly of all, Fr. Ted noted that in 988, when Saint Vladimir, prince of Kiev, converted to Christianity, he banned capital punishment. In May 1998, almost a thousand years after the mass baptism of the people of Kiev, the late Patriarch of Russia, Alexei II, spoke out against capital punishment. In an interview in the newspaper “Ochnaya Stavka,” published by Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s office, Patriarch Alexei stated that capital punishment is tantamount to premeditated murder and that it violates the biblical commandment of “Thou shalt not kill.”

Traditionally “Orthodox countries,” with the exception of Belarus, banned the death penalty following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia itself has refrained from executing criminals since 1996.

Multiple multilateral conventions adopted since World War II have either banned capital punishment or limited its use to crimes committed during times of war. Major conventions, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, American Convention on Human Rights, and importantly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, have all been amended to ban the death penalty. The United States was a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but never ratified the amended versions banning the death penalty. Although the multilateral conventions banning the death penalty were only legally binding in countries in which they were ratified, they did reflect the growing consensus that the death penalty is illegal under international law.

Briefly, from 1972 until 1976, the United States banned the practice of the death penalty. In the seminal case regarding capital punishment in the United States, Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court held that the practice of the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments” essentially because it was carried out in an irrational manner. Justice Byron White stated that there “was no meaningful basis for distinguishing the few cases in which it is imposed from the many cases in which it is not.” The Court also noted that African-Americans were also much more likely to have the death penalty imposed than white defendants. The Supreme Court, however, did not hold that capital punishment was a violation of the Eighth Amendment per se but that the penalty’s application was unconstitutional.

In 1976 the Supreme Court held, in Gregg v. Georgia, that the death penalty was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment and that with proper safeguards the practice could be constitutional. Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented that the death penalty is unconstitutional, no matter the circumstances and noted a study by a United Nations Committee that stated it is “generally agreed between the retentionists and abolitionists, whatever their opinion about the validity of comparative studies of deterrence, that the data which now exist show no correlation between the existence of capital punishment and lower rates of crime.”

Thirty-two years later, the available data still does not suggest that the use of the death penalty deters crime, despite deterrence being the justification often used for the practice’s retention. Years of longitudinal data have consistently confirmed that, in American states with the death penalty, the murder rate is in fact significantly higher than in states in which the death penalty has been abolished. The FBI’s study, “Crime in the United States,” noted that in the years between 1996 and 2006, in states retaining the death penalty, the murder rate ranged from a low of 5.7 per 100,000 people in 2000, to a high of 7.72 per 100,000.

During that period the murder rate peaked in abolitionist states at 5.36 per 100,000 in 1996. In terms of percentage, the murder rate ranged from 28% to 46% higher in states that retain the death penalty in the period studied. Deterrence has not been demonstrated but a positive correlation between the application of the death penalty and higher murder rates is consistently shown. This should not be counter-intuitive, given that it is not entirely logical that the public will be taught that the taking of life is wrong via the state sanctioned killing of another human being.

While internationally the practice of the death penalty has increasingly become seen as an ineffective and barbaric form of punishment, the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded has come to be seen as particularly egregious. Worse, the United States has practiced both until very recently and only then was the practice abolished by Supreme Court decisions determined by narrow majorities.

Critics of international laws often argue that it is completely voluntary, unlike other legal disciplines such as contract or property law. However, it is accepted, in virtually every legal system, that some practices and crimes are considered to be so egregious that any court in the world has jurisdiction over them. This applies without regard to where the crime took place (a concept referred to as universal jurisdiction). Such crimes are referred to as jus cogens, and under international law no deviation is ever tolerated. Despite the critics of international law, the concept of jus cogens is recognized and enforced in the federal courts of the United States. Examples of jus cogens include such heinous acts as piracy, torture, genocide, slavery, “crimes against humanity,” sexual slavery and according to almost all international legal experts, the execution of juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded.

The concept of jus cogens is taken so seriously in international law that the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties renders any agreement in violation of it completely void.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in 2002 that customary international law had evolved to the point that the execution of juveniles constituted jus cogens. By 1990, the remaining eight countries known to execute juvenile offenders were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Congo, China, and the United States. Missing from the list were the countries President Bush’s labeled as belonging to the “axis of evil”: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. By early 2005, all of the aforementioned nations had either outlawed the execution of juveniles or gone on record disavowing the practice, leaving the United States as the international community’s sole offender.

One is left to wonder about the implications of what would have transpired had the United States been in compliance with international law regarding the execution of minors, and had Iraq been in violation prior to the removal of Saddam Hussein. Obviously the United States would have gone to war with Iraq regardless, but had the Hussein regime executed minors in violation of international law and the United States had not, one can easily imagine that apologists for the Iraqi War would use it as one more justification for the initial invasion.

In Thompson v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1988 that the execution of a 15-year-old violated the Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Nevertheless the decision was 5-3 and Justice Scalia argued that executing a 15-year-old did not violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court in a subsequent 1989 decision, Stanford v. Kentucky, held that executing 16- and 17-year-olds was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The issue was finally revisited in 2005 by the Court in Roper v. Simmons, when the Court noted that allowing the practice of executing 16- and 17-year-olds would leave the United States essentially alone in the world. Again, however, the vote was 5-4.

The international community had for quite some time expressed particular frustration over execution of the mentally retarded in the United States. In 1989 the U.N. Economic and Social Council recommended that nations take steps to eliminate capital punishment for people “suffering from mental retardation.” The European Parliament passed a resolution in 1995 expressing that the death penalty is “cruel and inhuman” in every instance, but emphasized that the American practice of allowing the execution of the mentally retarded was particularly disturbing.

