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

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

 ST NICHOLAS HALTS AN EXECUTION

St Nicholas stopping executions
St Nicholas stopping executions

BISHOP DEMETRIOS ATTENDS SIGNING OF DEATH PENALTY ABOLITION BILL IN ILLINOIS

bishop_demetrios-150x150

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

* * *

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:

http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/3/14.aspx

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

http://yya.oca.org/TheHub/Articles/TheChurchonCurrentIssues/CapPunish.htm

Statements from Church Hierarchs

Patriarch Alexei likens the death penalty to premeditated murder:

http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jim_forest/webdoc5.htm

Patriarch of Georgia condemns death penalty:

http://www.geplac.org/publicat/law/archives/glr99q1q2e.pdf , see also

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

http://www.oca.org/news/724

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:

Http://www.hellenicnews.com/readnews.html?newsid=7812%E2%8C%A9=US

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

http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-elements/texts/cjrelations/resources/articles/christodoulos.htm

Various Bishops condemn capital punishment

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

http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/ethics/seraphim_capital_punishment.htm

Bishop Demitrios (GOA) condemns capital punishment.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chicago/chi-0612080312dec08,0,7764178.story

Other Orthodox condemnations of capital punishment

Pan-Orthodox Sanctity of Life Prayer Service at St. George Antiochian Church condemns capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion. See 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.

May Christians Kill?

By Fr. Philip LeMasters

Eastern Christianity does not view morality in fundamentally legal terms or within the context of abstract philosophy, but as part of the holistic vocation of humanity for theosis: participation by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. Hence, the Orthodox vision must be considered on its own terms, and not distorted by the imposition of Western categories. The question for the Orthodox is not, “What approach to warfare is most persuasive rationally or incumbent upon all Christians as a matter of moral law?” Instead, the East asks, “In light of the human vocation for growth in holiness and communion with God, how should Christians respond to the prospect of warfare?”

The prominence of petitions for peace in the Liturgy sheds light on the Orthodox response to war. Since the Church believes that the Liturgy is a participation in the worship of heaven, and grounds the knowledge of God in worship and mystical experience, it is fitting to place the issue of war and peace within the context of the liturgical life of Eastern Christianity, for it is in worship that the Church participates most fully in communion with the Holy Trinity.

In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the first petitions of the Great Ektenia are for “the peace from above, and for the salvation of our souls” and “the peace of the whole world; for the good estate of the churches of God, and for the union of all.” At every Liturgy we pray for our parish, the clergy and laity, for government officials and all those in public service, for the place we live and for all towns and cities, for peaceful times, for travelers, the sick, the suffering, for captives and their salvation, and for our deliverance from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and need. “Help us; save us; have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Your grace,” we beg, finally commending “ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.”

These are not simply decorative words. Neither are they prayers which refer merely to the inner tranquility of worshipers, nor to an entirely future Kingdom of Heaven. Instead, they embody an Orthodox vision of salvation and call upon the Lord to enable us to experience his heavenly peace right now in every dimension of life: personal, public, religious, temporal, and political. Whoever prays these prayers is asking already to participate in the Kingdom of God on earth, to find the healing and blessing of salvation in every dimension of one’s life indeed, in every aspect of God’s creation.

The entire Liturgy is an epiphany of God’s Kingdom on earth. The priest begins the service with a proclamation, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever and unto ages of ages,” which declares that the assembly is now participating in the worship of Heaven. The Church is raised to the life of the Kingdom as her members gather to glorify and commune with the Holy Trinity.

Because we believe in the Incarnation and the goodness of God’s physical creation, we pray for peace and salvation upon people in “real life” situations of peril and suffering, for deliverance from the kinds of calamities and hardships that beset our mortal bodies in this life.

The peace for which we pray includes every dimension of our existence before the Lord. God created us for communion with Himself in all aspects of our personhood: body, soul, and spirit. Christian salvation entails the resurrection of the complete, embodied self in the blessed communion of Heaven and the transformation of the entire creation in subjection to the Holy Trinity.

The peace for which we pray is our participation in that all-inclusive salvation. There is no true peace other than that found in the healing and transformation brought to human beings by the God-Man in whom our humanity is united with divinity. Since God intends to save us in every dimension of our existence, his healing concerns the full range of human life. Even as bread and wine become the means of our communion with the Lord, we are to offer every bit of ourselves and of this world to the Father in union with the sacrifice of the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. We will then find life-giving communion with the Holy Trinity in everything we say and do; our life will become a eucharistic offering as we grow in holiness and union with God.

