Category Archives: Capital Punishment

Content related primarily to capital punishment, a Core Content subject

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 Execution of Philip Workman

by Fr. John Oliver III

Vigil outside the prison the night of Philip Workman’s execution. Photo by Harry Simpson.

Shortly after the sun set, the evening routine in our house is well underway. Dinner dishes litter the kitchen counters; children rifle through drawers looking for pajamas; and my wife and I scour the corners of our being in search of enough energy to complete the day. But the whole routine, tonight – May 8th, 2007 – seems stained with absurdity: for after I tuck my giggling children into bed, I will leave the house to stand vigil with others at our local federal penitentiary, where Philip Workman is scheduled to be executed at 1:00 a.m, for a crime he probably did not commit.

For the heart of the Christian – open, warm, and breakable – that last detail is, in one sense, irrelevant. Not because guilt and innocence do not matter, but because a human being is about to die. Competent legal minds on both sides of this case – and all capital punishment cases – weave together a dizzying tapestry of facts to establish guilt or innocence. Competent Christian minds on both sides of this case – and all capital punishment cases – struggle with conscience, with Old Testament law and New Testament transcendence of the law; they struggle with a state’s right to take a life and how a believer in God, the Giver of Life, should feel about that. But after all struggle, after all consideration and debate, surely one thing must remain and unite all Christians: mourning.

We remember St. Isaac the Syrian for, among other things, his description of a merciful heart: “It is a heart burning for the sake of the entire creation,” he writes in his eighth homily, “for humanity, for birds, for animals, for every created thing. From the mercy which grips his heart, the merciful man is humbled and cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason, he continually offers up tearful prayer, even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.”

It is now 10:35 pm. I drive through the night and finally see the distant floodlights of the prison. Police cars are everywhere, and guards have blocked the entrance to the prison, keeping things orderly. Peace on the outside; pain on the inside. News vans, each with an antenna spiraling up from the roof, idle by the entrance.

Beyond the prison, a fenced-in field holds about eighty persons who have gathered quietly to protest the state-sponsored execution of Philip Workman. They appear as young as twenty and as old as eighty. They look like musicians and office people and housewives and college students and grandparents. Many look sleepy. Most folks cluster in groups of three or four, while some individuals kneel near the fence-line facing the prison, presumably in prayer. Every once in a while, there is laughter.

Two hours before the execution, and there is not much newsworthy. The screaming and sign-waving between pros and cons that often mark controversial events are totally absent here. If anyone supports this execution, he or she is keeping it secret. Speakers address us in quiet tones about how wrong the state is in doing this, about the exonerating evidence the state refuses to consider. We hear from persons who have lost loved ones to murder – one woman, her only son; another man, his mother – yet say they do not hate and do not wish to see the killers killed. The victim and his family – who, interestingly, share my last name – are remembered, too; peace and closure are hoped for them.

For those protesting outside an execution, possibilities are measured in minutes. The last time Philip Workman was scheduled to die, a stay of execution was granted thirty-seven minutes before the needle was to enter his vein. Thirty-seven minutes. It happened before, this crowd reasons, it should happen again. Appeals are made into the night that the governor, the state supreme court, common sense, or God Himself intervene.

It is now 12:32 am. The mood has grown serious and accepting. Candles, with circular drip protectors, are being passed among us. We have been asked by the vigil organizers to maintain silence from now until we hear some news. I wish the generators behind us, powering the floodlights, would cooperate. A man begins reading Psalms into the microphone: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are they who rise up against me! Many there are who say, ‘there is no help for him in God’.”

12:40. 12:47. 12:51. I foolishly try to imagine what Philip Workman must be experiencing right now, on the other side of that fence, behind those prison walls – foolishly, because I have no idea what he is experiencing, and it is an insult to him even to pretend as if I could. He has a daughter. I wonder: was he able to see the sun set tonight? Did he know he would never again see it rise?

12:57. 12:58. 1:00 a.m. No sound but the generators. Some people sway, some wipe away tears, some stare into the flames of their candles. 1:04. 1:11. 1:15. No sound and no news.

Bodies begin to move restlessly. It is now almost 1:45 a.m. and we have heard no report. A woman standing beside me, a lawyer who worked on capital punishment appeals, says in a quiet and concerned voice, “The lawyer in me kicked in about twenty minutes ago; I wonder if something went wrong.” With the chemical procedure, she means. Some people huddle around a transistor radio.

A few more minutes pass. Then, one of the organizers gets a call on his cellphone. He lowers his head. He closes his phone and reaches for the microphone, pausing for a few moments as if searching for the right words. “Philip Workman,” he says, “is dead.”

