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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