Blessed are the Meek: Capital Punishment and the Gospel

by Fr. Thomas Mueller

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall loveyour neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies…”

Mt 5:43

In September 1995 the Wisconsin state legislature once again considered enacting capital punishment. Wisconsin abolished capital punishment 141 years ago. Of course, states can enact such laws as the majority endorses. These laws may be morally good, neutral, or evil. A new capital punishment statute would put the state in the business of killing. What is most appalling is the fact that many religious people are saying that capital punishment is morally good, righteous, and even compatible with the Gospel. Some political organizations that label themselves Christian loudly advocate capital punishment as well. If the state conducts executions, it will be another triumph of violence. That will be one thing. But for Christians to promote such state violence is another thing. And this is the unrighteousness I address — not that of a violent state, but that of Christians.

I am grateful that the Orthodox Church in America, at its All American Council in St. Louis in 1989, passed resolutions condemning both abortion and capital punishment as unrighteous and evil. Both are killing. The distinction of innocent and guilty victims, that it’s evil to kill the first and all right to kill the second, is not a New Testament concept at all. Some use such a distinction to condemn abortion on the one hand (as it must be condemned) and then to advocate capital punishment at the same time. Such a distinction and contradiction cannot be found in the Gospel or justified by it. In reality, all such killing harms not only its victims, but also its perpetrators — and the society that espouses it.

In the case of capital punishment, the basic motive (if truth be told) is not deterrence but retribution — vengeance, to use a less polite word. In fact, the public outcry for capital punishment is clearly and admittedly a cry for vengeance. Vengeance not by God at the Last Judgment, but by men here and now. We can find many references to such vengeance in the Old Testament; but how can the Gospel of Christ be twisted and misconstrued to justify it? Can the spirit of the Gospel be so misinterpreted? What’s more, how can those who claim to be Biblical literalists and fundamentalists so ignore the direct meaning of Jesus’ words? To his credit, Pope John Paul II in his recent encyclical calls both abortion and capital punishment evils, unconscionable acts of violence.

The Gospel’s Testimony on Killing & Vengeance

“And forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12)

“Forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” (Lk. 11:14)

What are we to say to the condemned criminal? We forgive you, but now die to pay your debt to society? To kill is an act of absolute unforgiveness. In killing, we do not affirm life but attempt to destroy it. Whatever worldly sense this may make to some people, it cannot be squared with Christ’s words, or with our taking them to our mouths in prayer — the Lord’s Prayer.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…” (Matt. 5:5)

Before someone suggests that a prosecuting attorney can call for the death sentence in a meek way, or the judge meekly pass a sentence of death, or the executioner carry out the state-sanctioned killing in all meekness, let us look at what the Greek word — – used in the Gospel implies. When Plato used the word “meek,” he referred to people who are mild and gentle rather than hard or violent. For Epictetus, it indicated a nature that is not inclined to become embittered or angry at what is unjust: the attribute of a generous and magnanimous soul. In the Septuagint, which is the Greek Old Testament, the prophets use the word to describe those who endure the severity of exile with patience and hope that God — not man– will eventually bring forth justice.

“For I will leave in the midst of you a meek and lowly people. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord, those who are left in Israel… For they shall pasture and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” (Zepheniah 3:12-13)

God expects his faithful people to be meek and lowly. He will bring justice and peace to them — not in this age, but in the age to come.

The clearest interpretation for Jesus’ use of the word “meek” is seen in Psalm 37 (LXX 36:8-11):

“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off; but those who wait for the Lord will possess the land. Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more. Though you look well at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in an abundance of peace.”

The psalm tells us to leave vindication to God. We are to be meek –gentle, patient, long-suffering — until God brings about His justice in His time. Will the state ever exist in such patient meekness? Evidently not — but the state belongs to this age which is passing away. Christians belong to the age to come. It cannot be Gospel-loving Christians who cry out for the state to carry out vengeance. It is the meek, not those who demand an eye for an eye, who are the blessed inheritors of the Kingdom. So says the Word of God. In fact, He says that He Himself is “meek and lowly in heart,” and that we are to take up ourselves the “light” and “easy” yoke of this lowly meekness. (Matt. 11:29)

Jesus is the King who comes to us “meek and sitting upon an ass.” (Mt 21:5) The mission of Jesus takes place on earth in lowliness and meekness. His life is not a life at court. In Matthew 21:5, the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is depicted as that of a nonviolent, non-warlike king of salvation and peace. In this respect, Jesus stands radically opposed to the Zealots and to all champions of a political Messianism.