Several years ago, as part of seminary training, I visited a maximum security prison once each week. I met plenty of men who spoke eloquently about their innocence. Then, one week, I met a man who spoke eloquently about his guilt. He told me that he wanted to come to terms with the pain he caused people, and somehow find a way to make it up to them. He walked slowly, with a cane, and smiled easily. Toward the end of our time together, I asked him, “What is one thing that you want those on the outside to know about those on the inside?” He thought for a moment, face toward the floor. Then, he looked up and said, “That there are no throw-aways.”

C.S. Lewis wrote, “You have never met a mere mortal.” He wrote that in defense of the unconditional dignity and transcendent value of the human person. “Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

After arriving at home, I pass through the hallway near where my children lay sleeping. I mourn that the bubble they’re in now won’t last much longer. I mourn for Philip Workman, whether guilty or innocent. I mourn for a culture that is losing all sense of what life is, where it comes from, and what it is for. I even mourn that I do not know how to mourn rightly.

Fr. John Oliver is the priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He is the author of Touching Heaven: Discovering Orthodox Christianity on the Island of Valaam, published by Conciliar Press. He also has a weekly podcast that can be heard at A graduate of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, he joined the faculty as instructor in Old and New Testament and American Religious History. He and his wife Lara have three daughters and one son. To learn more on the Philip Workman case, see: and cases/workman/workman.html.


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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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Blessed are the Meek: Capital Punishment and the Gospel

by Fr. Thomas Mueller

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall loveyour neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies…”

Mt 5:43

In September 1995 the Wisconsin state legislature once again considered enacting capital punishment. Wisconsin abolished capital punishment 141 years ago. Of course, states can enact such laws as the majority endorses. These laws may be morally good, neutral, or evil. A new capital punishment statute would put the state in the business of killing. What is most appalling is the fact that many religious people are saying that capital punishment is morally good, righteous, and even compatible with the Gospel. Some political organizations that label themselves Christian loudly advocate capital punishment as well. If the state conducts executions, it will be another triumph of violence. That will be one thing. But for Christians to promote such state violence is another thing. And this is the unrighteousness I address — not that of a violent state, but that of Christians.

I am grateful that the Orthodox Church in America, at its All American Council in St. Louis in 1989, passed resolutions condemning both abortion and capital punishment as unrighteous and evil. Both are killing. The distinction of innocent and guilty victims, that it’s evil to kill the first and all right to kill the second, is not a New Testament concept at all. Some use such a distinction to condemn abortion on the one hand (as it must be condemned) and then to advocate capital punishment at the same time. Such a distinction and contradiction cannot be found in the Gospel or justified by it. In reality, all such killing harms not only its victims, but also its perpetrators — and the society that espouses it.

In the case of capital punishment, the basic motive (if truth be told) is not deterrence but retribution — vengeance, to use a less polite word. In fact, the public outcry for capital punishment is clearly and admittedly a cry for vengeance. Vengeance not by God at the Last Judgment, but by men here and now. We can find many references to such vengeance in the Old Testament; but how can the Gospel of Christ be twisted and misconstrued to justify it? Can the spirit of the Gospel be so misinterpreted? What’s more, how can those who claim to be Biblical literalists and fundamentalists so ignore the direct meaning of Jesus’ words? To his credit, Pope John Paul II in his recent encyclical calls both abortion and capital punishment evils, unconscionable acts of violence.

The Gospel’s Testimony on Killing & Vengeance

“And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12)

“Forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” (Lk. 11:14)

What are we to say to the condemned criminal? We forgive you, but now die to pay your debt to society? To kill is an act of absolute unforgiveness. In killing, we do not affirm life but attempt to destroy it. Whatever worldly sense this may make to some people, it cannot be squared with Christ’s words, or with our taking them to our mouths in prayer — the Lord’s Prayer.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…” (Matt. 5:5)

Before someone suggests that a prosecuting attorney can call for the death sentence in a meek way, or the judge meekly pass a sentence of death, or the executioner carry out the state-sanctioned killing in all meekness, let us look at what the Greek word — — used in the Gospel implies. When Plato used the word “meek,” he referred to people who are mild and gentle rather than hard or violent. For Epictetus, it indicated a nature that is not inclined to become embittered or angry at what is unjust: the attribute of a generous and magnanimous soul. In the Septuagint, which is the Greek Old Testament, the prophets use the word to describe those who endure the severity of exile with patience and hope that God — not man– will eventually bring forth justice.

“For I will leave in the midst of you a meek and lowly people. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel… For they shall pasture and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” (Zepheniah 3:12-13)

God expects his faithful people to be meek and lowly. He will bring justice and peace to them — not in this age, but in the age to come.