Finally, in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held (in a 6-3 vote) that the execution of the mentally retarded was unconstitutional. The dissenting judges, Clarence Thomas, William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, complained that the majority had relied on following international trends and foreign laws in reaching its decision. They argued that what is “cruel and unusual punishment” should be determined only by “American conceptions of decency.”

The international community’s opinion of U.S. retention of the death penalty has continually regressed and diminished the standing of the U.S. as a protector of human rights and as a society in which the sanctity of human life is valued.

As early as 1989, the European Court of Human Rights, in Soering v. United Kingdom, forbade the United Kingdom from allowing the extradition of a young German national to the United States when any possibility existed that the defendant would face the death penalty. On the condition that he not be subject to execution, the defendant was eventually extradited to the U.S., where he is now serving two life sentences in a Virginia prison.

The decision was extremely important because it set precedent for what would become customary international law on the manner in which countries banning the death penalty treat extraditions when there is the possibility that a defendant will be extradited to the United States for a crime carrying the possibility of the death penalty.

In a very similar decision in 2001, United States v. Burns, the Canadian Supreme Court held it was a violation of Canada’s Constitution and of international law to allow the extradition of a criminal defendant to the United States where the possibility of capital punishment exists. Interestingly, in the body of the decision the Court noted that Amnesty International had made the argument that among nations banning the death penalty, Canada was the only country at that time that allowed the extradition of defendants where the possibility of the death penalty existed. The Canadian Supreme Court, while not conceding or affirming Amnesty International’s point, it did not challenge or offer evidence to the contrary. The Canadian Supreme Court cited a resolution of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights regarding extradition: “States that have received a request for extradition on a capital charge to reserve explicitly the right to refuse extradition in the absence of effective assurances from relevant authorities of the requesting State that capital punishment will not be carried out.” The decision made the international legal standard concerning the illegality of extraditing defendants to the United States where the death penalty can be sought part of Canadian domestic law.

In 1992, Paul Efthemios Tsongas, a Greek Orthodox contender for the U.S. Presidency, stated during a debate that he would prefer that the murderer of his wife, should such an event occur, be rehabilitated rather than to receive the death penalty. This was viewed by most as a blunder. Some have argued this statement prevented him from being elected president. However, what people considered laughable was entirely consistent with Orthodox Christianity. (Former Governor Michael Dukakis, another Orthodox Christian, exhibited a spirit of forgiveness rather than vengeance and exhibited concern for the reform of a sinner.)

Our nation’s love affair with capital punishment is entirely irrational. The United States was at one time the world’s foremost defender of human rights. However, we have retained a practice that has cost us the respect of our allies and that puts us in company of some of the world’s foremost human rights abusers.

Given the correlation between higher murder rates in jurisdictions retaining the death penalty, the U.S. loses more than just respect around the world. We also generate higher loss of human life and produce a public that becomes even more desensitized regarding the sanctity of life.

Orthodox Christians should regard capital punishment as being similar in nature to abortion and euthanasia, and act accordingly. As citizens of a democracy, Americans are able to express their beliefs concerning the death penalty and its inconsistency with Jesus’ teachings to their elected representatives.

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Danny Abbott has a law degree and currently works as an insurance claims analyst and adjudicator

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Love Your Enemies As Yourself

by Jim Forest

But I say to you,

love your enemies

and pray for those who persecute you.

– Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:44)

[LEFT: illustration: Slaughter of the Innocents; Illuminated Bible, Monastery of St. Bertin, France, created ca 1200, National Library of the Netherlands]

Passenger planes taken by terrorists fly into the two towers of the World Trade Center; the buildings collapse and thousands die.

During the Second World War, entire cities – London, Manchester, Birmingham, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki – became targets of war. Everyone without exception was a target – children, grandparents, ordinary people, the ill, the handicapped. They died in countless thousands.

In the Soviet era, millions were taken away, some to labor camps in which it was a miracle not to die of disease, exposure, abuse, or execution. I recall visiting a place of executions in a Belorussian forest. Here, during the Stalin years, people were brought by the truckload every day and one by one were shot in the back of the head and thrown into pits. When one pit was filled, another was dug. There were many pits and many similar places of execution.

We still aren’t sure how many millions were killed under the Hitler regime – Jews, gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals, Christians who dared to resist, or people simply regarded as inconvenient. As in the Soviet gulag, many died of the consequences of living in such conditions and being worked like slaves. A vast number were executed. The murders were done not only in concentration camps but even in hospitals. In the latter, people regarded as genetically or mentally inferior were killed. It was justified as “mercy killing.”

In Communist Albania it became a criminal activity to make the sign of the cross, to have an icon in one’s home or to dye an egg red at Easter. Every church, synagogue and mosque without exception was closed. The smallest indication of religious belief could be severely punished. Most priests and many lay people died in prisons and concentration camps.

One could spend hour upon hour briefly describing, country by country, the many horrors of violence that human beings have suffered just in the past hundred years. I mention a few examples only to point out that, when we talk about Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies, the beginning point is the recognition that we have enemies and that evil deeds occur every minute of the day. Nationalistic, racial or ideologically-driven movements often develop in such a way that enormous numbers of people find themselves in grave danger.

There are people who seem to have entirely lost any sense of the sacredness of life, and abuse and murder innocent people, even children – some on a large scale, others as a kind of hellish pastime. I think of my stepmother, Carla, who was shot and killed by a sniper as she stood at a bus stop one evening in San Francisco in 1966 after a day of service in a center for alcoholics.

Such events were once rare; in more recent years they have become more common. No matter where we live, most of us have stories to tell of awful things that happened to us or to people we know – not to mention memories of dreadful things we have done or said to others, under obedience, out of fear, or in a state of rage.