If the Liturgy is a participation in the eschatological peace of the Kingdom of God, it is fair to ask whether the members of the Church recognize and live out this vision of heavenly peace. An immediate note of realism comes to mind, as the members of the Church are sinners who have not manifested fully the new life of Christ. Nonetheless, the presence of the Holy Spirit enables the Church to embody a foretaste of the eschatological peace of the Kingdom of Heaven, and there is much in the history and ongoing life of the Church which witnesses to the saving peace of God here and now.

Though there is some ambiguity in the Church’s teaching on Christian participation in war, the Orthodox vision of peace prizes selfless love and forgiveness over violence, viewing war, in some situations, as a lesser evil with damaging spiritual consequences for all involved.

In contrast with Orthodoxy, it is easier to describe the traditional Western Christian justifications of war, which have included both the granting of plenary indulgences to those who fought in the crusades and the affirmation of a just-war theory. The former envisioned the killing of infidels as such a righteous act that the crusaders were released from all temporal punishments for their sins, including exemption from purgatory. The latter, which has been widely influential in Western culture, provides moral sanction to wars which meet certain philosophical criteria.

Orthodoxy has never embraced the crusade ethic. Orthodoxy has viewed war always as an evil, even if, as the theologian Olivier Clément expressed it, “The Church has accepted warfare sorrowfully as a sometimes necessary evil, but without concealing that it is an evil which must be avoided or limited as much as possible.” Elsewhere he notes, “The only normative ideal is that of peace, and hence the Orthodox Church has never made rules on the subject of ius belli and of ius in bello.”

Canon 13 of St. Basil’s 92 Canonical Epistles states:

Our fathers did not consider killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that their hands are not clean.

Father John McGuckin observes that St. Basil refers to St. Athanasius as the father who wrote, in his “Letter to Amun,” that killing the enemy was legitimate in wartime. McGuckin argues, however, that St. Athanasius was advising Amun on the question of the sinfulness of nocturnal emissions. “In fact the original letter had nothing whatsoever to do with war… The military image is entirely incidental, and Athanasius in context merely uses it to illustrate his chief point in the letter,” which is to show that the moral significance of actions may not be discerned without reference to the contexts in which they occurred.

Against any simplistic readings of the letter as a blanket justification of killing in war, St. Basil places the issue in a specific context. As McGuckin writes on St. Basil in “War and Repentance,” “what he speaks about is the canonical regulation of war in which a Christian can engage and find canonical forgiveness for a canonically prohibited act…”

Killing in war had been forbidden completely in earlier canons, such as Canon 14 of Hippolytus in the fourth century, which states:

A Christian is not to become a soldier. A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the mysteries, unless he is purified by a punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.

St. Basil distinguishes between outright murder and killing “for the defense of Christian borders from the ravages of pagan marauders.” By limiting fighting to such circumstances, he sought to “restrict the bloodshed to a necessary minimum.” In contrast to the lifelong exclusion from the sacraments imposed on murderers, St. Basil recommends three years of exclusion from the chalice, thus providing a public sign that the Gospel standard is violated by war.

The Christian soldier who has killed in war is to “undergo the cathartic experience of temporary return to the lifestyle of penance… Basil’s restriction of the time of penance to three years, seemingly harsh to us moderns, was actually a commonly recognized sign of merciful leniency in the ancient rule book of the early Church.” (It is not uncommon to meet veterans who are tormented for the rest of their lives by the horrors of war. I recall the father of a childhood friend who suffered from nightmares thirty years after the conclusion of his military service during World War II. Those who are trained to kill sometimes have difficulty returning to the mores of civilian life, not to mention the life of theosis.)

McGuckin concludes that this canon of St. Basil excludes the development of just war theory in Orthodoxy. Though particular wars may be necessary or unavoidable, they are never justified, as shedding the blood of other human beings is contradictory to the way of the Kingdom of God.