The clearest interpretation for Jesus’ use of the word “meek” is seen in Psalm 37 (LXX 36:8-11):

“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off; but those who wait for the Lord will possess the land. Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more. Though you look well at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in an abundance of peace.”

The psalm tells us to leave vindication to God. We are to be meek –gentle, patient, long-suffering — until God brings about His justice in His time. Will the state ever exist in such patient meekness? Evidently not — but the state belongs to this age which is passing away. Christians belong to the age to come. It cannot be Gospel-loving Christians who cry out for the state to carry out vengeance. It is the meek, not those who demand an eye for an eye, who are the blessed inheritors of the Kingdom. So says the Word of God. In fact, He says that He Himself is “meek and lowly in heart,” and that we are to take up ourselves the “light” and “easy” yoke of this lowly meekness. (Matt. 11:29)

Jesus is the King who comes to us “meek and sitting upon an ass.” (Mt 21:5) The mission of Jesus takes place on earth in lowliness and meekness. His life is not a life at court. In Matthew 21:5, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is depicted as that of a nonviolent, non-warlike king of salvation and peace. In this respect, Jesus stands radically opposed to the Zealots and to all champions of a political Messianism.

In the Beatitude of Matthew 5:5 we read of the “meek” who, out of their oppressed situation, depend not on their own will but the gracious will of God. To them Jesus promises the inheritance of the coming aeon, which includes secure dwelling in their own land. (V. Hauck, S. Schulz, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VI, p. 649)

We who assume the name Christian are to follow Him in the way of meekness and lowliness. We cannot venerate the Lord while we follow a way other than the one He treads before us.

On several occasions, Jesus Christ comes face to face with the issue of violence for retribution or self-defense, with the issue of capital punishment. In John 8, Jesus comes to the Temple, sits down as a rabbi would, and teaches the people. The scribes and Pharisees gather to put Him to the test. They bring forward a woman caught in adultery, presumably a married woman. The penalty prescribed for this in Deuteronomy 22 is death by stoning. (There are still some countries, like Saudi Arabia, where adultery is a capital offense for women today.)

As we know from John 18:31, the Romans had taken away from the Jews the right to administer capital punishment. The hypocrites who test Jesus ask him about applying the Deuteronomic law, and demand, “What do you say about her?” This is meant as a trap for Jesus, involving both the Jewish law and the prerogatives of the Roman state. But Jesus simply bends down and writes with his finger on the ground, just as His divine finger once inscribed the Law upon the tablets of stone on Sinai. Then He says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again He bends down to write in the dust.

The words He writes send the strict enforcers of the law of retribution stealing away in silent confusion. Jesus asks the condemned woman: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers, “No one, Lord.” No one — neither the self-righteous nor God. “Neither, do I condemn you,” He says. “Go and do not sin again.” (John 8:2-11)

The point is this: The Word of God foregoes enforcement of the strict law of retribution. This is not just a personal commutation of sentence. For He also dispels the condemners who would take God’s authority over life and death upon themselves. To avoid falling prematurely into a political trap, Jesus does this silently, by shaming the devotees of capital punishment. By His actions He sets aside the law of retaliation.

Likewise, in the Sermon on the Mount, He overturns the principle of retaliation (Exodus 21:24, Deuteronomy 19:21):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth… ‘But I say to you: Do not resist one who is evil. But, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38-39)

Do you see how much farther the Word of God goes than just forbidding vengeance? He commands forgiveness and even love of persecutors. (Matt. 5:43-44, Luke 6:27-28) We poor sinners may fail to carry out this command, but let us not confuse the spirit of the Gospel with the barbaric cry for blood-vengeance that rise from the same mouths that dare to say, “Our Father… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Jesus Provides the Example

Does Jesus merely tell us how to deal with those who offend and transgress? No. He provides the example that we can only set aside if we want to give up Christ altogether and return to the Old Law. When the evildoers come to seize Him in Gethsemane so that they can inflict upon Him an unjust death, an apostle takes a sword and slashes off the ear of one of those who come to seize and slay the Son of God. But Jesus says to him: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52) Then, according to Luke 22:51, He touches the ear of the wounded man and heals him.

The constant interpretation of this passage in early Christian times was that wielders of the sword of vengeance — the judge, the executioner, (by modern standards, the judge or jurist seeking the death penalty) — all these fall under this threat. They all participate, as the murderous criminal does, in the shedding of blood, the taking of life. And they too become marked by the experience, cursed by their own bloodletting.

St. Cyprian, the third century bishop-martyr of Carthage, makes it clear that it doesn’t matter whether the murderous retaliation comes from an individual or from the state. Killing is killing.