Enmity is a central theme in the Gospels. The peaceful, star-illumined Bethlehem we see in Christmas cards tells us nothing at all about the hard life the people who lived there were enduring when Jesus was born. The years of Christ’s life described in the Gospels occurred in a small land enduring military occupation. There was no concept of human rights. Torture and crucifixion were not rare punishments. It’s no wonder that there was a serious movement of Jewish armed resistance, the Zealots, and that conflict between Israel and Rome not many years later resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of thousands of Jews.

So when Jesus instructed his followers, as he did in his Sermon on the Mount, to love their enemies, it was not a teaching that would have been offered by a naive rabbi living comfortably in an oasis of peace, nor was it a teaching that would have been easily embraced by the suffering people who were listening to him.

It’s not a teaching anyone, even in situations of relative social tranquility, embraces easily. What most of us do when we are abused is look for a way to return the abuse, perhaps in double or triple measure. Say an irritating word to me and I’ll return it, multiplied. Hit me and I’ll hit you twice as hard. Few Jews had a kind thought regarding the Romans. Occupation troops are always resented and despised and become targets of deadly violence.

Jesus is never just a man of words. Can you think of any of his teachings that he didn’t give witness to in the way he lived? In his own life, again and again we see both courage and nonviolence. His most violent action was to use a whip of cords to chase money-lenders from the Temple because they were profaning sacred space. Many were upset, but no one was harmed. The only life endangered by his action was his own. The total number of people killed by Jesus Christ is zero.

While many people are driven by anger and vengeance, Christ taught forgiveness and repeatedly gave the example of forgiving others. When asked by his disciples if they must forgive as much as seven times, Christ replied: seventy times seven. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us only insofar as we have forgiven others. We even see Christ praying for his enemies as he hung nailed to the cross: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

Indeed, none of those involved in crucifying him had any idea what they were doing. For some, a heretic was being punished. For others, he was seen as a threat to the Jewish people. For the Roman soldiers, it was simply a grim duty they were under orders to perform. The idea that Jesus was king of the Jews and son of God was nothing more than a joke.

Jesus also gave the witness of healing. Healing is another word for peacemaking – the repairing of damaged or broken relationships. On one occasion an act of healing was done in response to an appeal not from a fellow Jew but from an officer of the Roman occupation forces, the centurion who appealed to Jesus on behalf of a sick servant. Jesus was prepared to come to the man’s home, but the officer said there was no need for that – Jesus’s word was all he needed. Jesus said that he hadn’t seen such faith in all of Israel. Can you imagine how annoyed some of the witnesses to this exchange would have been? Doing a good deed for a Roman? Then speaking admiringly of a Roman’s faith?

If you take Jesus’s teaching about love of enemies out of the Gospel, you have removed the keel from the ship.

But how do we go about loving an enemy? The answer is given to us by Christ. He doesn’t simply command us to love our enemies, but to pray for them.

Without prayer for our enemies, how would it be possible to love them?

Think about these two important words, love and prayer.

The love so often spoken of by Christ is not romantic love. Love is not about how we feel regarding the other but how we respond to the other. If you say you love someone, but you let him starve to death when it is in your power to give him food, in fact you do not love him. If you say you love God, but you abandon your neighbor, you love neither God nor neighbor.

Love is not the acquisition of pleasant feelings for an enemy, the kind of feeling we have for a sweetheart, a member of your family, or a cherished friend. The love Christ speaks of has very little to do with feelings and much to do with actions. Love is to do what you can to preserve another life and to bring that person toward salvation. Christ uses a metaphor: God’s love is like the rain falling equally on both wheat and weeds; or it is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t distinguish between the just and the unjust; but so long as a person lives, there is the possibility of repentance and conversion.

Think about the word prayer. Prayer is the giant step of taking into your heart, the center of your life, your appeal to God for the well-being and healing of another person’s life. It is not a sentimental action but an act of will and an obedience to God, knowing that God seeks the well-being and salvation of each person. After all, each person, no matter how misguided, no matter how damaged, is nonetheless a bearer of the image of God. If it pains us to imagine the intentional destruction of an icon, how much more distress should we feel when a human being is harmed or killed?

I’m talking now about the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – not the Gospel according to Hollywood. The latter provides us with a never-ending parade of stories about evil people killed by good people. The basic story tempts us to prefer heroism to sanctity, or to confuse the two. A basic element of The Gospel According to Hollywood is that evil people are so evil that there is no real solution short of hastening their deaths.

The teaching of Christ, however, is not to kill enemies but to overcome enmity. It’s like Christ’s conversion of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. We are commanded to convert our enmity into love. It starts with prayer.

To pray for an enemy is no small or easy step. The fact is that the last people in the world we want to pray for are the people we fear or hate or regard with disgust. You know you have an enemy whenever you discover a person or community of people for whom you hesitate to pray. But once you recognize enmity, take note of it. Keep a list of the people you find it hard to pray for and then pray for them anyway. Do it as a religious duty.

Prayer is an invisible binding together. The moment I pray for another person, a thread of connection is created. I have taken that person into myself. To pray for him means that I ask God to bless him, to give him health, to lead him toward heaven, to use me to help bring about his salvation. As soon as this occurs, my relations with that person, or community of people, are changed. We look differently at a those for whom we are praying. We listen differently. It doesn’t mean we will necessarily agree. You may disagree more than ever. But we struggle more to understand what is really at issue and to find solutions that will be for his good as well as our own. In fact, the saints tell us, that the deeper we go in the life of faith, the freer we become from worry about our own welfare, and the more we worry about the welfare of others.

