Regarding the Church’s opposition to capital punishment

by Fr. Ted Bobosh

Any pastor living in a country in which executions are still carried out is likely to be asked why the Orthodox Church throughout the world has for so many centuries opposed, and still opposes, the death penalty. It is all the more confusing to many Christians because the death penalty is sanctioned in the Old Testament. Let me try to explain, even though I am well aware that such a brief reflection cannot provide a final word.

The scriptures that sanction the death penalty are part of the 613 laws of the Jewish Torah. The keeping of these laws was understood by the Jews to be the only way to be righteous in the eyes of God. For Christians, on the other hand, righteousness is no longer attained through the keeping of the Torah. As we see in such passages as Acts 15:28-29, the keeping of the Torah is not regarded as possible or even desirable.

Jesus Himself, most of the Apostles, and nearly all the early martyrs were themselves victimized by laws allowing capital punishment.

The Christian understanding of capital punishment cannot be reduced to quoting a few Bible passages. It is rather seeing the issue in the context of the overall message and witness of Christ, who came to destroy death, the final enemy of humanity. It is this Paschal dimension of Christianity that causes Christians to proclaim the sanctity of human life. Christ died on the cross to save sinners, not to condemn or punish them. In destroying death, Christ doesn’t transform death into a useful tool for overpowering the nations of the world.

St. Paul portrayed the Christian struggle as the defeat of spiritual powers and principalities and specifically rejected the idea that our warfare was with flesh and blood. Christians are not meant to conquer the world with armed forces, like a jihad, but rather to engage in spiritual warfare for the hearts and minds of all people. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Also, we should bear in mind St. Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Satan claimed the political world was his dominion, a claim Jesus doesn’t deny.

Apart from the Gospel message and the Paschal experience, it is not surprising that capital punishment was not viewed in a positive light in the early Church for it allowed the punishment of both righteous people and those, even if not righteous, who might still find their way to conversion.

The relationship of Christians to the death penalty has a long history. For the first 325 years of Christianity, Christians were a persecuted minority with no share in government power. Christians saw many practices of the Empire as the very opposite of what was expected of those who had, through baptism, become citizens of the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom “not of this world” in which there was no capital punishment or an army sanctioned to kill anyone, not even Christ’s enemies.

Early Christians saw military service as incompatible with the life and teaching of the Crucified Christ. Likewise, from the Roman point of view, Jews and Christians were forbidden from being in the army since neither Jew nor Christian would recognize the emperor’s divinity, nor would they honor the gods of the Roman pantheon. Both the Roman Government and the Christians were in agreement that Christians could not participate in the military or in executions. Inevitably a problem arose for those like St. Martin of Tours who found their way to baptism while in the army. Martin explained to the emperor, “I am a soldier of Christ. To kill is not permissible for me.” Remarkably, in his case he was given a special discharge and went on to become one of the great bishops of the fourth century. But not all soldier converts were given a discharge – some died as martyrs.

Once emperors began to accept Christianity, a serious tension was created between the apostolic values of Christianity, which forbade killing, and the demands of the state, which sanctioned killing. In the first centuries of the Church’s existence, Christians could not be in the army nor be gladiators, could not authorize or carry out executions, nor were they permitted to commit murder in any form even in self defense.

What happened for numerous emperors and public officials who knew they might have to kill or order an execution as a consequence of their office was the postponement of baptism until they retired from office or were on their deathbeds (as was the case with Constantine) so that through baptism they would be forgiven for any killing they had done in the past and, now so close to death, would never have any role in killing once they became a Christian.

One can see in the New Testament the struggle of Christians with government authority. St. Paul writes:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:1-4)

St. Paul assumes that government is necessary for civilization to exist and so Christians should have a proper respect for such a God-authorized institution, including the government’s authority to punish wrongdoers. His statement is exceptional, because Jews in general did not defend Roman authority in their lives. But, as many have noted, Paul oversimplified his case. He does not take into account government persecution of Christians (he may have written his letter before persecution of Christians had begun) or the possibility of an evil government punishing good citizens. Note, however, that for St. Paul government authority is limited – it is not supreme or divine in itself; the emperor is not divine, just God’s servant – but receives its power from a higher authority, the one God, to whom it must answer. He is in fact making a case for the Lordship of God over government, even over a pagan government or an emperor who was considered a deity.

One need only look at the Book of Revelations, written when persecution was in full swing, to see a Christian view in which the government, far from being blessed by God, is identified with Satan and all that is evil. Since most ancient governments were totalitarian, by the time Revelations was written early Christians no doubt assumed they would always be dealing with such a grim reality – as indeed they have, time and again, down through the centuries right to our own day. One could hope for a benevolent and just government, but even if the government opposed all righteousness, Christians would have to live with that. After all, their real citizenship was not in a kingdom of this world. The martyrs gave the most powerful witness of being citizens only of the kingdom of heaven – a witness many Christians are still giving even in the present day. It is no surprise that Christians living in situations of oppression view capital punishment as a tool of oppression that has the approval of the devil himself.

After Constantine’s conversion came the time of government officials and emperors who had been either raised in Christian families or been baptized as adults. Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Virtually all public officials were Christians. At the beginning of the fourth century, it was forbidden both by Christians and by the Roman government for Christians to be in the military, but by the end of that century, the Roman government required everyone in the army to be Christian. The Church faced the reality that its members would be killing others or authorizing killing. In the centuries which followed, a reality emerged which Christians of earlier generations could never have imagined: an all-Christian army.

Christians struggled with this new reality. Many found it intolerable. To a large extent, the monastic movement was a reaction against imperial Christianity. Not only monks but many others felt that the values of the Kingdom of God were incompatible with the values of the Roman Empire. One of the attractions of flight to the desert was that, in desolate places, one was out of reach of imperial interference.

Despite the monastic protest, the embrace of the Church by the Empire was completed. Many Christians now found themselves in positions where they had to participate, directly or indirectly, in killing others, or face severe punishment.

St. John Chrysostom remarked, “Our warfare is to make the dead to live, not to make the living dead.” Like many others, he was troubled by the Church and state becoming identical. It is hardly surprising that he suffered so much at the hands of the state.

St. Basil the Great lamented the situation by declaring that Christians could serve in the army if called by the state to do so, but then afterward they had to serve a three-year penitential excommunication for having participated in such activity – even if they had not actually killed anyone. No matter what their role, they had been part of activity that led to others being killed and thus had to repent. St. Basil saw the continuing need for the military as a terrible consequence of the failure of Christians to convert the world.

The Byzantines believed that somehow as Christians they were to create an empire “on earth as it is in heaven.” Their earthly empire was to conform to their notions of heaven – including love, forgiveness and mercy. But this ideal proved impossible to realize, especially since they found themselves so often threatened by invading armies – Persian, Arab, Rus, Bulgar, Turk, and Latin armies. Short of surrender, the Byzantines found it all but impossible to uphold purely Christian practices in dealing with their enemies.

Christians, no matter what their rank. St. Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, when he accepted Christianity and was baptized, abolished the death penalty in his kingdom, on the grounds that it was incompatible with Christian faith. He did not want to be responsible before God for deaths that were committed in his name or by his decree. Two of his sons, Boris and Gleb, the first saints to be canonized by the Church in Russia, preferred to accept death rather than defend themselves against their murderous and ambitious brother, Sviatopolk.

Even once the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, there was a real struggle with the Christian message and Christian ideal about life and how it relates to such things as capital punishment. The Canons of the Church command bishops, as part of their normal duties, to go to the courts and plead for mercy for prisoners and the condemned. Church buildings throughout the empire became sanctuaries, where persecuted and condemned people could take refuge. In this same tradition, all the Orthodox Patriarchs and self-governing Churches still condemn the death penalty as an excessive power abuse by human governments.

This does not change the reality that we live in a fallen world, in which not only individual people do evil, but evil is a force to be reckoned with by both Church and governments. Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from murderous people within the society. Armies and wars are part of this fallen world, and, though undesirable, can in some cases be seen as a “lesser of two evils” or an “evil necessity,” but an evil nonetheless.

Jesus said there is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life for his friends. Strangely, many Christians have come to understand these words as a justification of warfare, though the statement only blesses dying on behalf of others, not killing to protect them.

Since the basic message of Christianity is forgiveness, mercy, love, peace, and the defeat of death itself, Christians have had a fairly consistent belief in the sanctity of human life and have struggled with the use of capital punishment and armies to deal with the evil present in the world. Christ did not teach his disciples to kill anyone, nor did he advocate warfare or killing as a means to spread His faith, nor indeed did he bless any of his followers to kill. He even gave the example of rescuing from death a woman who was awaiting her execution by stoning. The early Christians conquered the Roman Empire without having any army or police on their side and without killing anyone.

Sadly, it is true that once the Christians came into power within the Roman Empire, some of them were not shy to use and rely on the police to enforce their teachings and to persecute nonconformists, heretics and non-Christians. Constantine placed the police at the disposal of Christian leaders, and Constantine demanded the Christians to conform to a uniformity of belief and practice which they had never had before his embrace of Christianity. Constantine used his powers exactly as he had as a pagan – there was no change in his totalitarian methods even after he granted toleration to Christianity. He even had his own son killed, when he believed his son had become a threat to his reign.

Perhaps because the Christians were not prepared to be regarded so favorably by the government, or because they didn’t take time to envision what a Christianized government would look like, many uncritically accepted the old ways of government as the inevitable ways of government and the only possible way of governing.

The partnership of Church and State ended up with a large scale acceptance by Christians of government practices that were in most respects unchanged from pre-Christian times, though over time efforts were made by the emperors to modify some old practices – crucifixion as a form of capital punishment was abolished and gladiator fights and chariot races abolished.

Let me make a personal confession: I was present when, a number of years ago, the All American Council of the Orthodox Church in America took up the issue of the death penalty. Ours was at the time perhaps the only Orthodox body in the world which had not spoken out against capital punishment. A vote taken of the delegates solidly favored opposing the death penalty. I regret to say I was in the minority which voted against that resolution. My opposition stemmed from the fact that I could imagine people who would only see our mercy as weakness and who would move to destroy us when they could and who would show no mercy to us and would be quite willing to kill us since we hadn’t killed them. I could even imagine filling our prisons with such people and then not being able to control these prison populations. However, since that time I have been converted to the view of the early Church. I believe the execution of prisoners, even of murderers, is incompatible with the Gospel. This change occurred in me even as I watch al-Qaeda in action, well aware that those who embrace that movement would kill me in a second, both because I am a Christian and an American. But I do not want to become like them, embracing their values and methods. I want to be more Christ-like. I am a disciple of the Crucified Christ. God is the giver of life while evil is the destroyer of life. Human life is sacred and sanctified, even though any human being can become distorted by evil.

One Byzantine emperor boasted that his Christ-loving army could destroy evil. It never happened. Neither evil nor the evil one can be defeated by war or the death penalty. I have come to accept that the battle with evil will continue on earth until Christ comes in His Kingdom and the final enemy, death, has its final defeat. Meanwhile I will sing, “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death.”

Fr. Ted Bobosh is the pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church in Dayton, Ohio. His most recent book, Questioning God: a Look at Genesis 1-3, is published by Light & Life.

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49