The world is drenched with mutual bloodshed. When individuals slay a man, it is a crime. When killing takes place on behalf of the state, it is called a virtue. (To Donatus, 6)

Whether or not the state sanctions it, says St. Cyprian, the Christian can have no part in the shedding of blood: “…after the reception of the Eucharist, the hand is not to be stained with the sword or bloodshed.” (On the Goodness of Patience, 14)

Finally, we have Jesus’ ultimate sermon of active love on the cross. The mob cries out for capital punishment for him, marking themselves with blood: “His blood be on us.” (Matt. 27:25) They call for the death penalty for Him — one of the countless times from that day to this that innocent people have been sentenced by courts to die. But the God-Man, hanging beaten, mocked, and naked upon the cross, wants no vengeance. His words resound in our ears and throughout all time, the living testimony of God for all who really look to Him to know the way of life: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24)

Not avenge them, not slay them, but “forgive them.” The answer to this question of capital punishment, and to every question of violence, is not to be found in the words of political theorists, of demagogues, of talk show babblers, or even of the aggrieved victims of violent crime. The answer is to be found in the words and actions of Jesus Christ, who is always the Father’s positive answer, His “Yes” to life.

Fr. Thomas Mueller is pastor of SS Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Dean of the Chicago Deanery of the Orthodox Church of America. He is a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

Capital Punishment: Points to Consider

St Nicholas stops execution (painting by Ilya Repin)
St Nicholas stops execution (painting by Ilya Repin)

from a letter by Jim Forest to a friend in the United States

We are followers of Christ, who killed no one nor blessed anyone to kill and who on one occasion prevented a legal execution, saying to those who intended to take part, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The Savior taught us a way of life that centers on love and forgiveness and which seeks the conversion rather than the destruction of our enemies.

It is chiefly through the love and care of others that each of us gradually comes to know the love of God. Can we not hope that people who have committed serious crimes, even murder, might also change for the better and even reach repentance and conversion? Consider the story Dostoevsky tells in Crime and Punishment of how a murderer, Raskolnikov, is led to repentance.

As we say in a pre-communion prayer by St. Basil the Great: “You do not wish, Master, that the work of Your hands should perish, neither do You take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

Many people cannot afford capable lawyers and, if indigent, may be assigned lawyers who invest little time or care in their defense. To favor capital punishment is to support a system that of its nature discriminates against the poor. As Sister Helen Prejean has written, “The death penalty is a poor person’s issue… After all the rhetoric that goes on in the legislative assemblies, in the end, when the deck is cast out, it is the poor who are selected to die in this country.”

Mistakes happen. Again and again cases come to light of innocent people who have been executed. We easily make mistakes — based on circumstantial evidence, what seem to us good guesses based on what we think we know about other people and other “types” of people. The film “Twelve Angry Men” is about a jury that comes within a hair’s breath of convicting an innocent man but, thanks to the stubborn resistance of one unconvinced  juror, realizes a mistake has been made and at last finds the accused not guilty. In real life, unfortunately, the story could easily have had a different ending: the ritual killing of a man who happens to resemble a murderer, who belongs to a racial minority, has no money, is without effective legal defense, and isn’t articulate.

Consider two events in Russian history.

After the baptism of Rus’, Saint Vladimir abolished executions as being incompatible with the Gospel. It is one of several indications we have of how profound was his conversion.

One of the most impressive reforms that happened in Russia in the 19th century was the effective abolition of capital punishment. Instead convicts were sent to do hard labor, mainly in Siberia. It is striking that Russians usually call those in prison, no matter what their crime, not “crooks” or villains,” but “the unfortunate.” There is an attitude of compassion suggested in this that is missing in American culture.

St Nicholas stopping executions
St Nicholas stopping three executions
One of the most loved saints in the Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, bishop of Myra, intervened to prevent three executions. In icons of St. Nicholas in which biographical panels are included, you  find the scene of Nicholas in his episcopal vestments putting his restraining hand on the raised executioner’s sword.

To this day priests are forbidden to kill, a law which comes down from the prohibition within the early Church of killing for all baptized persons. Consider why such a canon exists.

Consider also the words of an early Greek convert to Christianity, the philosopher Athenagoras of Athens (ca. 133-190): “We see little difference between watching a man being put to death and killing him.” He reminds us that to be implicated in murder, one does not have to commit murder. We can become accomplices in the violent death of others through the words we utter or through passivity.