In the Beatitude of Matthew 5:5 we read of the “meek” who, out of their oppressed situation, depend not on their own will but the gracious will of God. To them Jesus promises the inheritance of the coming aeon, which includes secure dwelling in their own land. (V. Hauck, S. Schulz, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VI, p. 649)

We who assume the name Christian are to follow Him in the way of meekness and lowliness. We cannot venerate the Lord while we follow a way other than the one He treads before us.

On several occasions, Jesus Christ comes face to face with the issue of violence for retribution or self-defense, with the issue of capital punishment. In John 8, Jesus comes to the Temple, sits down as a rabbi would, and teaches the people. The scribes and Pharisees gather to put Him to the test. They bring forward a woman caught in adultery, presumably a married woman. The penalty prescribed for this in Deuteronomy 22 is death by stoning. (There are still some countries, like Saudi Arabia, where adultery is a capital offense for women today.)

As we know from John 18:31, the Romans had taken away from the Jews the right to administer capital punishment. The hypocrites who test Jesus ask him about applying the Deuteronomic law, and demand, “What do you say about her?” This is meant as a trap for Jesus, involving both the Jewish law and the prerogatives of the Roman state. But Jesus simply bends down and writes with his finger on the ground, just as His divine finger once inscribed the Law upon the tablets of stone on Sinai. Then He says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again He bends down to write in the dust.

The words He writes send the strict enforcers of the law of retribution stealing away in silent confusion. Jesus asks the condemned woman: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers, “No one, Lord.” No one — neither the self-righteous nor God. “Neither, do I condemn you,” He says. “Go and do not sin again.” (John 8:2-11)

The point is this: The Word of God foregoes enforcement of the strict law of retribution. This is not just a personal commutation of sentence. For He also dispels the condemners who would take God’s authority over life and death upon themselves. To avoid falling prematurely into a political trap, Jesus does this silently, by shaming the devotees of capital punishment. By His actions He sets aside the law of retaliation.

Likewise, in the Sermon on the Mount, He overturns the principle of retaliation (Exodus 21:24, Deuteronomy 19:21):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth… ‘But I say to you: Do not resist one who is evil. But, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38-39)

Do you see how much farther the Word of God goes than just forbidding vengeance? He commands forgiveness and even love of persecutors. (Matt. 5:43-44, Luke 6:27-28) We poor sinners may fail to carry out this command, but let us not confuse the spirit of the Gospel with the barbaric cry for blood-vengeance that rise from the same mouths that dare to say, “Our Father… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Jesus Provides the Example

Does Jesus merely tell us how to deal with those who offend and transgress? No. He provides the example that we can only set aside if we want to give up Christ altogether and return to the Old Law. When the evildoers come to seize Him in Gethsemane so that they can inflict upon Him an unjust death, an apostle takes a sword and slashes off the ear of one of those who come to seize and slay the Son of God. But Jesus says to him: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52) Then, according to Luke 22:51, He touches the ear of the wounded man and heals him.

The constant interpretation of this passage in early Christian times was that wielders of the sword of vengeance — the judge, the executioner, (by modern standards, the judge or jurist seeking the death penalty) — all these fall under this threat. They all participate, as the murderous criminal does, in the shedding of blood, the taking of life. And they too become marked by the experience, cursed by their own bloodletting.

St. Cyprian, the third century bishop-martyr of Carthage, makes it clear that it doesn’t matter whether the murderous retaliation comes from an individual or from the state. Killing is killing.

The world is drenched with mutual bloodshed. When individuals slay a man, it is a crime. When killing takes place on behalf of the state, it is called a virtue. (To Donatus, 6)

Whether or not the state sanctions it, says St. Cyprian, the Christian can have no part in the shedding of blood: “…after the reception of the Eucharist, the hand is not to be stained with the sword or bloodshed.” (On the Goodness of Patience, 14)

Finally, we have Jesus’ ultimate sermon of active love on the cross. The mob cries out for capital punishment for him, marking themselves with blood: “His blood be on us.” (Matt. 27:25) They call for the death penalty for Him — one of the countless times from that day to this that innocent people have been sentenced by courts to die. But the God-Man, hanging beaten, mocked, and naked upon the cross, wants no vengeance. His words resound in our ears and throughout all time, the living testimony of God for all who really look to Him to know the way of life: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24)

Not avenge them, not slay them, but “forgive them.” The answer to this question of capital punishment, and to every question of violence, is not to be found in the words of political theorists, of demagogues, of talk show babblers, or even of the aggrieved victims of violent crime. The answer is to be found in the words and actions of Jesus Christ, who is always the Father’s positive answer, His “Yes” to life.

Fr. Thomas Mueller is pastor of SS Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Dean of the Chicago Deanery of the Orthodox Church of America. He is a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.