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Orthodoxy and Capital Punishment

At 9:13pm on Thursday, September 23rd the Commonwealth of Virginia executed 41 year old Teresa Lewis. She was convicted of plotting to kill her husband and step son and she became the first woman in 100 years to be executed in Virginia and the 12th woman in the United States to be executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Just for informational purposes, the United States ranks between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the number of executions.  There are two countries we want to be between!

Without dwelling on the facts of the case mentioned above, let us look at the view of the Orthodox Church towards Capital Punishment. Just a reminder that there is no single head that speaks for the Orthodox Church and each bishop is entitled to interpret church teaching and Scripture as he sees fit for his particular jurisdiction. However both the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in North and South America as well as the Orthodox Church in America have statements that condemn capital punishment. For this article I will be using the book, Contemporary Moral Issues Facing the Orthodox Christian written by Fr. Stanley Harakas. Fr. Harakas is a significant resource of Orthodox Ethics in the United States today.

Leviticus tell us in chapter 24 “an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth” also in Exodus 21 we read, “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” That would be pretty clear evidence that Scripture allows the death penalty for certain crimes. I will also admit that the State has the right to do whatever it wants. We however as Christians can influence the State as these things are done in our name.

The entire theory of capital punishment is based on retribution. All systems of law as far back as one can be certain espouse this right of the state. However, Jesus teaches that retribution is not right in the love that we are to have toward our neighbor and in St. Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5 he addresses this directly with these words, “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… love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Christians have always been opposed to capital punishment because it is the taking of a life, life that is created in the image and likeness of God. The clearest statement comes from the early Christian author Lactantius who lived between 240 and 320 AD.

“When God prohibits killing, He not only forbids us to commit brigandage, which is not allowed even by the public laws, but He warns us not to do even those things which are regarded as legal among men… and so it will not be lawful for a just man… to accuse anyone of a capital offense, because it makes no difference whether thou kill with a sword or with a word, since killing itself is forbidden. And so, in this commandment of God, no exception at all ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a man, who God has wished to be regarded as a sacrosanct creature.” (Institutes VI, XX, 15)

More recently, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has this to say regarding capital punishment, “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.”

I have said before that the state has a right to do what the state wishes to do in this regard however from a Christian point of view if the state chooses to employ these methods then they ought to be consistently enforced. In the words of Fr. Harakas, “It is clear that in America we are not willing to do that.” We Christians have an enormous voice in American society and the way we can change things is by changing the society at large. I maintain that we should not be trying to influence legislation but we should be influencing the society at large by our teachings and our witness.

The bottom line in all of this is that each and every life is precious from conception until it’s natural death. Capital punishment not only plays into retribution but it eliminates the possibility for reconciliation another very important aspect of the life of a Christian. We now have the ability to keep a person incarcerated for the rest of their natural life so the need for capital punishment no longer applies.

Scripture empowers us, or should I say commands us, to visit those in prison. Therefore we have an obligation to be concerned about those in prison. Christians need to concern themselves not only with capital punishment but also prison reform. If the idea behind prisons are to reform and correct then we need to insure that this is being done.

Pray for the soul of Teresa Lewis and pray for the souls of those whose lives were lost because of her actions. May their memories be eternal.

This article was originally published on the Fr. Peter-Michael Prebble blog.

V. Rev. Fr. Peter-Michael Preble is the Pastor of St. Michael’s Orthodox Christian Church in Southbridge, Massachusetts and the host of the Shepherd of Souls syndicated radio program. Visit Fr. Peter's blog.

Published: September 28, 2010

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