In his book, The Price of Prophecy, Fr. Alexander Webster agrees that a theory of justified war “has never been systematically elucidated in Orthodox moral theology.” He describes participation in such a war as “a lesser moral option than absolute pacifism, for those unwilling or unable to pay the full price of prophecy.” He suggests that Orthodox criteria for a just war include a “proper political ethos,” meaning that the nation going to war should follow “the natural-law ethic and have positive relations with the Orthodox community.” The war should also take place for the “defense of the People of God” from injustice, invasion, or oppression “by those hostile to the free exercise of the Orthodox faith.” A proper “spiritual intent” should also lead to “forgiveness and rehabilitation” of enemies as persons who bear the image of God, and not “mere revenge, self-righteousness, or conquest.” Webster states that

Whereas the pacifist seeks to emulate Jesus as the Good Shepherd who allowed Himself to be slain unjustly by and for sinners, the just warrior perceives a higher duty: to defend the relatively innocent from unjust aggression. If the Orthodox pacifist can never do anything evil even for a reasonably just end, the Orthodox warrior cannot preserve his personal holiness by allowing evil to triumph through his own inaction.

It is curious for Webster to suggest that the just warrior follows a “higher duty” than that of the pacifist, especially when the clear norm for the Church is the selfless, forgiving, nonresistant way of Christ. Likewise, the enumeration of moral categories for a justified war and the reference to governments which follow an ethic of natural law raise the question of whether this interpretation places questions of war and peace more within the context of human moral reasoning than in that of the journey to theosis. It is fair to ask whether Webster’s formulation gives sufficient attention to the spiritual vision of Orthodoxy, as opposed to the greater reliance on an ethics of human reason in Western Christianity.

Though Christlike response of “turning the other cheek” to assaults is the ideal, the Orthodox Church does not prescribe pacifism or nonviolence as an absolute requirement of the Christian life. The Church’s moral guidance serves the goal of theosis, of guiding the members of Christ’s Body to growth in holiness and union with the Trinity. The canons of the Church are applied pastorally in order to help particular people find salvation as they seek to be faithful in the given set of challenges and weaknesses which they face. The Church’s experience is that temporal authority and the use of force are necessary to restrain evil and promote good in our fallen world.

Though the witness of the early Church was largely, but not exclusively, pacifist, the Byzantine vision was of symphonia, or harmony, between God’s Kingdom and earthly realms. Hence, Christian emperors and armies fought wars and sustained a social order that sought to embody faithfulness to the Lord in all areas of life. Church and empire were to be united, in Webster’s words, “even as the divine and human natures of Christ are united in the One Person of the Incarnate Son of God.” In practice, however, that vision was never fully realized in Byzantium; human sinfulness corrupted its political and ecclesiastical leaders in many ways.

There have remained in Orthodoxy, however, indications of the ideal of peace. Monks and clergy, for example, may not bear arms and are forbidden to use deadly violence even in cases of self-defense. Canon V of St. Gregory of Nyssa “states that should a priest ‘fall into the defilement of murder even involuntarily (i.e., in self-defense), he will be deprived of the grace of the priesthood, which he will have profaned by this sacrilegious crime.'”

Those whose hands have shed blood are no longer the icons of Christ which priests are called to be, and are not suited to serve at the altar. As Webster writes in The Pacifist Option, “An Orthodox priest is supposed to be an exemplar for the Christian community, a man with a personal history free from all serious or grievous offenses including the taking of a human life for any reason.”

Even as the sacramental priesthood is a special vocation to which not all are called, the straightforward embodiment of Christlike, nonviolent love incumbent upon priests is not canonically required of all believers. In keeping with the practice of economia, the norm of nonresistant love may not be directly applicable to those whose vocations in our broken world require the defense of the innocent. These may grow in holiness by fighting as justly as possible, even as they mourn the harm done to themselves and others by their use of violence.

Whatever choices we make in our efforts to defend the innocent from attack and abuse, none are perfect. In a fallen world populated by sinful people, every Christian’s journey to the Kingdom will be marked by a measure of spiritual brokenness, and repentance is the only road to healing.

Particular countries and peoples have been so closely identified with the Orthodox faith that their defensive wars against Islamic invaders, though not Western-style crusades, have been described as “a difficult and painful defense of the Cross.” The appeal for “victory over their enemies” at the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and other instances of martial imagery in the liturgies, has at times been corrupted into a “national Messianism” in which a soldier who dies in battle is regarded as a martyr and the evil of war is forgotten.