“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation.” (Psalm 50)

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The troublesome word “murder”

On several occasions in recent months the Orthodox Peace Fellowship has been criticized for using the word “murder” in the statement it issued last January opposing the Iraq War. Here is the section of the text that gave rise to this debate:

“…Because we seek the reconciliation of enemies, a conversion which grows from striving to be faithful to the Gospel, the Orthodox Church has never regarded any war as just or good, and fighting an elusive enemy by means which cause the death of innocent people can be regarded only as murder. Individual murderers are treated by psychiatrists and priests and isolated from society. But who heals the national psyche, the wounded soul of a nation, when it is untroubled by the slaughter of non-combatant civilians?…”

The full text of the OPF Iraq Appeal plus some of the criticisms are posted on the OPF web site.

Here are some of the recent postings to the OPF List (an e-mail discussion forum for OPF members) about this topic:

The reality of taking life

At first I was made uncomfortable, too, by the use of the word “murder” in the OPF statement. After all, these soldiers are good guys, they’re operating from pure, patriotic motives, and this is what soldiers do.

But that’s not the way the Church thinks. The Church always thinks in terms of individuals, and in terms of the individual immortal soul, and the eternal life and salvation of that soul. If a soldier kills in battle, he has this on his conscience. He will bring it home with him, and it will stay with him for the rest of his life. In the darkest hours of the night it will haunt him. After all the patriotic parades and speeches and fanfare are over, the individual soldier will be stuck with this fact forever. And the Church doesn’t care about patriotic feelings. The Church cares about what that soldier did and how to heal his soul. The Church cannot obfuscate here. It cannot say, it’s not murder, it’s not killing, what you did was something else, you did it for your country. Because the soldier, in his heart, has a prior fear. And he needs the Church to name the sin and heal him. This is hard, and it sounds harsh. But you cannot heal a disease if you dare not name it.

The same is true, by the way, of the executioner. Or of the woman who has an abortion. All these people are involved in some very personal way in the taking of life, and all of them carry this truth with them. They need something like the Church, something that is beyond all earthly allegiances, which come and go. They need the healing of Christ.

Nancy Forest

Does the word “murder” say too little?

With Newton, I feel like a child gazing with wonder at an ocean of truth. If life is sacred, what does it means to kill a child? Or a civilian? If “murder” means people with deliberate intent, our critics are right to contend that our use of “murder” in the OPF’s Iraq Appeal was too strong. But we know Christ lives in the least person. If each person is created according to the image and likeness of God, and our Lord tells us that anything we do to the least, we do to Him, may the word “murder” say too little?

Are we not, as people who venerate icons, heirs to a theology whose beauty and depth we may never exhaust? Is “Christ in our midst” not only in our liturgy, but in our enemies?

On the last Sunday of Orthodoxy I watched children carry icons to celebrate the victory over iconoclasm. Suddenly I saw not single icons, but pairs: one wooden, one living. At that moment, as we set about to kill living icons in Iraq, I dared to wonder, “Who are the real iconoclasts? Ancients who destroyed wooden icons? We who kill living ones? All of us together? Is a living icon less sacred than a wooden one?”

War, like abortion, dehumanizes brothers and sisters. Some days ago a priest kindly gave me an article in the National Review, “Ministers of War,” in which a chaplain explains that “to prepare soldiers to … kill [the enemy], … they must believe … they are not personally connected with [them], but are acting solely as disinterested agents of the state.” I was as mesmerized as when seeing children as icons, but this time by horror. I thought of the saying of one the Desert Fathers: “I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to see all humanity as one.”

In this age of ever more terrible weapons of mass destruction, has recognition of the mystery of the sacred character of life ever been so urgently needed? Has it ever been so clear that W.H. Auden was right to say our choices are to love one another or die? Can a faith that sees the icon of Christ in every person and in all creation open our eyes to see enemies in a transforming way?

John W. Oliver

A loaded word

Even secular international law recognizes individual responsibility. The defense “I was just following orders” has been consistently rejected, most notably at the Nuernberg Trials following the Second World War. It hurts just to write those three words….

Soldiers “ along with everyone else “ who kill people, whether non-combatants or “enemy” soldiers (no one is truly “innocent”) are indeed morally accountable for the lives they take. The sin of murder may be explainable, but not excusable, and the only remedy for it is repentance “ which can’t happen unless the sin is acknowledged.

I’d be the first to admit that “murder,” as used in our Plea for Peace in Iraq is a harsh, loaded, troublesome word; I should know: I wrote it. I pray that God’s Holy Spirit was working through me then, and that it wasn’t merely my own poor attempts to serve Him which generated that sentence.

Given the great discomfort, even confusion, which people have expressed concerning the word “murder” in that context, I’ve wondered if it might have been better to express the concept more tactfully, but the conversations ensuing the “Plea” have been helpful and productive, clarifying ideas and causing people to take some moral inventory of themselves, their consciences and attitudes. It’s probably better, on balance, that murder was called murder; the civil law’s concepts of inculpable “manslaughter” or “justifiable homicide” don’t exist in the Gospel or in the larger Christian Tradition.