Some years ago, at a conference on the island of Crete, I gave a talk in which I summarized Orthodox teaching about war. I pointed out that the Orthodox Church has never embraced the just war doctrine, a doctrine that evolved in the West. The Orthodox Church, I said, regards war as inevitably sinful in nature even in cases where no obvious alternative to war can be found. No one has ever been canonized for killing. Priests, deacons and iconographers are forbidden by canon law to kill or cause the death of others. Under all circumstances and at all times, every baptized person is commanded by Christ to love his enemies.

There was nothing remarkable – no novel doctrines, nothing borrowed from non-Orthodox sources – in what I said, yet the lecture stirred up a controversy not only in the hall in which I was speaking but into the city itself as my talk and the translator’s words were being broadcast live over the diocesan radio station.

The debate continued that night when the local bishop, Metropolitan Irinaios of Chania, and I took part in a radio conversation with listeners phoning in comments or questions. Responding to a man who called to denounce Turks as barbarians who only understood the language of violence, I summarized what Christ had to say on the subject of loving one’s enemies. “That’s all very well,” the caller responded, “but now let me tell you about a real saint.” He proceeded to tell me about a priest who, in the 19th century, played a valiant role in the war to drive the Turks off the island. I suggested the caller not dismiss the teaching of Jesus so readily and asked if he wasn’t confusing heroism and nationalism with sanctity.

In fact we have soldier saints, like Great Martyr George. But when we study their lives in order to find out why the Church canonized them, it turns out it was never for their activities as soldiers, but for other factors. Most were martyrs – people who died for their faith without resistance. There are saints who got in trouble for refusing to take part in war, and in some cases died for their disobedience. St. George dared to confess his faith publicly during a time of imperial persecution. The “dragon” he fought was fear of Caesar.

St. Maria of Paris and her coworkers

Another saint, Martin of Tours, narrowly escaped execution after refusing to take part in battle; he went on to become a great missionary bishop. Ireland’s renowned Saint Columba is on the Church calendar not because he was co-responsible for a great battle in which many were slaughtered, but because afterward he lived a life of penance in exile, and in the process converted many to Christ.

It isn’t hard to admire saints. Most people realize that the Gospel is not a summons to hatred or violence. But what about our ordinary selves living here and now? What does this have to do with how we carry on our lives?

A beginning point is to admit we are only partial Christians – that is to say, our conversion has begun but is far from complete. When we go to confession, many of us don’t even try confessing all of our sins because no priest in the world would have time to hear them all. We focus on the main ones, the sins that are most urgent and problematic, and save lesser sins for a later confession. Each of us is painfully aware that we have far to go. As the cartoon character Pogo used to say, “We have St. Maria of Paris and her coworkersmet the enemy and he is us.”

One of the great obstacles we face is that it’s much easier to be nation-centered than Christ-centered. The culture we live in exerts a powerful influence. One is less likely to be shaped by the Gospel than by the economic, social, political and cultural milieu we happen to be part of. If I am a German living in Germany in the 1930s, there is a good chance I will gravitate toward Nazism. If I am a white South African living in the era of apartheid, it’s likely that I will accept the justifications for racism, and welcome the benefits that come from being part of a racist society.

Our thoughts, values, choices, our “life style” – all these tend to be formed by the mass culture in which we happen to be born and reared. If we are Christians, we will try to adjust Christ and the Gospel to the national flag and the views of the people around us.

Yet we have in the Church many saints who provide us with models of what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly – without holding anything back, and without compromising with the demands of national identity, money or politics.

One such saint – canonized just three years ago – is Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian refugee in France who devoted herself to the care of the homeless and destitute, and also to the renewal of the Church. She and the community she was part of helped save the lives of many people, especially Jews, when France was occupied by the Third Reich. On one occasion she managed to smuggle children awaiting deportation out of a stadium in which thousands of Jews had been rounded up. Eventually she was arrested and ended her life in a German concentration camp, Ravensbrck, dying on Good Friday, 1945. Yet we find in her many letters, essays and the acts of her brave life not a trace of hatred for Germans or Austrians, even those who embraced Nazi ideology. She was part of the resistance to Nazism and Hitlerism, but was no one’s enemy, not even Hitler’s. Her small community produced three other martyrs: the priest who assisted her, Fr. Dimitri Klpinin, her son, Yuri, who was then just entering adulthood, and her good friend Ilya Fondaminskii, a writer, editor and publisher.

At the core of their lives and many courageous actions was the conviction, as Mother Maria put it, that “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” This is not some new idea that was discovered by a few saintly Christians in Paris in that grim time, but what C.S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity.” It is because each person is an icon of God that everyone in the church is honored with incense during the Liturgy.

“The meaning of the Liturgy must be translated into life,” Mother Maria said. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

No one has lived in a more violent time than she, a time in which there were powerful temptations to keep one’s head down and quietly survive. Yet instead she, and those who worked with her, give us an example of centering one’s life on those whose lives are threatened rather than being driven by fear.

In Europe in those days it was especially the Jews who were threatened. In our time the list of those in danger is much longer. It includes not only the born but the unborn, the handicapped and the old. We live in what many people have come to identify as a culture of death. The only question each of us must struggle with is where to focus our life-saving activity. It is not just a question of saving lives but of making clear to others, through our response to them, that all human beings bear God’s image. Thus we proclaim that there is a God, and that God is love.

We have met the enemy and he is us. The self is no small foe. In the days when India was struggling for independence, Gandhi sometimes said he had only three enemies – the British nation, his favorite enemy; the Indian people, a much more difficult adversary; and finally a man named Gandhi, the hardest enemy of all.