It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that Orthodoxy has enthusiastically endorsed war. Even in cases of the defense of a Christian people from Islamic invasion, the spiritual gravity of warfare has not been forgotten. For example, St. Sergius of Radonezh in the fourteenth century gave his blessing to Grand Prince Dimitri to fight a defensive war against the Tatar Khan only after he received assurances that the prince had already exhausted every possible means of reconciliation.

Kutuzov’s strategy in response to Napoleon’s invasion was similar, abandoning Moscow to the French and merely harassing Napoleon’s forces during their withdrawal, having no other aim than to drive the invader back to the frontier.

Far from being examples of unbridled militarism, these are instances which reflect the reluctant acceptance of war at times as a necessary evil.

These notes of realism should not be allowed to obscure the Church’s insistence that “non-retribution, the avoidance of violence, the returning of good for evil … and the harmony of peoples” are a holistic “normative good which Christians must seek with God’s help,” in the words of Olivier Clément.

Fr. Stanley Harakas observes that “the Eastern Patristic tradition rarely praised war, and to my knowledge, almost never called it ‘just’ or a moral good…. The peace ideal continued to remain normative and no theoretical efforts were made to make conduct of war into a positive norm.”

The evidence for widespread pacifism in the Church is strongest before St. Constantine, when the Empire was pagan and Christians, including converts within the army, were persecuted for refusing to participate in the worship of false gods. Even after the Christianization of the Empire, with the eventual requirement that only Christians could be in the army, there remained teachers of pacifism in the Church, such as Pope St. Damasus, Prudentius, and St. Paulinus of Nola. Webster remarks that St. Paulinus, in the fifth century, was the last Church Father who explicitly addressed the moral issue of war from a pacifist perspective. From then on, pacifist sensibilities would manifest themselves in other contexts, such as the requirement of clerical and monastic nonresistance.

The contrast between the canonical requirement of pacifism for the clergy and the acceptance of military service by the laity requires further comment. Webster notes that the identification of clergy with the nonviolent norm and the allowance of participation in war on the part of the laity implies a two-tier ethic with a higher and a lower class of Christians, which could be taken to imply that the clergy are necessarily holier than the laity.

More faithful to Orthodox ecclesiology would be the affirmation that the norm now embodied by the clergy will at some future point become normative for all Orthodox. Here we are dealing with a point of eschatological tension that will be resolved in the Kingdom of Heaven, when all will be pacifists, for violence and other evils will be destroyed. In the present, as Webster writes in The Pacifist Option, the clergy are “expected to demonstrate the attainment of an advanced spiritual and moral state to which all Orthodox Christians are [ultimately] called.”

The recognition of pacifism as an ultimate norm or goal for all Christians should not be surprising. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ calls His followers to theosis, to growth in holiness and perfection in union with God. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) This teaching is the conclusion of a section focusing on the love of enemies, which is immediately preceded by the Lord’s repudiation of resistance against evil. “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (5:39)

These passages indicate that the repudiation of violence in self-defense is a sign of growth in holiness. Our Lord’s example of offering Himself on the cross for our salvation is the paradigmatic epiphany of the selfless love in which human beings are to participate as they come to share by grace in the life of the Trinity.

Fr. Philip LeMasters is professor of Religion and director of the Honors Program at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. A priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, he serves at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene. This is an abridged version of a chapter in his book, The Goodness of God’s Creation (Regina Orthodox Press). The Patristic texts cited here and many others, plus essays by a number of Orthodox theologians, can be found in For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace and Nationalism, Hildo Bos and Jim Forest, editors, Syndesmos, 1999. The full text of the book is posted on the OPF web site: http://incommunion.org/articles/for-the-peace-from-above/first-page

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52

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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

* * *

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:

http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/3/14.aspx

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

http://yya.oca.org/TheHub/Articles/TheChurchonCurrentIssues/CapPunish.htm

Statements from Church Hierarchs

Patriarch Alexei likens the death penalty to premeditated murder:

http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jim_forest/webdoc5.htm

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:

http://www.oca.org/news/724

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:

Http://www.hellenicnews.com/readnews.html?newsid=7812%E2%8C%A9=US

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

http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-elements/texts/cjrelations/resources/articles/christodoulos.htm

Various Bishops condemn capital punishment

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

http://www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/ethics/seraphim_capital_punishment.htm

Bishop Demitrios (GOA) condemns capital punishment.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chicago/chi-0612080312dec08,0,7764178.story

Other Orthodox condemnations of capital punishment

Pan-Orthodox Sanctity of Life Prayer Service at St. George Antiochian Church condemns capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion. See 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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Saint Marcellus: Military Martyr

[Photo: The relics of St. Marcellus are preserved within the altar of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana.]

