Polska wersja tego artykułu jest dostępna tutaj.
not to make the living dead, said St. John Chrysostom. Recently we celebrated the Day Against the Death Penalty, the world one and its European equivalent officially introduced by the Council of Europe. What is significant, Poland, as an exception among the nations, protested against its introduction, for which of course I am in a way ashamed. It was said that there is no necessity to make such a manifest, because the death penalty is practically not used in Europe anymore, and this kind of declaration suggests being more concerned about the lives of criminals and perverts than the innocent unborn and the elderly, who are endangered by the barbaric institutions of abortion and euthanasia. It painfully reminds the tone of the commentaries to the statement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said last year at the European Union summit that Poland also has a responsibility to provide assistance to other parts of the world, and that its present relative prosperity comes in part from the assistance that was once provided for it. This way he criticized the government of Prime Minister Tusk for its lack of sensitivity to the problem of poverty in the world. The Polish commentators were actually unanimous and the prevailing opinion may be well expressed by the words of one of them: Poland doesn’t owe anything to Africa. I’d rather that the money went to our country. These seemingly unrelated things derive from the same approach, the same way of thinking: we should care about those who are in a way closely related to us, and those who are far away, on the other hand, those who can’t make it, perhaps even responsbile for their situation, should care about themselves. Practically, this often turns into an excuse not to do anything, creating illusionary contradictions. In regard to being concerned about the worthy and the unworthy people, it seems important that we remember the words of the Sermon on the Mount: he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good.
Pragmatic, economic arguments for the institution of the death penalty are not rare. I will not pay them much attention here, however – issues like the real economic profitability of the death penalty, its deterring effect on the potential perpetrators and other similar ones were well described in specialist studies. I can recommend here the book by David von Drehle, Among the Lowest of the Dead: Inside Death Row, available here, in which the author describes the reality of the American capital punishment system – its inefficiency, complexity, historical mistakes and ambiguities, and finally all the human emotions and experiences. I myself am convinced that the death penalty is not even pragmatic, but it is not the most important thing for what I want to say here in the first place.
The ethics of law has the tendency to absolutise norms, to reduce the moral decision to judgment only, and therefore merely to relate situation to a rule. The Catholic ethics preached by John Paul II teaches that the negative norms are unbreakable and that one cannot violate them from whatever reason or intention; acts inconsistent with the norm are always evil. Here, however, we come across problems with definition and interpretation. It applies especially to the basic norm of our interest, namely don’t kill. We are told about the sanctity of life, the inviolable dignity of man, the gift we received from God. Abortion or euthanasia are consistently condemned and considered the greatest moral danger of our civilization. The death penalty, nevertheless, is allowed as means of justice – even John Paul II taught that, though it should be admitted that he considered it a delicate matter and was very careful. And it was for this opposition (if not a total one) that he was perhaps most commonly criticized in the Roman Catholic circles. The controversy surrounding the death penalty indicates clearly that the norm don’t kill has to be somehow understood, and its object defined. From every apologist of this sanction we will hear, and it is indeed true, that the biblical don’t kill means actually don’t murder. Following this line of reasoning, we may conclude that taking part in war, the state administering the death penalty, or killing in self defense are justified actions. Before I refer to concrete arguments, I think it is worth to reflect on a situation I myself perceive as a tragic moral paradox: people who accept the death penalty as licit, decent and justified at the same time unshakably interpret euthanasia as unacceptable. My own conscience tells me that a cold sentence executed in the name of the justice of credit, often an expression of neatly concealed instincts of tribal vengeance and primitive affects of revenge, can’t be in any way compared as such to the experience of personal tragedy, which leads people to the painful decision to ask for an end to be put to their suffering, or, in case of their loved ones, assisting in it. Someone would certainly remark: you are theoretically right, but the death penalty has a positive influence on the society, while euthanasia demoralizes. An American Rabbi, taking part in the debate on the death penalty constantly going on in the United States, said that he opposes it because of the darkness it encouraged in him. What he meant were the same primitive instincts, of course.