Each of us sees our most difficult enemy when we look into a mirror. Yet if we will only cooperate in Christ’s mercy, struggling day by day to die to self, day by day to love, then day by day our conversion will continue, which will be a blessing not only for ourselves but for everyone else as well.

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This lecture was delivered last October at St. Herman’s Orthodox Church in Edmonton, Canada. Jim’s most recent books are The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Orbis) and Silent as a Stone: Mother Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

Lest Guilty Blood be Shed

By Rene Zitzloff

Take no man’s life whether he be guilty or innocent, for nothing is more precious than the human soul.

– from the Law Code of Vladimir Monomakh, Grand Prince of Kiev, 1113-1135

It is easier for a feeble straw to resist a mighty fire than for the nature of sin to resist the power of love. We must cultivate this love in our souls, that we may take our place with all the saints, for they were all-pleasing unto God through their love for their neighbor.

– Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr was born the daughter of Louis IV, Grand-Duke of Hessen-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. She was also the older sister of Alexandra, who eventually married the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. In 1884, at age nineteen, Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei, a son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and brother of Nicholas II. Because she was Protestant, two ceremonies were held, one Orthodox, the other Lutheran. However, after two years of intense study and prayer, of her own volition Elizabeth decided to become Orthodox and was received into the Orthodox Church in 1891, the same year her husband was appointed Governor of Moscow by Alexander III.

After her marriage, Elizabeth increasingly gave herself to charitable work, caring for the well-being of many people in need. However, as a member of the aristocracy, her husband had political enemies. On February 4, 1905, shortly after he left home, Elizabeth heard a terrible blast. Hurrying in the direction of the explosion, she found that her husband had been killed by a terrorist bomb, his body blown to pieces. In the subsequent dark hours Elizabeth barely left the coffin of her deceased husband, often keeping solitary vigil. But, after two days she was impressed with the awareness that her late husband wanted her to go to the terrorist who had killed him and express his forgiveness. She undertook this mission.

At the prison, the terrorist, a man named Kaliayev, told her that several times he had nearly killed her husband, but had hesitated because she was with him. “And it didn’t occur to you that you have killed me together with him?” Elizabeth asked. Then she told him she was there to bring her husband’s forgiveness. She begged him to repent of his sin, giving him the Holy Scriptures and an icon. Kaliayev seemed unmoved, but later Elizabeth found out from the warden that he had placed the icon she had left on his pillow. This gave her hope.

With her unassuming nature, Elizabeth had not wanted anyone to know of her visit to the terrorist, and she was pained when news of it reached the public, who, St. Elizabeth the New Martyrthe biographer Lubov Millar notes, was astonished at her “spiritual strength and moral greatness.” No doubt others were scandalized and angered. After all, Kaliayev belonged to a revolutionary movement threatening the lives not only of one grand duke, but also of everyone who was part of the tsarist regime.

At his trial, Kaliayev expressed no remorse, even advocating his own execution. “Be careful of the verdict you are about to render,” he told those hearing the case. “If you acquit me, I shall take up arms to destroy tsarism and liberate the Russian people. You must, therefore, condemn me to death.”

Even after the sentence was passed, Elizabeth appealed to her brother-in-law, the tsar, for clemency. Nicholas, fearful that an act of mercy would encourage other revolutionaries, upheld the sentence. Kaliayev was duly executed.

Perhaps there will always be those who, like Tsar Nicholas, posit that terrorists or others who commit atrocious crimes should receive capital punishment for their offenses. They cite a commitment to public safety, the need to deter others from committing murder, and obedience to certain sections of the Old Testament. Some attempt to justify capital punishment as war is often justified – a “necessary” or “lesser” evil.

But why should Christians accede to any type of evil when there is always the alternative of righteousness? Our primary concern as Christians is not to enforce security (even the safety of our family and friends or country); it is not to discipline or punish others; it is not even to deter others from doing evil. Our primary task as Christians is to emulate Christ’s obedience to God’s command to love our neighbors/enemies, even if in doing so we must abandon other ideals and sentiments.

There is a great challenge in the bold witness of St. Elizabeth. In her we see neither pride nor sentimentality. Instead in her actions we see a woman who, embracing Christ’s commandment, chose to love her enemy, and therefore God, more than herself, her family or even her beloved adopted country. Refusing to elevate death or revenge as a solution, she acted instead on God’s command that “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (Romans 12:20)

Elizabeth’s efforts on Kaliayev’s behalf included not only interceding for his very life, but also arranging meals for him at the prison and proclaiming to him the good news of repentance and forgiveness. In these astonishing acts, she gave witness to her awareness that even the most damaged, demonically driven person bears the image of God. Furthermore, though most people have a natural aversion to the shedding of innocent blood, Elizabeth’s concern surpassed even this: She showed a holy concern that not even guilty blood be shed. She believed and chose to act on the truth that one death, the death of an innocent Christ, has already overcome evil. To exact the blood of the guilty, even for reasons that seem to be good, can never be life-giving or healing. The death sentence is a dead end.

For Elizabeth, the act of forgiving her husband’s killer marked a deepening conversion. Choosing to center her life on the works of mercy, she abandoned her high position in society and used her wealth and personal resources to purchase a large piece of land with four buildings. She took the vows of a nun and founded the Martha and Mary Convent. There, inspired by the ancient vocation of deaconess, women from all classes of society joined her in ministering to criminals, outcasts and orphans living in the worst slums of Moscow.

When the Revolution came in 1917, Elizabeth turned down the offer of a Swedish Cabinet Minister to help her escape Russia, saying that she wished to share the destiny of her country and its people.