This has repercussions even in (mostly) non-religious areas such as medicine, particularly psychology/psychiatry, and sociology. People who kill other people, even at the behest of legitimate civil authorities, are personally responsible for their actions. Despite efforts of civil authorities to dull, if not eliminate, the consciences of military men, many soldiers who have had to kill people are haunted for years by nightmares, not always while asleep, about the atrocities they felt forced to commit. Priests and psychiatrists attempt to help them, but healing depends, to a very large extent, on each individual’s acknowledgment of his sin/guilt.

This sort of healing isn’t available to a nation or state. Only individuals are moral agents, and states are composed of individuals who must make moral judgements. It isn’t possible for us to make moral judgements and then expect that “the government,” rather than ourselves as individuals, will be held accountable at the awesome tribunal of Christ.

In the specific matter of an executioner’s acting for the state, there was a discussion not long ago among a group of priests, one of whom had (apparently seriously) asked advice: what can he tell his conflicted parishioner who is employed as an executioner in his state?

Naturally, there were a certain number of responses suggesting that, since that state has a legal structure which allows capital punishment under certain conditions, there is no personal moral issue at stake. Those who thought this way were mistaken, and were corrected by others who pointed out that there are canonical penalties imposed for even the unintentional taking of human life; a fortiori, intentional killing is to be more severely punished and more profoundly repented.

So, for instance, a priest who even accidentally kills someone is ipso facto deprived of his priesthood. A layman who even accidentally kills someone may not be ordained. Anyone who takes a human life is excommunicated for various stated periods, depending on the circumstances “ but always excommunicated.

An executioner would be excommunicated by the very act of doing his job. He could be reinstated in the Church and restored to communion after ten years or so, as St. Basil seems to suggest. But if he killed someone else during the period of his excommunication, that would require additional canonical discipline, not to mention that the executioner’s repentance would seem at least a little insincere. Given the parameters, an executioner could never be restored to communion; his occupation is completely at odds with the Gospel.

Monk James Silver

Objective act, subjective state

I may be wrong, but I think a fundamental distinction has been missed in the discussion of whether the term murderer ought to be applied to a soldier who fights in a war in which non-combatants are either directly or indirectly are killed. The distinction is between an objective act and the subjective state of the actor. A person’s culpability depends on whether he knows (or should know) that what he is doing is participating directly or indirectly in murder and whether he or she freely chooses to do so. In the case of a specific soldier involved in war, we are not in the position of knowing his subjective state, so we can’t judge him a murderer. Indeed I would suggest that military training, as well as the propaganda of national policy, tends to make soldiers (and many civilians) think that this war is a patriotic duty to stop terrorism and to rid the world of a brutal dictator. This should not stop us from stating that objectively the killing of non-combatants in Iraq is murder and so try to transform his and other American soldiers’ (and civilians’) malformed consciences.

Dr. Al Raboteau

In knowledge or in ignorance

We might decide that “murder” was a poor choice because people who hear it will think in the legal terms with which they’re familiar. But this whole discussion has reminded me of something that struck me when I was preparing to be received into the Church: that, in Orthodoxy, sin is seen as objective. That is, a sinful act is sinful regardless of intent. Thus we often pray for forgiveness of sins committed in knowledge or in ignorance. If I commit a sin ignorantly, perhaps thinking it’s not a sin at all, and later come to a better realization, I’m still called upon to repent, not just to say that it wasn’t a sin because I didn’t know it was.

John Brady

Right word at the right moment

I find the use of the word “murder” in the OPF statement entirely appropriate. Although the Church has not traditionally identified the killing of enemy combatants in war as murder, killing in war becomes murder when the line between combatants and non-combatants is blurred, when the killing of civilians is regarded as an acceptable threshold for the accomplishment of the “mission.” (In Iraq, The United States violated international law by dropping cluster bombs in populated areas, “acting with deliberate disregard for human life.” This is one of the legal and canonical definitions of murder.)

Canon XIII of St. Basil, which contains an exemption clause for soldiers engaged in warfare, was written with a defensive war against enemy invaders in mind, and a kind of warfare in which one actually saw the enemy one was fighting. He could not have imagined munitions that would travel miles to indiscriminately destroy soldiers and civilians, men and women, adults and children, killing hundreds (or even thousands) of people in a single blast. The new reality of warfare requires a corresponding adjustment in the Church’s approach to war. When Basil thought of war, he thought of swords and arrows. He could not have imagined napalm falling from the sky in great swaths and burning up entire villages. He could not have imagined what a 500-pound bomb falling into a busy marketplace would do. He could not have imagined Hiroshima.