The people who, like Rev. Prof. T. Ślipko, for instance, make an attempt to refer to this problem theologically or ethically, always mention the Letter to the Romans 13,2, in which St. Paul says that the authorities don’t bare the sword in vain. They insist also that these actions do not deprive the convict of an opportunity to convert; sometimes something contrary happens, they claim, the sentence’s threat may awake a desire to reconcile with God. I’ll return to the latter element in a moment. St. Paul’s attitude to the state and its authorities is quite clear. According to him it comes from God and as such deserves honor and obedience, and Christians should not oppose it. We can indeed assume in this context that the sword really means the death penalty (though it is not that obvious). The implications of such a judgment are not decisive for the ethics and Christianity, however: if St Paul’s affirmation of the death penalty’s acceptability were to lead us to its total approval, we could as well approve of slavery, or at least claim that its condemnation is a relative truth of the church… For not without a reason the verses on the attitude to the state are followed by advices as to how should slaves treat their masters. We should be aware that in those times there was a clear and absolute opposition between us, the preachers of the Messiah who is about to return living in communes, and them, the Roman Empire, the civil authorities, guaranteeing us its Pax Romana. In a sense, Christians couldn’t imagine that they would have to refer the Gospel to the acts of the state, that the emperor would one day have to consider himself how to give back what is his to God… The moment Christianity became a state religion is in many ways crucial and indeed has a great significance for our consciousness, including the ethical one – many compromises were made. I believe, nevertheless, that a truth-seeking conscience may not be satisfied with St Paul’s declaration made in times when between us and them theere existed a an unbreakable wall of separation, when two worlds existed alongside each other, and Christians were not granted access to the other. So much is being said nowadays about the need for a Christian state, one realizing Christian values. Yet may we call so a reproduction of the scheme used by the pagan authorities, and justified by actually the same arguments and used with the same conviction of moral righteousness? Sometimes I have the impression that for some the separation of the world of the Gospel and the other world is unbreakable, and therefore it has to be created all over again – this way a person identifies themselves with the state, with its rules, when they become its official, and leaves the Gospel at home: it is no longer they who live, but the state in them. And all of this despite of the constant complaints about the liberal attacks on religion’s public status… The fundamental question we should ask in context of the Letter is different, however: would St. Paul, if he had become an emperor, reach for the sword, from which he knew one may only perish? Or perhaps St Peter who was rebuked for its use by Jesus? Would they refuse a recidivist forgiveness if he asked for it the seventh time? Would they decree the decency of stoning by claiming the state’s impartiality and objectivity, which is to say its innocence? These questions seem quite rhetoric. I believe St Paul, or St Peter in another place, wanted to tell us one thing: this relation has to be tolerated, suffered with dignity – it applies both to us in relation to the state and to the slaves in relation to their masters. We know very well how our consciousness judged slavery. Of course, ubiquitous implementation of the Gospel rules would mean a total defeat of the state as such and is possible only in the perspective of the Kingdom of God. Some, however, instead of working on realizing this message in a degree we are able to, struggle to maintain what seemed in the past, in different circumstances, necessary to be tolerated and suffered, since undefeatable. Isn’t it an apotheosis of a curse? It reflects the problem Berdyaev signified in the article Christians and Politics we once reproduced. The tear I want to show here is a strange replacement of our own consciousness by the consciousness of the state and the quaint linking it with the Gospel, which was most clearly, even painfully strikingly, expressed by Dostoyevsky on one of Ivan’s stories:
Richard himself describes how in those years, like the Prodigal Son in the Gospel, he longed to eat of the mash given to the pigs, which were fattened for sale. But they wouldn’t even give him that, and beat him when he stole from the pigs. And that was how he spent all his childhood and his youth, till he grew [pg 263]up and was strong enough to go away and be a thief. The savage began to earn his living as a day laborer in Geneva. He drank what he earned, he lived like a brute, and finished by killing and robbing an old man. He was caught, tried, and condemned to death. They are not sentimentalists there. And in prison he was immediately surrounded by pastors, members of Christian brotherhoods, philanthropic ladies, and the like. They taught him to read and write in prison, and expounded the Gospel to him. They exhorted him, worked upon him, drummed at him incessantly, till at last he solemnly confessed his crime. He was converted. He wrote to the court himself that he was a monster, but that in the end God had vouchsafed him light and shown grace. All Geneva was in excitement about him—all philanthropic and religious Geneva. All the aristocratic and well-bred society of the town rushed to the prison, kissed Richard and embraced him; ‘You are our brother, you have found grace.’ And Richard does nothing but weep with emotion, ‘Yes, I’ve found grace! All my youth and childhood I was glad of pigs’ food, but now even I have found grace. I am dying in the Lord.’ ‘Yes, Richard, die in the Lord; you have shed blood and must die. Though it’s not your fault that you knew not the Lord, when you coveted the pigs’ food and were beaten for stealing it (which was very wrong of you, for stealing is forbidden); but you’ve shed blood and you must die.’ And on the last day, Richard, perfectly limp, did nothing but cry and repeat every minute: ‘This is my happiest day. I am going to the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ cry the pastors and the judges and philanthropic ladies. ‘This is the happiest day of your life, for you are going to the Lord!’ They all walk or drive to the scaffold in procession behind the prison van. At the scaffold they call to Richard: ‘Die, brother, die in the Lord, for even thou hast found grace!’ And so, covered with his brothers’ kisses, Richard is dragged on to the scaffold, and led to the guillotine. And they chopped off his head in brotherly fashion, because he had found grace.