Refusing to save her own life, she was eventually arrested. While being brutally beaten by her Bolshevik captors, she repeated the prayer of Christ on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” In the end, along with her faithful companion, Nun Barbara, Elizabeth was thrown down a mine shaft where she died praying for her enemies.

In this frightening, insecure world, there are many seemingly good arguments in support of capital punishment. Some might say that St. Elizabeth’s martyrdom by terrorists is a case in point. Yet we know from her life that she would seek the conversion rather than the death of those who took her life, for it is incongruous to say you forgive an enemy yet seek his execution. If we accept the worldly wisdom of capital punishment, don’t we risk making void the sacrifice of Christ himself, along with a host of others, such as St. Elizabeth?

In these post-9/11 days, let us pray for the strength to emulate St. Elizabeth’s potent witness to the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, particularly to those who name themselves our enemies and seek to terrorize us, our families and countries. Holy St. Elizabeth, pray for us.

Rene Zitzloff is the Coordinator of the Minnesota chapter of OPF and attends St. Elizabeth Orthodox Mission in Eagan, Minnesota. She is involved in a Minneapolis inner city ministry called Peace House where she is able to be with those living in poverty including the homeless, the lonely and those suffering from chemical addictions and/or mental illness. She a writer, married to Tim, and mother of six children.

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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

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God-Given Life

By Fr. John Garvey

Romanesque carving of Christ with Cain after the murder of Abel. Autun, France.

When I was involved in draft counseling during the war in Vietnam I had a liberal friend who knew I was anti-war and was also opposed to the death penalty. She was shocked when I said I was also opposed to abortion. When I told her I thought I was being pretty consistent she didn’t get it. As she saw it, I was violating a kind of liberal package deal.

A couple of years later I met a man who was not at all liberal. He was very much in favor of both the death penalty and abortion rights, and saw no inconsistency. I found myself sadly agreeing with him: he was consistent.

What made him consistent was a total absence of any sense of the sacred. He didn’t think of life at any point as sacred. He wasn’t liberal in any sense of the word. He had a kind of heartless sense of the convenient: get rid of murderers and other unwanted criminals and also get rid of unwanted unborn children – anything or anyone who might interrupt his life was fair game.

My liberal friend was a more complicated case. She did have a half-baked sense of the sacred, of some value that should attach to a woman’s right to choose whether to give birth to or kill the life in her womb, and she knew that innocent people might be mistakenly convicted, and that even guilty people should not be killed.

But neither had a sense of life as truly sacred. Nor, I think it must be said, do those who call themselves pro-life and defend capital punishment based on the argument that the murderer has forfeited the right to life by taking the life of another. In both cases – one side often secular and the other side often ostensibly religious – there is a sense that a life’s value depends somehow on our end of the deal, our sense that a life is of value (because completely innocent, as in the case of the child in the womb) or that a life has forfeited its sacred status (because it violated the sacred status of another life, as in the case of a murderer).

This makes us too important, and God’s role as creator a wimpy cameo. How I regard the life of a child in the womb – whether I want it to be born or not – does not matter in the face of the fact that this unique being exists. To argue that it is a tiny collection of cells and therefore unimportant is not far from arguing that it is not so grave a matter to murder a dwarf as it is to murder a giant; and it makes my attitude toward another life more important than that life’s existence, its God-givenness.

To argue that the life of a murderer can be taken because the murderer has violated the life of his victim is to say that the murderer gets to define the limits of the sacred. The terrible fact is that the murderer’s life is sacred, because God has willed that life, and none of us has the power to cancel the holiness of having been called into existence from nothingness. We may wish to cancel our vocation; in the horror of some lives it may be an overwhelming desire. But we cannot. And Christians have to bear witness to the sacred character of all human beings, no matter how innocent or how guilty, all of them people for whom Jesus Christ died. We are not our own. This applies to the newly conceived baby, and to any murderer on death row.

Fr. John Garvey is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, a regular columnist for Commonweal, and the author of Death and the Rest of Our Life, Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions, Against the Current, and Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox.

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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

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The Voice of the Victim

by Fr. Jacques-Jude Lpine

Now when morning was come, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. (Matt, 27:1)

The death penalty has very direct connections with the Christian faith. Jesus Christ himself was a victim of the death penalty. We also are confronted with his act of preventing the execution of an adulterous woman. Christ’s message, the Gospel, is an invitation to us to imitate God’s unlimited and nonviolent love towards all human beings, without any exception. This divine love naturally excludes killing as the expression of its ultimate negation.

Opposition to the death penalty, however, does not depend only on religious conviction, Christian or otherwise. Secular thinking also provides a solid and relevant critique. Several times I have seen a student change his mind regarding capital punishment after reflecting on secular arguments.

I will start by reviewing secular arguments against the death penalty and only then move on to what has been my greatest source of bewilderment when debating this issue with my students, which is their refusal to discuss their support of the death penalty after having been in close contact with a violent crime. This will lead to what I believe to be, beyond its political and societal aspects, the spiritual dimension of the issue, its deeply individual and personal stakes.

Secular arguments against the death penalty: These arguments have been very well presented by Lawrence Hinman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, who considers them as looking either backward or forward. The backward-looking argument considers the crime for which a person has been convicted and follows the line of “the punishment should fit the crime,” a modern rendition of the “Lex Talionis” – the law of retribution – associated with the Old Testament.

The Lex Talionis: There are some major problems with this conception of justice as pure retribution. If justice is about mirroring the crime, then what distinguishes it from an institutionalized form of revenge? History tells us that the emergence of a judiciary system represents a major political achievement against the devastating consequences of the cycles of revenge in ancient societies. A punishment that “fits the crime” to the point of mirroring it, therefore, is a regression towards some of the most primitive and violent social orders. Along the line of this problem, another immediately follows. Is it possible for those who administer the death penalty not to abase themselves to the same level as the criminal they are punishing? Few crimes are “clean ones.” Most involve considerable suffering, even torture, on behalf of the victim. How should the punishment fit the crime in such cases? Should the criminal be tortured to death?

