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.
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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