In the ancient Roman Empire, many Christians refused to serve in the imperial armies, finding it was in conflict with their baptismal vows and the teaching and example of Jesus.

In The Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, written in the second century and attributed to one of the first Bishops of Rome, renunciation of killing is a precondition of baptism: “A soldier under authority shall not kill a man. If he is ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the oath. If he is unwilling, let him be rejected. He who has the power of the sword or is a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, let him cease or be rejected. Catechumens or believers, who want to become soldiers, should be rejected, because they have despised God.” (Canon XVI: On Professions)

But what about soldiers who were converted to following Christ? One could not simply walk away from the Roman army. To be a soldier was like any other trade: it was not done for a few years but throughout adulthood, until one was too old or infirm to continue. Some were fortunate – their duties did not require the exercise of deadly force. A few – for example, St. Martin of Tours – were able to obtain a special discharge. Some took the path of martyrdom.

St. Marcellus the Centurion, after some years of army service, found he could no longer continue in military obedience. One day in 298, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, Marcellus’s unit in northern Africa was celebrating the pagan emperor’s birthday with a party. Suddenly Marcellus rose before the banqueters and denounced such celebrations as heathen. Casting off his military insignia, he cried out, “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors and I scorn to worship your gods of wood and stone, which are deaf and dumb idols.”

Marcellus was immediately arrested for breach of discipline. At his trial, he admitted that he had done that of which he was accused. He declared that it is “not right for a Christian man, who serves the Lord Christ, to serve in the armies of the world.” Found guilty, he was immediately beheaded. According to the ancient testimonies, he died in great peace of mind, asking God to bless the judge who had condemned him.

As part of a protest against military training on campus, last year a play about

St. Marcellus was performed at Notre Dame by members of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. The text, by Tom Hostetler, closely follows the actual trial transcript.

The Passion of Saint Marcellus

Lucius, the narrator, comes out with helmet in hand, standing on the grassy knoll, north of a gazebo. The crowd gathers around.

Diocletian
[Photo: Diocletian, emperor at the time of Marcellus’s martyrdom bust in the Istanbul Archeological Museum]
What is the price of conscience? How far will a Christian go to be obedient to the teachings and example of Jesus? And how long will a faithful witness be remembered? Today we present the drama of St. Marcellus, a centurion in the Roman Battalion, who laid down his sword in order to serve Jesus Christ, and laid down his life in order to be faithful. It is presented briefly, and in the simplest form, from what is known in the historical records, so that you may know of his courage, sacrifice, and conviction. It is a true story, from the year 298 A.D., and one that belongs to all Christians. I invite the crowd to come closer, so that you may hear, and to follow us from place to place as the scene changes. In this drama, I portray the part of Lucius, Marcellus’s friend and fellow soldier. Let us begin.

 

Lucius: Marcellus, I beg you to take back this sword.

Marcellus: I cannot. You know I cannot.

Lucius: If you go in there and tell them this, they won’t understand. I don’t understand!

Marcellus: Lucius, you’ve been my friend for eight years in the Legion. I thank you for that. Never has there been a more loyal companion in any battalion. We’ve fought together, marched together, been ready to die together every day in service to the Empire. We’ve spilled rivers of blood, and I, just as you, thought of the enemies of Rome as little more than dogs to be slain.

Lucius: But they are enemies. Even if you are now a Christian, you can’t tell me that you love them now.

Marcellus: They are children of God.

Lucius: They’ve killed our friends.

Marcellus: As we’ve killed theirs. And God is willing to forgive.

Lucius: Well, the vice-praetorian prefect is right over there, and he’s not going to be forgiving.

Marcellus [placing a hand on Lucius’s shoulder]: It doesn’t matter. Christ is my commander now, and I will not betray him. You have heard the words of the Master; how he said to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Now that I belong to Him, I must turn the other cheek.

Lucius: Marcellus, this will end badly. You will pay with your life.

Marcellus: Perhaps… I pray not… But still, my life is a small thing. Since my Lord has surrendered His life for me, can I now withhold my own? The Lord Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those that can kill the body, but fear the one who owns body and soul.”