The reference to the Lex Talionis also needs to be examined. All too often, it is misunderstood as a call to revenge, whereas, in the context of the Old Testament, it signifies the very opposite. In a world where revenge means endless cycles of killing, “An eye for an eye” meant only one death and no more than one. The Lex Talionis is, in fact, a milestone in the gradual revelation of the total nonviolence of God that culminates at the Cross and in the teaching of Jesus. Those Christians who refer to the Lex Talionis to justify the death penalty are victims of their ignorance of the step-by-step way God reveals Himself to humanity. From this point of view as from many others, the New Testament completes the Old One. “An eye for an eye” was already a major step forward, an exodus from the grip of violent thinking of ancient societies. Only centuries later, in the teaching of Christ, do we hear the words, “turn the other cheek.” They seem to be teachings in conflict, but in fact there is a continuity, an evolution that makes the earlier law obsolete.

The sanctity of life: The argument that executions are a means of defending the sanctity of life would barely deserve to be mentioned, given its lack of rational consistency, were it not a phrase so often heard among the supporters of the death penalty. How someone can contend that a criminal who has acted against the sanctity of the life of another human being should be put to death without realizing the self-contradiction inherent in this argument is amazing. Perhaps such a superficial argument deserves a simple answer, like the cartoon showing an execution with the guillotine (this and all forms of execution were abolished in France by Franois Mitterand), followed by the execution of the executioner, followed by the execution of the executioner of the executioner, etc, ad infinitum. One is reminded of the question: Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?

When this argument is made from an explicitly Christian point of view, the issue at stake is larger than the one of the death penalty. It’s the need to discover the fundamentally nonviolent character of the Judeo-Christian revelation, as shown by Ren Girard and developed by such theologians as the members of the Colloquium on Violence and religion.

The deterrence argument: The major forward-looking argument, instead of looking back at particular crimes, looks at potential future crimes and how to avoid them. Surely, it is argued, the death penalty will have a deterrent effect on potential murderers. However, the deterrence argument has no solid, factual, statistical ground. It would have some value if statistics could demonstrate a lower murder rate in countries or states where the death penalty is enforced as opposed to a higher one in countries without death penalty. (There is a major technical obstacle to the interpretation of data, which is the vast number of extraneous social factors, besides the death penalty, that intervene in the murder rate of any country or region at any period of time.)

Hinman also asks: if the death penalty has a deterrent effect, then wouldn’t it make sense to make it swift and highly publicized through the media? For the moment, in the US, the average waiting period for a convict on death row is about seventeen years. In our media-driven society, a major “story” becomes old after a few months at the very most. The news of the execution of a convict for a crime that people barely remember raises little interest, apart from the morbid appeal elicited from the re-publicizing of the crime’s details. If the news of the crime were almost immediately followed by the execution of the murderer, live and in color, on TV and YouTube, would this not be a real booster for the deterrence effect of the death penalty? If so, why not advocate such a system? (Of course, Hinman is aware of the fact that long delays, essential for the careful workings of the legal system, are not supported by all proponents of the death penalty. However, his argumentation ad absurdum is still valid, and introduces an important point.)

Hinman points out the fact that most partisans of the death penalty do not want the public to see the reality behind the words. I usually show my students the end of the movie, Dead Man Walking, pointing out that when a convict has been condemned to death, it does not only mean that society considers this person as having lost his or her right to live. It also means that someone, one way or another, actually has to kill this person. In a democratic system where law and policy makers are elected based on our agreement with their program, we all participate, to some degree, in this execution. This is also why the death penalty is not a purely theoretical issue. A popular movement against it can, one day, abolish it, as happened with slavery and later racial segregation in the US.

2 See:

Human error: How many people have been convicted and executed by mistake? The Innocence Project, in just a few decades, has exonerated over two hundred people in the US. We will never know how many, before them, were executed for crimes they did not commit. Even the use of advanced technology such as DNA analysis cannot guarantee that only criminals would be executed. The question for the supporters of the death penalty is, what proportion of execution of innocents is acceptable?

Socio-economic interferences in the legal system: Not only is infallibility of the justice system impossible, but in its current form in the USA, the outcome of a trial is highly dependent on social and economic factors. Statistics, this time, are available and relevant. In the US, in 2005, 1,805 death row inmates were white versus 1,372 blacks. Now, blacks represent about 12% of the population. This means that, from a proportional point of view, almost ten times more blacks are on death row than whites. Many factors are involved, but one thing is for sure: justice is affected by factors others than the guilt or innocence of people. As the

3 Some sociologists have argued that, instead of having a deterrent effect, the death penalty fosters violent crime, as it sends the message that taking the life of some people is acceptable.


lawyer of murderer Matthew Poncelet (whose story was dramatized in Dead Man Walking) says during his last appeal, “If Matthew could have afforded a good lawyer, he would not be here today, asking you for his life…”

The voice of the Victim: There is another argument in favor of the death penalty which I periodically encounter among my students. This could be called the voice of the victims. Although I live in a relatively peaceful part of the US, where violent crime is a rare occurrence, I have met a number of people who have one or more relatives who died in a violent crime. One administrator at my workplace lost his sister, killed by two teenagers. A few weeks ago, a local teenager and a police officer were killed in a rampage. When I have students in my class who have lost someone in a crime, the majority of them are in favor of the death penalty. They do not want to discuss it, implying, sometimes arguing, that the suffering caused by their loss entitles them to their point of view and legitimates their refusal to hear arguments against it.

