Capital punishment (commonly referred to as the death penalty) is the execution of a convicted criminal, carried out by a State. The punishment is applied in cases where someone has commited one or more capital crimes or capital offenses (i.e. murder, treason). The definition of a capital crime varies from country to country.
Capital punishment in the Bible
Supporters of capital punishment point to Genesis 9:6, which states:
"Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image."
Many also use the following passage from St. Paul as a justification for not changing capital punishment laws:
- Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities
- that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist
- will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13:1-2)1
The Issue of Capital Punishment
Capital punishment is a topic of much debate among many in the modern world. This practice however has had a long history and has often been accepted in many countries. The most common form of capital punishment is the death penalty. Moses Maimonides, wrote of capital punishment, "It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death." The ancient Babylonian culture lived by the code of Hammurabi, which called for the violent punishment or death of an offender. In today’s world there are many nations such as The United States, China, Russia, Algeria, Mongolia, Egypt, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Indonesia which have capital punishment.
The Old Testament presents us with a violent world. God gave the people of Israel a law in order to prepare them for the coming messiah. Very often this law had strict consequences. "Whoever strikes a man a mortal blow must be put to death. Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:12, 15). The LXX uses the word pataxh (coming from patasso meaning to strike) in verse 12 and typtei (coming from typto meaning to strike) in verse 15. The Hebrew text makes use of the word nakah also meaning to hit or to strike. One can see that the words used are not meaning to kill but to strike. Do we believe that striking is a penalty worthy of death?
As Orthodox Christian people it is absolutely essential to remember that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God. This should teach us that all human life is sacred because it is a gift from God. Although capital punishment is often seen as an accepted practice it opposes the basic ethical values of Christianity. The following statement comes from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese: “With more information available to us today about the consequences of capital punishment, many Christians are of the opinion that it no longer server as a deterrent to crime. Statistics of the United States show that the existence of capital punishment in some states and its absence in other states seems to have no measurable effect on the rate of various capital crimes. For a long time now, persons accused of capital crimes who can afford the legal expertise nearly always escape capital punishment. Generally speaking, only the weak, the poor, the friendless have been executed in most recent years.”
Two important things must be added to this. First of all, this is not true and faire justice where only those with money get help. Secondly, this statement helps to show how many flaws there are in capital punishment. What is a human life worth? There is something severely wrong with a society where everything becomes a matter of money. Rather than being guided by basic Christian principles many nations derive their understanding of justice from modern philosophy. “Punishment is the right of the criminal. It is an act of his own will. The violation of right has been proclaimed by the criminal as his own right. His crime is the negation of right. Punishment is the negation of this negation, and consequently an affirmation of right, solicited and forced upon the criminal himself.” (Hegel). This ideology may seem sound to many, but it is not ethical. The logic of such a statement is that two wrongs make a right. Thus, if a man attacks someone he too must be punished for his crime.
The philosopher Hegel himself believed in punishment as a means of reforming a criminal. “Hegel says that punishment itself tends to reform them. Hegel’s theory says that that it is the pain which will improve them, and therefore, although it looks on pain itself as an evil, is by no means particularly anxious to spare it, since it holds that through the pain criminals will be raised, and we therefore have no right to deny it to them” The question I feel that must be asked is what kind of a system breeds violent crimes and violent criminals. Hegel’s understanding of capital punishment is not only unjust it is also barbaric. When a society strives for the common good within, then and only then can that society begin to overcome these problems. In order for this to happen, people must first attempt to understand what in society could be a cause of the violence. Does the world of today not believe in the dignity and the value of a human life? Sadly, it seems as though the answer to this question is no. Through the gift of our free will we have been awarded the ability to grown closer to God. If a person has committed a violent crime they rightly deserve to be punished for what they have done. However, taking a person’s life is not the answer. Human beings are not capable of knowing where and how the grace of God will work. Even in a state of imprisonment the grace of God can still reach a person’s heart. This does not remove the punishment for the crime, but it does allow the possibility that the individual may see the wrong they did, repent and wish to redeem themselves.
People often forget that when a life is taken, even of a violent criminal, it is forever. Furthermore people forget that they too have a duty those people. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35, 36). As Christian people we should be visiting those in prison. Prison itself must be a horrible ordeal. Not to minimize the crime committed, but prisoners are confined, have their rights taken away and live in a setting where violence is a rampant.
As I have already stated before examining this issue people should seriously consider what is the root of the violence in society. Sociologists believe that there is a direct connection between individual raised in broken homes where violence is a strong deterrent and violent crimes. If this is true then there are other factors that need to be addressed as well. The local and state authorities need to be willing to remove children from violent homes. This type of action should not come as a random idea, for we as members of humanity should be living with strong concern for one another.
Because human life is such a precious thing, reforming must be considered as a possible alternative. What becomes the determining factor to deem that a person is beyond the possibility of reform? Through attempting to reform an individual we as a society are doing the right moral thing. It is right to attempt to transform a violent person into a peaceful one. It seems as though people in seeking the death penalty are trying in vain for justice. The crime to which the person has been jailed is already been committed. Will their death bring back someone else’s life? No it will not. Therefore it is through peaceful methods that we must try to rehabilitate violent criminals and not try to punish them.
Justice is a corrupt business in this country. Very often those who can afford justice get it. And then, is justice truly done? Justice is not some far abstract concept that is limited only for certain people. Ideally justice is for all people. People also need to ask themselves whether or not they are trying to better their society or not. People should be working for the good of the society be trying to help one another. This too can be a very difficult notion. For example, citizens in a particular community would most likely not wish to rehabilitate a serial killer, who has murdered in their neighborhood. Yet such people must realize that such a person will probably not be released into society again. However, as I have stated already all life is worth something, even the life of a serial killer is not worthless. The Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom reminds us of the feast prepared even for those that have come at the eleventh hour. Perhaps such a man, through sincere prayer and repentance, is one who arrives at the eleventh hour. This means we must allow him to come and to receive him.
In closing, it is imperative that we always remember that true justice comes from God and from him alone. Our lives here are a constant struggle to be in harmony with God. This means that we can never forget what is truly important for a moment of temporal justice. A method of rehabilitation must always be used as opposed to the torture, or execution of an individual.
The Orthodox View?
It's difficult to define the Church's exact position on capital punishment as it has become a social issue mostly during the last century. Some jurisdictions have denounced it in formal statements: for example, this 1989 Resolution on the Death Penalty released by OCA. However, capital punishment has not been either fully accepted or condemned by the Church as a whole.
- Catholicism & Capital Punishment by Avery Cardinal Dulles, First Things 112 (April 2001): 30-35 (one Roman Catholic viewpoint)
- Capital punishment on Wikipedia
- A Bishop's Opposition to Capital Punishment From a letter by Bishop Seraphim (Storheim) of Ottawa
- A View of Capital Punishment from the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States (for)
- The Orthodox Peace Fellowship on Crime, Punishment, and Reformation (against)
- 1 King James Version, in public domain. Courtesy of www.biblegateway.com