Tag Archives: capital punishment

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas

You Cannot Serve Two Ideas: When Ideology and Theology Meet

by Fr. John Garvey

10 icon-of-christs-temptation-in-the-desert

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 con-victed, 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 punish-ment 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 inno-cent, 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; it makes my attitude toward a 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.  IC


Orthodoxy and Capital Punishment

St.Nicholas stopping executions
St.Nicholas stopping executions

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:

http://www.geplac.org/publicat/law/archives/glr99q1q2e.pdf , see also http://www.steele.com/fpphr/capital.html

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.


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 http://www.romarch.org/news.php?id=1540 . 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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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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Capital Punishment: Points to Consider

detail from a St Nicholas icon (early 16th century, The Hermitage, St Petersburg)

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.

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 resistance of thoughtful juror, realizes a mistake has been made and so 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. Perhaps this lack of compassion is itself a factor in the rising rate of crime.

painting by Ilya Repin: St Nicholas preventing an execution (Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

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 always 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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