Their suffering is very real, almost palpable, and I have learned to deal respectfully and carefully with this situation when it arises in the classroom. They have taught me that the refusal to deal with the issue does not necessarily arise from a resentment or desire for seeing their loved one avenged. In fact, the silence they feel entitled to is the outward expression of their state of mind; the debate they do not want to be involved in within the classroom is the same debate that they are trying to repress within themselves. This self-imposed inner paralysis causes an aggravation of their sufferings, even though it seems to be the only way to be “at peace” with themselves, the one they lost, the murderer, society, and even God. Being victimized themselves, they try to give voice to the loved one they lost by agreeing with society’s decision to take the life of the murderer. The execution brings “closure,” it is often said. But what is closure? It only means that everything that could be done to repair the damage has been done, as far as society is concerned. At the personal level, “closure” is close to the acceptance of despair, as nothing has changed with the death of the murderer. To be at peace might only mean to allow time to partially alleviate the suffering until death claims us.

It appears to me that this process of self-repression is not simply about arguments. It is about someone, the Divine Victim who is making His way through these arguments to the minds and souls of these persons and their sufferings. This can actually become a privileged time for an encounter with the Innocent Victim who is at the place of these suffering people and their loved ones, and even at the place of the murderer, as the executed one. His own voice, which we as Christians have a responsibility to mediate to others when the time is right, brings about deliverance from this despair caused by death, which is inseparable from the other side of the central part of the Gospel’s message: the loving forgiveness God constantly offers to us, even when we choose not to accept it. His forgiveness extends to the murderer as well as to those who refused to forgive the murderer – and who have become associated with a new murder in doing so.

The suffering caused by inner repression can gradually be healed. Granting forgiveness heals the one who forgives. Reconciliation within oneself is taking place. Forgiveness is a psychological, emotional and intellectual experience that restructures our whole perspective on others and life. This is also true from the point of view of the one who accepts forgiveness. Moreover, unlike other experiences, it also has a spiritual dimension. It is an experience of the Holy Spirit Who, in the Gospel of John, is called by Jesus the Paracletos, often translated as the Counselor, the Comforter. This term has a stronger original meaning. Its Latin equivalent – advocatus – has given us the modern word, advocate: the one who comforts those who are accused and speaks in their favor, like a defense lawyers in a tribunal. Forgiving, thus, implies paying attention to the Divine Advocate speaking in favor of those who are accused.

This is an encounter with the God Who, on the Cross, forgave even his murderers. Forgiving is always a spiritual experience of encounter with the God Who, on the Cross, forgave his murderers. As Christians, it is our responsibility to bring this experience to its theological fullness. Coming after the kind of inner paralysis that characterizes the refusal to forgive, it is a resurrection with a small “r.” It is in the Resurrection of Jesus, as the loving and forgiving Victim, that human forgiveness and respect for life, as the gifts of God by excellence, find the fullness of their meaning and, ultimately, make perfect sense.

Can this personal experience have a social translation? The fact that many countries have renounced the death penalty points toward a positive answer to this question. This change has to be appreciated within the context of other changes happening in other cultures of the world, a new awareness of victims. Isn’t this awareness, despite its ambiguities, contradictions, commercial and legal exploitations and limits, at least an echo of the Voice of the Victim among us all?

Fr. Jacques-Jude Lpine is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, a teacher (US and world history, cultural anthropology, ethics, and cinema), and also director of the media center of a New Hampshire school inspired by the Montessori philosophy. He was born and raised in Paris, France, and studied in the Near East, Belgium, New York and California.

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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

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A Saint Who Stopped an Execution

by Jim Forest

St. Nicholas of Myra was born in about 280 AD in the town of Patara within the Province of Lycia, Asia Minor. His life was later embroidered with many legends, yet there are several stories about him which seem solidly historical.

One of these relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra came to him with urgent news: the ruler of the city, Eustathius, had condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the outskirts of the city, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field. Here he found a large crowd of people and the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed from their bonds. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Later Eustathius confessed his sin and sought the saint’s forgiveness. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.

In the late 19th century, when Russians were embroiled in controversy regarding capital punishment, the artist Ilya Repin made his comment with the painting reproduced on the cover. Having studied ancient icons in which St. Nicholas is shown grasping the sword with his bare hand, Repin reproduced the image, but in a realistic modern style in which each face reveals various altitudes regarding the bishop’s brave intervention – the shocked astonishment of the executioner, the pious resignation of the prisoner on his knees who is not yet aware his life has been saved, and the appeal of a red-cloaked flunky representing the governor, no doubt pointing out that Nicholas would do well not to interfere.

In this issue of In Communion, several authors reflect on aspects of the death penalty, still a punishment in many parts of the USA as it is in China, most Middle Eastern countries, regions of Africa in which Islam is dominant, and parts of Southeast Asia.

Needless to say, unlike the prisoners for whom St. Nicholas intervened, many on death row are guilty of murder. Yet knowing the disciplines of the early Church, one can safely assume Nicholas would have intervened for the guilty no less than the falsely accused. For what good is served by their killing? How is the God of mercy honored by bloodshed?

In the early Church those being prepared for baptism had to make promises regarding their future conduct. One of these was to not kill. This vow was required even of magistrates and soldiers. It is a requirement long ago abandoned and nearly forgotten, so that no one in our world is surprised when Christians take the lives of others or order others to shed blood. What a pity that we who claim to be followers of Christ give such a flawed witness to the kingdom of God.

May we live to see the death penalty abandoned. May our own efforts help speed that day.

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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46

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