Dostoevsky F., The Brothers Karamazov, online, pp. 262-263.
Here we come to another issue, namely the alleged positive influence the sentence has on the convict’s soul. I don’t want to talk about the most obvious thing, which is hoping that somebody turns to God in their last days and trying to save his soul through fear… Suffice it to refer to the practical dimension of experience, again revealed by Dostoyevsky. The theme of the death penalty which appears in his writings more than once, is not merely a product of ordinary literary speculation, but of an experience. Dostoyevsky referred to it at least twice and in his greatest works: The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot. He describes there, always through narration of one of the characters, the feelings of a convict that is going to be executed. These are his own sensations, because he himself was sentenced to death – for participating in the revolutionary movement during the reign of Nicholas I – and only in the last moment avoided the execution by a change in the sentence (this kind of fun was very much loved in Russia of that time). In the story told by prince Myshkin we read:
” It was just a minute before the execution (…) He happened to look in my direction: I saw his eyes and understood all, at once—but how am I to describe it? (…) He had lived in the prison for some time and had not expected that the execution would take place for at least a week yet—he had counted on all the formalities and so on taking time; but it so happened that his papers had been got ready quickly. At five o’clock in the morning he was asleep—it was October, and at five in the morning it was cold and dark. The governor of the prison comes in on tip-toe and touches the sleeping man’s shoulder gently. He starts up. ‘What is it?’ he says. ‘The execution is fixed for ten o’clock.’ He was only just awake, and would not believe at first, but began to argue that his papers would not be out for a week, and so on. When he was wide awake and realized the truth, he became very silent and argued no more—so they say; but after a bit he said: ‘It comes very hard on one so suddenly’ and then he was silent again and said nothing.
“The three or four hours went by, of course, in necessary preparations—the priest, breakfast, (coffee, meat, and some wine they gave him; doesn’t it seem ridiculous?) And yet I believe these people give them a good breakfast out of pure kindness of heart, and believe that they are doing a good action. Then he is dressed, and then begins the procession through the town to the scaffold. I think he, too, must feel that he has an age to live still while they cart him along. Probably he thought, on the way, ‘Oh, I have a long, long time yet. Three streets of life yet! When we’ve passed this street there’ll be that other one; and then that one where the baker’s shop is on the right; and when shall we get there? It’s ages, ages!’ Around him are crowds shouting, yelling—ten thousand faces, twenty thousand eyes. All this has to be endured, and especially the thought: ‘Here are ten thousand men, and not one of them is going to be executed, and yet I am to die.’ Well, all that is preparatory.
“At the scaffold there is a ladder, and just there he burst into tears—and this was a strong man, and a terribly wicked one, they say! There was a priest with him the whole time, talking; even in the cart as they drove along, he talked and talked. Probably the other heard nothing; he would begin to listen now and then, and at the third word or so he had forgotten all about it.
“At last he began to mount the steps; his legs were tied, so that he had to take very small steps. The priest, who seemed to be a wise man, had stopped talking now, and only held the cross for the wretched fellow to kiss. At the foot of the ladder he had been pale enough; but when he set foot on the scaffold at the top, his face suddenly became the colour of paper, positively like white notepaper. His legs must have become suddenly feeble and helpless, and he felt a choking in his throat—you know the sudden feeling one has in moments of terrible fear, when one does not lose one’s wits, but is absolutely powerless to move? (…) he could hardly have had any connected religious thoughts at the time. And so up to the very block.