Lucius [as guards approach]: They’re coming. Marcellus, take back the sword!

[Marcellus refuses; all salute as guards arrive.]

Guard: Centurion Marcellus, you are ordered to appear before lord Aurelius Agricolanus, the vice-praetorian prefect.

Marcellus: I am at his command.

[All walk briskly to the court set.]

Herald: Come near to the court of our lords the Augusti and Caesars on this third day before the calends of November, to state business before lord Aurelius Agricolanus, the vice-praetorian prefect. Let all those who wish justice to be served announce their presence.

Cecilius: My lord, I am the consular official Cecilius, sent by the praeses Fortunatus, with a letter concerning this centurion before you.

Agricolanus: Let it be read out.

Cecilius: Yes my lord. [reads from scroll] “Manilius Fortunatus sends greetings to his lord Agricolanus. On the most happy and blessed anniversary of our lords the Augusti and Caesars, when we were celebrating the festival, this centurion Marcellus, seized by what madness I do not know, wantonly disgirded himself of belt and sword and decided to hurl down the staff which he was carrying before the very headquarters of our lords.

Marcellus stated before me these words: “I tell you today, loudly and in public, before the standards of this legion, that I am a Christian and cannot observe this oath unless to Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God.” I have decided that it was necessary to report what was done to your power, even for him to have been sent to you also. My lord, this man is so presented to you.

Agricolanus: Did you do those things which are recorded in the praeses’s record?

Marcellus: I did.

Agricolanus: Were you serving as a centurio ordinarius?

Marcellus: I was.

Agricolanus: What madness possessed you to cast aside your oath and say such things?

Marcellus: No madness possesses him who fears God.

Agricolanus: Did you make these separate statements which are recorded in the praeses’s record ?

Marcellus: I did.

Agricolanus: Did you hurl down your weapons?

Marcellus: I did. It is not proper for a Christian man, one who fears the Lord Christ, to engage in earthly military service. What I have stated before to the praeses Fortunatus, I now state before you. I am a Christian, and call only upon the true God and King, Jesus Christ, whom I love more than all the honor and riches of this world. By His law and command, we are forbidden to take another man’s life or even to bear arms. By His example, we are taught to forgive those who harm us, and have mercy upon our enemies. Those who call upon His name are children of peace, with no ill will toward anyone upon earth. Those who are conformed to the image of Christ know of no weapons other than patience, hope and love – and these are only weapons to break the flinty hearts that never have been affected by the heavenly dew of the holy word. We know of no vengeance, however we may be wronged. We do not ask for vengeance, but with Christ we pray, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Agricolanus: Do you not remember that you took your military oath, in rites over which all the gods presided, when you confessed the Emperor’s deity. Have you forgotten how you received the standards upon which the image of the gods themselves were placed for your protection?

Marcellus: I will no longer sacrifice to gods and emperors, and I disdain to worship your wooden and stone gods, who are deaf and dumb idols. I serve Jesus Christ, the everlasting King! So far am I from seeking to escape suffering for the name of Christ, that I, on the contrary, consider it the highest honor which you can confer upon me.

Agricolanus: Enough! [Standing, addressing the crowd] Marcellus’s actions are such that they must be disciplined. It therefore pleases (the court) that the Christian Marcellus, who defiled the office of centurion which he held, by his public rejection of the oath and, furthermore, according to the praeses’s records, gave in testimony words full of madness, should be executed by the sword. Let the record so state. Take him away.

 

Agricolanus [to the guard and Lucius]: You both will carry out the sentence immediately.

[Agricolanus, Herald, and Cecilius exit. The guard takes Marcellus offstage (out of sight) and Lucius begins to go with them, but pauses midstage and turns to the crowd.]

Lucius: Marcellus was martyred for the cause of Christ and Christian conscience on that very day. His heart was steadfast and valiant. He did not fear death; nor was his life taken from him, but was changed into a better one. Among all of those who laid down their lives for the testimony of Christ, Marcellus produced within me a desire to know His Master, and to take his confession upon myself.

I do not know if others will follow this path he has forged, but I am ready now to lay down my own sword, and call only upon the true God and King, Jesus Christ.

[Lucius throws down his sword and staff and exits stage.]

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

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 www.ancientfaithradio.com. 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: www.justicedenied.org/philip.htm and www.tcask.org/ cases/workman/workman.html.

 

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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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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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