In such cases, the distinction between war and murder is simply no longer meaningful.

The OPF statement was and is prophetic in its clear recognition of the fact that, behind the curtain of sanitized language and cleansed photo-ops, munitions-based warfare is predicated upon a “margin of error” approach that regards the killing of large numbers of civilians as acceptable. This is a horrific cheapening of human life that must be squarely addressed. It is estimated that between 7,500 and 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the war. And that number rises daily.

Fr. Paul Schroeder

From the Winter 2004/Theophany issue of In Communion, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. The text is copyrighted by the author and should not be published or reproduced on another web site without the author’s written permission.

The Right Question?

By John Oliver

A lecture given at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, in June 2002.

We are shaped by our questions

An example: in The Historian and the Climate of Opinion, Robert Skotheim says our understanding of American history changed in the 20th century in ways that “coincided with alterations in the prevailing climate of opinion.” This was not because historians offered better answers to old questions. Rather each succeeding school of historians posed, researched, and answered its own questions about the past. The historian Louis Hartz remarks that the best way to refute someone is “to substitute new fundamental categories for his own, so that you are simply pursuing a different path.”

Asking a different question enables us to “step outside the box.” If the sacred gift of life becomes the basic question, this open doors to an old, but long neglected, way of thinking.

The Right Question?

My historian father was schooled in the early 20th century to see the United States as different from Europe because of the democratizing influence of the frontier until, coming to Pittsburgh, the steel mills made him think about technology. For the rest of his life he taught, wrote and argued that the uniqueness of America does not lie in art, the frontier, government, literature, or religion, but in our genius for technology. (His book, History of American Technology, was published in 1956.)

In the 20th century, technology was on a fast track. Alvin Toffler wrote in 1970, “If the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately 62 years each,… the vast majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th lifetime.” Churchill was more prophetic. Speaking of the technology of nuclear war, he said, “What was gunpowder? Trivial. What was electricity? Meaningless. This atomic bomb is the second coming in wrath!”

Modern technology brought change more important than transitions from the Stone to the Bronze to the Iron Ages, not least for ethics. For the first time, the old double standard of treating the powerful one way, the weak another, became, potentially at least, obsolete. We are entering a period when the “weak” may well have weapons to retaliate.

Consider three things:

1. For the first time in history we can destroy all human life. Everyone is vulnerable.

2. This technology of mass destruction won’t go away. We can expect more nations to have weapons of mass destruction and more individuals and small groups to have means of acquiring such weapons: billionaires, mafias, drug lords, radical political movements.

3. Future biological, chemical and nuclear weapons promise to make present technologies of death seem primitive by comparison.

If the threat to life is so clear and so widely admitted, why is it so hard to challenge killing as a method and to seek nonviolent alternatives? Is it because we don’t have the right focus, the right question? It’s not that we focus on bad things. Even good values such as freedom and justice, if not kept in their proper place, can bring disaster. Why is it that even people in peace movements often become nervous about the phrase “the sacred gift of life”?

When values collide

Some months ago I gave a talk at a Quaker conference center. Afterwards, when the director asked what I thought about what they were doing, I said Quakers should “speak truth” — a key phrase among Quakers — and thus stop lying. Quakers say they stand for nonviolence, but, while opposing war and capital punishment, they commonly favor “abortion rights.” After shutting off the recorder, the director responded, “You must understand. Among liberal Friends, when feminism conflicts with nonviolence, feminism wins.”

That, I think, is a key to why it’s hard to persuade others to oppose killing. It’s the focus. It’s the question that matters. It’s not just feminism. Nationalism also wins over nonviolence. So does freedom. So does various kinds of idealism.

The Christian doctrine of freedom goes back to Eden. Feminism has Christian roots. Protecting innocents is central to the Gospel, though not protecting our innocents by killing their innocents. Secular nationalism is perhaps more fiercely held in our era, if less rooted in Christianity.

Focus shapes what we see. Historians who focus on freedom celebrate the American Revolution for replacing absolutism with a republic, the Civil War for ending slavery. They once celebrated westward expansion as a divine mandate or manifest destiny to civilize the continent or build a great nation. From this perspective, killing was the price we pay for progress.

But what if we take as our focus Christ’s words that what we do to others we do to Him? How does this change our way of regarding war, revolution, the killing of native peoples to obtain their land? Cause for celebration? Or repentance?

What about the American Civil War, fought by southerners to resist intrusive government and protect property, and by northerners to hold the Union together? If what was done to others was done to Him, each death was another crucifixion.

