Is There Room for Capital Punishment in our Theology of the Cross
It is easier for a feeble straw to resist a mighty fire than for the nature of sin to resist the power of love. We must cultivate this love in our souls, that we may take our place with all the saints, for they were all-pleasing unto God through their love for their neighbor.
– Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr
This is a powerful quote, but even more powerful when taken within the context of her life. Her story is compelling to me for several reasons. Like me she was Protestant; unlike me she was royalty. Her husband, a Grand Duke, was Orthodox and when they married, they had two wedding services—an Orthodox service and a Lutheran service. On her own volition Elizabeth became Orthodox after a couple years of devotion to studying the faith.
Most compelling to me about Saint Elizabeth is her response to the terrorist who killed her husband on February 4th, 1905. After seeing her husband’s body blown to pieces from a terrorist bomb, her response to this horrific and tragic event makes her words ever so sweet, like myrrh washing over my heart, so full of anger, bitterness and rage. Readers can find a more detailed account of her story here (http://incommunion.org/2007/08/04/lest-guilty-blood-be-shed/), but in short, after keeping vigil for two days by her husband’s coffin, it was impressed upon her (by her deceased husband) to go to the terrorist who was responsible and to forgive him. Needless to say he wasn’t very welcoming to her invitation for forgiveness. Elizabeth so loved the man who murdered her husband that she pleaded to Tsar Nicholas not no execute the man for his crimes, despite his lack of remorse.
As a foolish catechumen in the Orthodox Church, I must confess that at times, I find Orthodoxy can be a bit frustrating. Today, with access for lay people to so much information, the idea that the Orthodox Faith stands in complete unity seems quite misleading. There are a lot of voices out there and many come from dear brothers who have been Orthodox much longer than I. This includes Priests, Bishops, Metropolitans, the Fathers, etc. Oddly enough my fellow laymen also want to tell me what is and isn’t Orthodox and be the first to let me know when I’m on the edge of a supposed heresy.
Recently, I was in conversation with one of my beloved Orthodox brethren. We discussed war and killing people in self-defense. WWIII seems to be upon us, so this is a hot-button topic. The conversation became really odd and the next thing I knew, we were talking about whether or not we will eat meat in heaven, and it was suggested to me that God permits killing animals, so likewise, we should permit killing in self-defense. The conversation led to Capital Punishment in the OT scriptures and my friend offered this theological reflection from a Jewish Scholar.
There are several strong arguments for the case that the sixth commandment should be translated as “Thou shalt not murder.” First, the verb used in the Torah commandment is "ratsah," which generally is translated as murder and refers only to criminal acts of killing a human being. The word "kill" generally refers to the taking of life for all classes of victims and for all reasons. This generalization is expressed through a different Hebrew verb "harag."
If "Thou shalt not kill" were the proper translation, no person who took the Ten Commandments seriously could kill in self defense, even if it meant loss of the threatened person’s life, or could kill in warfare, even if his or her country were attacked. There could be no capital punishment no matter how horrible a person’s crimes were. Clearly there are cases where the Torah permits the taking of a human life.”
I have to admit this is a bit convincing, but something in my heart also says it’s absolutely wrong. What if I had just left it there, allowing my brother to be my teacher and informant about what the Orthodox Faith actually teaches concerning capital punishment?
After much digging, I want to share what I discovered concerning what the Church has actually said concerning capital punishment. I found that capital punishment has actually been formally condemned in the Orthodox Church. I hope you find this helpful:
*This information is compiled from Danny Abbott’s summary, found in the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
In “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” adopted by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, the death penalty is condemned, in part because it denies the criminal the opportunity for repentance:
The Orthodox Church in America condemned capital punishment without exception at its All American Council held in St. Louis in 1989:
Statements from Church Hierarchs
Patriarch Alexei likened the death penalty to premeditated murder:
The Patriarch of Georgia condemned death penalty:
Metropolitan Herman of the Orthodox Church in America issued a statement condemning capital punishment, euthanasia and capital punishment in January 2005:
Metropolitan Evangelos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese applauded the State of New Jersey for being the first state to abolish the death penalty since its reinstatement in the 1970s:
Archbishop of Athens Christodoulos condemned capital punishment and called for its abolition:
Various Bishops condemn capital punishment
The Archbishop of Ottawa and Canada (OCA) condemned capital punishment:
Bishop Demitrios (GOA) condemned capital punishment:
Other Orthodox condemnations of capital punishment
Pan-Orthodox Sanctity of Life Prayer Service at St. George Antiochian Church condemns capital punishment, euthanasia, and abortion: http://www.romarch.org/news.php?id=1540 . In attendance were His Eminence Metropolitan Iakovos from the Greek Metropolis of Chicago, His Eminence Archbishop Nicolae, and His Grace Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos.