by Fr. Ted Bobosh
The relationship of Christians to the death penalty has a long history. It is not as simple as finding a passage in the Bible that allows or forbids capital punishment. It is much more the overall message of Christ – he who came to destroy death – which allows Christians to proclaim the sanctity of human life. Christ died on the cross to save sinners, not to condemn or kill them. In conquering death, He didn’t intend for those following him to make death into a tool for overpowering the nations of the world.
St. Paul portrayed the Christian struggle as the defeat of spiritual powers and principalities (Eph 6:12), rejecting any idea that our warfare is with flesh and blood. Christianity does not seek to conquer the world with the police and military, but has to engage in a spiritual warfare for the hearts and minds of all people.
The Scriptures that specifically sanction the death penalty are all 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, nor does Christianity see the keeping of the Torah as possible or even desirable. The basic stance of the New Testament is that the Law never enabled anyone to become righteous. The basic Christian message is that grace, truth, salvation and righteousness come through Jesus Christ, not through the keeping of the Law.
For the first 325 years of Christianity, Christians were a persecuted minority who had no share in government power. Christians were acutely aware that Christ’s Kingdom was not of this world, a Kingdom with neither capital punishment nor armies. They saw killing of any kind as incompatible with Christian values.
Once emperors began to accept Christianity, a serious tension was created between the state and the values of Christianity. As a result, numerous public officials (Constantine being the prime example) put off baptism until retirement or the end of life, as they saw no way to carry out their duties without taking life, or ordering events in which deaths were inevitable. At the beginning of the fourth century, it was forbidden for Christians to be in the army. By the end of the fourth century, the Roman government required everyone in the army to be Christian.
Christians struggled with their new role and status in society. Many were not comfortable with it. The monastic movement to a large extent can be seen as a protest movement against the imperial-state Church. Many who fled to the desert considered the values of the Kingdom of God were incompatible with the values and methods of the Roman Empire.
Many Church leaders refused to be silent about the incompatibility of the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. St. John Chrysostom remarked, “Our warfare is to make the dead live, not to make the living dead.”
Even once the empires embraced Christianity, there was a real struggle with the Christian message and Christian ideal about life and how it relates to such issues as capital punishment. The Canons of the Church require bishops, as part of their normal duties, to go to the courts and plead for mercy for prisoners and for the condemned. Church buildings throughout the empire became sanctuaries, where persecuted and condemned people could take refuge to seek protection by the Church against the state.
I know of no Orthodox jurisdiction that advocates the death penalty. This does not mean the Church ignores the fact that we live in a fallen world, in which not only do people do evil, but evil is a force to be reckoned with both by the Church and by governments. Governments have a duty to protect their citizens from murderous people.
Since the basic message of Christianity is forgiveness, mercy, love, peace, and the defeat of death itself, Christians have had a remarkably consistent belief in the sanctity of human life and have never “baptized” killing, either of enemies or criminals, as a means of giving witness to Christ and his Kingdom. Christ did not bless or teach his disciples to kill anyone, nor, unlike Muhammad, did he advocate killing as a means to spread His faith. The early Christians conquered the Roman Empire without having any army or police on their side and without shedding anyone’s blood.
A personal note: I have not always opposed executions. Only slowly have I come to accept consistent pro-life thinking and to realize that the execution of prisoners is incompatible with the Gospel. This has occurred in me even though I know there are terrorist groups that would kill me in a second simply for being a Christian and an American. But I do not want to become like them, nor to embrace their values or methods. I want to be more Christ-like – a disciple of the Crucified Christ, not of those who crucify. ❖
Fr. Ted Bobosh, a longtime member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is rector of St. Paul’s Orthodox Church in Dayton, Ohio. The full text of his article is on the OCA web site:
Spring Issue IC 56/ PASCHA 2010