Is support of the death penalty Christian?

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Is there any problem with being pro-life and supporting the death penalty? I didn't think so, until a conversation years ago got me thinking. I was talking with friends about "Sanctity of Life Sunday" -- the annual day my church sets aside to pray for an end to abortion.

Their response: "If Orthodoxy values the sanctity of life, why does it say nothing about capital punishment?"

I objected that it was absurd to equate the value of the unborn with those who've killed. They've forfeited life's gift by taking it.

But the exchange left me unnerved, so I asked my priest exactly what our church's teaching on the death penalty was.

To my frustration, he replied that there isn't one answer. He knew of no explicit statement in church councils or other sources of tradition, but encouraged me to research for myself.

He did offer that when Prince Vladimir of Kiev embraced Orthodoxy in 988, he abolished executions in his realm, as he found them incompatible with a society that had turned toward Christ. To my chagrin, I couldn't dismiss St. Vladimir as a liberal.

So, I started looking for precedents, and found the same of Byzantium: as Rome turned to Christ, it not only rejected abortion, and exposure of infants -- but largely abandoned executions (especially crucifixion, for obvious reasons), in favor of penal servitude, exile and "life in prison, without parole."

Orthodox societies generally declined to execute even those who'd forfeited all expectation of mercy. This stemmed not from any sense that capital offenders were themselves victims, but from a sense that their lives belong to God alone.

Meanwhile, theological arguments for capital punishment failed to address that concern -- even the precedent that executions are repeatedly mandated in the Old Testament. That is God's Word, but must be understood in light of the Gospel, which shows less interest in the deaths of sinners.

More evidence emerged from church fathers. In his homilies on Cain and Abel, Ambrose of Milan asks why God spares the life of the first murderer, even marking him so others won't slay him.

His conclusion: to teach us that, "The person who hasn't spared the life of a sinner has begrudged him the opportunity for remission of sins and deprived him of all hope. He, will in fact be subject in equal measure to divine justice." Executing a murderer deprives them of repentance, and is itself a sin.

Slowly, my support for capital punishment was chipped away by examining historic Christian norms.

Perhaps if pro-lifers are called hypocrites for supporting capital punishment -- and progressives for thinking it's okay to abort "fetuses" while murderers deserve life -- then both are half wrong? Perhaps all life is God's gift, and shouldn't be taken away -- not because of what that says about the condemned, but about us.

Historic Christianity isn't so silent on executions after all. And if America ended them, that would be quite Christian.

Nina9/3/2019 2:55 pm
What the Westerners who live comfortable lifestyles seem to miss is that our contexts are not the same. As we speak, my city is burning because people feel powerless, and they are now taking the law into their own hands. Blood has spilled in townships and villages because the residents no longer feel safe living side by side with murderers and rapists of children. They are doing what the State has failed to do. I do not support mob justice, as it leads to chaos - but it occurred to me that mob justice does not arise in a vacuum. I'm not very concerned about what a murderer of helpless babies thinks about my stance, I just pray to God that in the midst of what is happening in my country, may the passions not overtake me.
Rdr Andreas Moran2/17/2018 12:28 pm
We should not refer only to the Old Testament law about the death penalty. In the Gospel of John (8:1-11), we read that Christ answered those who would have inflicted the death penalty by stoning on the woman taken in adultery (no mention of the man - it takes two) by inviting those without sin to cast the first stone. I would ask again: what is the purpose of the death penalty in the USA?
Misha Pennington2/16/2018 9:43 pm
It is simply not possible to consider evil something which God Himself ordered as a just penalty in the Old Testament. No one is holier than God. I mean, that is the ultimate "Holier than thou" attitude, is it not?

That is not to say that anything in Christianity militates in favor of the death penalty either. God decreed, "Thou shalt do no murder." (which is the proper translation of that commandment). Thereafter, He specifically directed that intentional murder was to be punished by execution.

So one could say this much: It is disingenuous to oppose the death penalty as contrary to Christianity. Yet there is nothing unchristian about opposing the death penalty.
Laskarina2/15/2018 11:19 pm
Obviously if you murder a murderer it is still murder. "thou shalt not kill".

But a criminal can be kept from harming others by imprisonment or penal labor.

In some states in America, even children have been killed by the state.
Castrese Tipaldi2/15/2018 4:27 pm
"How ending the death penalty and baptizing with fire and sword go together--a question for the experts."....Maybe they go together as Christian subjects to Caesar and enemies of God all around them, by whom they must be defended and preserved. When the Israelites disobeyed the direct command of God to exterminate the Cananites for good, they ended up defiled and lead astray by those whom they spared. Anyway, a fig for the "experts".
Rdr Andreas Moran2/15/2018 2:19 pm
This is a peculiarly American question since no other western or European country has the death penalty. Given the murder rates in the US - and we just now have in mind the tragedy in Florida - one has to ask, what is the purpose of the death penalty in the US? Clearly, it is not to deter murder since it does not deter. So, what is the purpose? If the purpose can be identified, one then has to ask if the purpose has any Christian basis.

