by Jim Forest
It never ceases to amaze me that many of those who describe themselves as “pro-life” are, when it comes to capital punishment, passionate supporters of death as a method of improving the world. Most notably in America, not a few of those who wear a symbol of an earlier method of execution, the cross, would be more than willing to volunteer their services to end the lives of people now on Death Row whether by injection or hanging or the electric chair or firing squad — or, why not, crucifixion?
Many Catholics and other Christians were outraged when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had authorized a modification of the Catholic Catechism. That basic text will now include the declaration that the death penalty is an attack “on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and can no longer be regarded as an appropriate means “of safeguarding the common good.” (Full text of the changes)
Christians of the Church’s first few centuries would be astonished at the number of pro-execution Christians they would find in a twenty-first century country crowded with churches. In the early Church even soldiers and judges entering the catechumenate couldn’t be baptized until they vowed not to take the lives of fellow human beings.
Take for example this third-century canonical text attributed to an earlier Bishop of Rome, St. Hippolytus (170–235 AD), who stressed that the renunciation of killing men, women and children was 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 [from those to be baptized]. 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)
How many today who loudly announce their Christian identity would not abandon the Church were they confronted by a similar demand? Indeed some of Pope Francis’s fellow Catholics, though militantly pro-life regarding the unborn, have responded to this pro-life revision of the Catechism with cries of heresy. One wonders how it is that such people fail to denounce Christ for his failure to kill anyone or to bless any killings or endorse any wars? There is even the scandal of his preventing a perfectly legal execution, shaming the would-be executioners into dropping the rocks they were poised to hurl at the unfortunate victim and going home. Jesus’ words disarmed them: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
The heart of the Gospel is love, mercy and forgiveness. 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 even the most appalling crimes, including murder, might also change for the better and even reach repentance and conversion? Such a conversion is at the core of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment.
One of the prayers many Orthodox Christians use in preparation for communion comes from 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.”
One does not have to have a mind shaped by the Gospel to oppose capital punishment. Anyone concerned about injustice will note that it is mainly the poor, and very often racial minorities, who get the death sentence. Rarely are those without money represented by capable lawyers.
There is also the fact that flawed human beings that we are, mistakes happen. Again and again cases come to light of innocent people who have been executed. We 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 classic film “Twelve Angry Men” is about a jury that comes within a hair’s breadth 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 the story could easily have had a more tragic 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.
In God’s providence, I happen to be an Orthodox Christian. In my case I belong to a parish under the Moscow Patriarchate. For Russian and Ukrainian Christians, one of the towering figures of Christian history is Saint Vladimir who, in the tenth century, led the people of Kiev into the River Dnieper, making it into a baptismal pool. A vivid indication of the depth of his own conversion, proof that it was not merely a political event, is that he abolished executions.
No doubt that understanding of Christian faith was a factor in one of the most impressive reforms that happened in Russia in the nineteenth century — the near abolition of capital punishment. Convicts who would have been executed were instead sent to do hard labor, mainly in Siberia. (Dostoevsky was one such prisoner.) It is striking that Russians traditionally call those in prison, no matter what their crime, not “crooks” or “villains,” but “the unfortunate.” There is an attitude of deep compassion suggested in this that is missing in American culture. One sees that attitude vividly expressed by St. John of Kronstadt (1829-1908), in his autobiography, My Life in Christ: “Never confuse the person formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”
Another saint whose life and witness ought to give Christians food for thought is Nicholas, bishop of Myra, one of the bishops who participated in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 AD. Over the centuries his life was 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, Eustathios, had condemned three men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the city outskirts, 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 where he found the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the surrounding crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Eustathios later confessed his sin. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.
Bearing witness to the baptismal requirements of the early Church is the fact that to this day Orthodox priests are forbidden to kill. If they kill, even by accident, they are forbidden to serve at the altar. It is worth considering 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 our passivity.
Perhaps Pope Francis has taken a step that will serve to help all Christians rediscover the Christ who saves lives rather than takes lives.
Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and author of many books including Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying With Icons, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment, and Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.
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