What about westward expansion and the destruction or relocating of native Americans — what we now call ethnic cleansing? If what we did to native Americans is what we did to Christ, does resettling or killing them look the same to us as it did to historians who focused on progress and the advance of democracy?

Shift to the present. If life is sacred, if what we do to others is done to Christ, how will we regard killing for secular America? Or for some other people or nation elsewhere in the world?

My Quaker friend was right. In our world, other values “win” over reverence for life.

An Orthodox Foundation

If it is hard to persuade others to center their focus on the sacredness of life, perhaps the place to start is with ourselves. Does Orthodox Christianity see life as sacred? Or am I misusing Orthodoxy to make it fit an ideology that is alien to the Gospel?

We are indebted to Fr. John Breck, who reminds us in his book, The Sacred Gift of Life , that our calling is to examine “all sources of revelation within the Church: Scripture; the doctrinal, ascetic and mystical writings of the holy fathers and mothers; the Church’s liturgy and traditions governing personal worship…; canon law; iconography and other graphic representations of the faith, such as church architecture; and hagiography or the lives and teachings of the saints.” What do these teach us about the character of human life?

The Orthodox nun, Mother Maria Skobtsova, a saint of hospitality who died a martyr’s dearth in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, said, “No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation than the three words, ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end, and without exceptions, And then the whole of life is illumined, which is otherwise an abomination and a burden.” She calls on us to “venerate the image of God” in others because when Christ said “`I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison,’ He put an equal sign between himself and anyone in need.” She also said, “The Liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our Liturgy.”

C.S. Lewis had a similar insight. He said, next to the Blessed Sacrament, “your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. We rightly honor Christ in bread and wine. But will the Eucharist stand in judgment of us if we fail to accord near equal honor to Christ in our neighbor?”

He is merely echoing St. John Chrysostom: “Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. He who said, ‘This is my body,’ and made it so by his word, is the same who said, ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.’ Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.” (On the Gospel of St. Matthew, 50, iii)

But how to we get from intellectualizing principles to incarnating the faith? What about starting schools where questions are asked that help resensitize us to the sacredness of life? Dare we ask tough questions?

An Orthodox mind, with its special sensitivity to mystery, sacredness, and mercy, should be considering questions like:

How did early generations of Christians regard life? The body? Sexuality? All creation?

Does our faith not suggest that the wonder residing in the Eucharist is present, if scarcely seen, in every human being?

Does translating liturgy into life not require venerating the hungry, thirsty, sick, prisoners, orphans, newborns, other races, as we do the Eucharist?

Is it right to appeal for God’s mercy for ourselves, as we do again and again every Sunday at the Liturgy, then for the rest of the week demand justice — not mercy — for those we regard as enemies?

Are we too used to killing as a means of solving problems?

What special lenses does our faith provide which enable us see what we do when we take a human life? Is there a connection between Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and his image in an enemy?

It is often said war is a “necessary evil.” But then we have to ask the question, necessary for what? To guard a secular nation? my standard of living? my freedoms? To protect my loved ones? Even if the answer is in each case yes, still we have to ask ourselves: is killing necessary to obey the One who commands us to “do good” to enemies and not retaliate in kind?

We must not get side-tracked with the question, “What would you do in response to September 11? Or to Hitler?” I have no answer, only the comment that this is the right question for a pragmatist, but the wrong one for a Christian. The right question for Christians is not what will work. The right question is what does Jesus tell us to do. What example has he given us to emulate?

The Quaker peace testimony sprang from focusing on simple obedience to Christ, who tells us to do good to enemies, not from humanistic concerns. More important, Fr. James Silver reminds us, is the witness of the early Church. Christians refused to kill because the example of Christ was more important than what we think of as practical concerns.

History offers hope. Western civilization was in large part founded by nonviolent monks who, after the Roman Empire fell in western Europe, set up schools and converted the West to a mix of primitive Christian and Greco-Roman ways of thinking. Christian Rome fell. Western and Eastern Christendom arose, in large part from folk who were more faithful to Christ than to Rome.

Let me sum up. Technology can destroy all human life. Yet more terrible weapons are coming. Popular ideologies commonly take priority over nonviolence and reverence for life. Let us embrace whatever is good in modern ideologies, but as Orthodox peacemakers let us focus on the sacred gift of life, doing so with every resource available to us, including the vision of God incarnate in every human life.

Dr. John W. Oliver is retired professor of history at Malone College, Canton, Ohio, and was adjunct professor at Walsh and the College of Wooster. He is the author and editor of various books including a forthcoming history of America’s Quaker colleges. He was a member of the executive board of the Ohio Academy of History and convener of the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists. He belongs to Assumption Orthodox Church in Canton and serves as coordinator of the North American chapter of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.