Editor2/14/2018 3:55 pm
Adrian: Slightly mixed up facts, partly true. The Chronicles say that St. Vladimir baptised Novgorod with fire and the sword, but in Kiev it all happened peacefully, without any force or executions. There were many secret Christians already living in Kiev before Vladimir. Novgorod was deeply rooted in paganism. I don't think he started human sacrifice in Kiev--it existed among some pagan groups but not all. He did do away with the death penalty, but as I read, his Byzantine instructors told him that this was not necessary and could even be harmful to the law and order of the state. How ending the death penalty and baptizing with fire and sword go together--a question for the experts.
Adrian Fekula2/14/2018 3:19 pm
I personally object to the death penalty, but, and forgive my ignorance if I'm misremembering, doesn't the Primary Chronicle say that St. Vladimir converted Kiev by the sword and Novgorod by fire (or vice verse, again, I could be wrong as I read this a long time ago). The chronicle seems to say he forced his population to convert to Orthodoxy through force and violence, and, it seems, executions. He definitely ended (and previously started) human sacrifice, but could it be that the belief that he ended executions be a later view that imposed more modern sensibilities on a medieval person? Thank you!
Seth Murray2/14/2018 8:41 am
Fr. Barnabas' reflection is interesting. An element that he might reflect upon further is when capital punishment is, in a sense, a kind of self-defense. That is, there are people who will simply continue to attack and kill other people, and about the only thing you can do to get them to stop is to kill them. One might say, "we can just keep them in prison." Okay, but then they go about killing other prisoners.
Anthony 2/14/2018 8:19 am
@Mr Castrese T. Greetings beloved! I kiss your hand. I think your stance is, well rather queer. After all, you insinuate that when God has meted out judgement by death, then it is man's prerogative to act, well like God. What!?! Who made man the author of life and death. God only gave man as a gift the ability to create life. Not to take that life away. That is God's prerogative and in most circumstances, only occurs when all else fails.
Brad Tindall2/13/2018 8:22 pm
If only capital punishment was justice in any sense. It's not; rather, it's vengeance, and we all know whose prerogative that is.
Leon "Master of Space and Time" Russell2/13/2018 5:09 pm
When St. Maximus the Confessor stood before the throne, he said something to the effect of, "Look, I know you have the right given to you by God to execute me..."
Thomas Hamilton2/13/2018 3:07 pm
Second, St. Paul, when speaking of the prerogatives which God has given the state in Romans 13, speaks of them as bearing the "sword of vengeance." Given that the Roman Empire actively implemented the death penalty and that St. Paul, being immersed in the scripture, knew that it was mandated by God in the Old Testament, it becomes special pleading to argue that this simply must be a metaphor for something else. There was, in fact, as Ed Feser points out, a consensus among the Holy Fathers that the death penalty was the prerogative of the state in principle, even as they were cautious about the way it was implemented in practice.
Thomas Hamilton2/13/2018 3:04 pm
This article misses the rather crucial fact that after St. Vladimir abolished the death penalty, the bishops of the Russian Church asked him to reinstate it. Nor did the Christian Roman Empire ever abolish the death penalty, even as it became more judicious and careful in its use, abandoning many of the brutal punishments which had prevailed in the pagan period. In terms of the scriptural evidence, there are a couple of relevant facts. First, the command to institute the death penalty was not instituted in the Mosaic law, but with Noah, and so through him for all nations. "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed."
Anthony 2/13/2018 2:35 pm
''And if America ended them, that would be quite Christian.'' Hello good morning. Well America isn't Christian by any stretch of the imagination. We witnessed that in full glory once again when the two Koreas went out side by side at the Winter Olympics with the entire stadium cheering in rapturous applause, whilst the American vice president refused to stand up, completely enraged by the show of peace and unity. As St Paisios termed Americans: ''killers of people.''
Castrese Tipaldi2/13/2018 1:59 pm
It is also extremely disturbing the hypocrisy of comparing God-fearing pro-life people and all the snowflakes engaged in an implacable teomachy. The first fight to preserve the most innocent of the creatures of God and to punish the most wicked of them (bowing to the Statutes of God); the second fight to kill the innocent and preserve the murderers, unleashing them anew among the people (the usual statanic inversion of the Truth!). Fr. Barnaba somehow has forgotten to notice it..... Let's pray for him!
Castrese Tipaldi2/13/2018 1:44 pm
It's also completely untrue that executing a murderer you are depriving him of the possibility to repent. Before the execution is carried on, he has plenty of time (above all nowadays) to repent. In fact, facing his impending death, he is helped to think of his eternal lot. St. Ambrose somehow forgot even the wise robber.... I would fear above all to put again in circulation a murderer, because I am not sure if the blood of his (eventual) new victims would not be on me also.
Castrese Tipaldi2/13/2018 1:34 pm
“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man."

Thus God said in the (new) covenant with the holy Patriarch Noah, just after He carried out an universal execution against evildoers. St. Ambrose somehow forgot that...
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