“How strange that criminals seldom swoon at such a moment! On the contrary, the brain is especially active, and works incessantly—probably hard, hard, hard—like an engine at full pressure. I imagine that various thoughts must beat loud and fast through his head—all unfinished ones, and strange, funny thoughts, very likely!—like this, for instance: ‘That man is looking at me, and he has a wart on his forehead! and the executioner has burst one of his buttons, and the lowest one is all rusty!’ And meanwhile he notices and remembers everything. There is one point that cannot be forgotten, round which everything else dances and turns about; and because of this point he cannot faint, and this lasts until the very final quarter of a second, when the wretched neck is on the block and the victim listens and waits and KNOWS—that’s the point, he KNOWS that he is just NOW about to die, and listens for the rasp of the iron over his head. If I lay there, I should certainly listen for that grating sound, and hear it, too!
Dostoyevsky F., The Idiot, Chapter V, online.
We can’t assume, of course, that everyone experiences this moment in the same way, but this picture (in Brothers Karamazov concentrated only on the convict’s last way) shows that it is at least very likely (everyone is familiar with the mechanism of mind being absolutely possessed by an expected blow) that the sentence will only mean immersing the convict in his own condemned now and the whole situation will make it difficult for him to choose good over evil. Indeed, for how are we to overcome evil by evil (or seek justice with its help) – by fear and pain?
Another outstanding Russian, whose opinion on this matter I value very much, Berdyaev, has spoken a few times about the death penalty. Here we reproduce his short article available online; the Polish version of this post contains a longer piece taken from the book The Destiny of Man – I would like to recommend it to you, because Berdyaev’s reflections are more mature there and his vision more comprehensive. You can find it in Part II, Chapter IV, Section 6 of the book.
This criminal institution long since already has been acknowledged as inexpedient by the science of criminal law, long since already the moral conscience of mankind has been revolted by it. But the horror, which occurs at present, cannot be adjudged from a juridical point of view as somehow an out of place argument against the death sentence, and indeed this question is too elementary. A counter-revolution of black death has descended upon Russia, it has adopted a terroristic tactic, before which pale all the revolutionary terrors of the world, and killing has become its chief, its almost sole weapon. All the black and beastly forces of the land are taking revenge, because the godless kingdom has set them loose and because, certainly, they have been called forth by history in response to its age-old misdeeds. The counter-revolutionary terror, knowing no limits, a beastly viciousness, the organised murdering of the defenseless — here is what they call these days amongst us capital punishment. Committing these misdeeds is a state power, passing itself off as Christian.
It has been said: “Those taking up the sword, will perish by the sword”. This was said for the state, since the state not only was the first to have taken up the sword, having been begotten in bloody killings, but it also elevated the killing into law, it admitted death as one of the laws of life. It is known, that capital punishment developed historically out of the blood feud, that the state out of concern took upon itself the task to organise retribution, having transformed it into something impersonal. The elements of revenge in the blood feud — are irrational, in it is stirred up a primordial chaos, but this chaos is infinitely more noble and holier, than the organised, mindfully deliberate, consciously-bestial retribution of the state, than its monstrous impersonalism. Death is something terrible and killing something reprehensible, but what can be said about death, elevated into a law of life, about killing, organised consciously by the masters of life in the name of upholding an illusory order of affairs within it. There is in the world an higher truth, than with this blood revenge, and to this revenge it summons us not, but the state is not mindful about this truth, it is not given for the state to have to answer for the horror of killing. For a man it has been said: “Do not kill”, but the state, the people of the state, the people in power have regarded this as not applying to them, they have attributed the commandment as applying only to their subjects and uphold their existence by a beastly law, nowise heedful about God.
Death — is the most extreme, the most terrible expression of worldly evil, of the world’s falling away from God, and the goal of religion has always been the victory over death, the affirming of life eternal. If Christ’s death on the Cross was a victory over death, then together with this it was also a most powerful condemnation of killing. Capital punishment, true Christians have declared, is tied in with the deed of the torturing of Christ, it is a murdering not only of man, but also of God.
Berdyaev N., Capital Punishment and Killing, 1906, online.
It is significant that so many profound, full of compassion and determined voices come from Russia, a country whose history is associated with state violation of the law and bloodshed. Perhaps precisely these experiences have made the Russian consciousness particularly sensitive to the problems and doubts that have to do with this institution. Ilya Repin, a well known Russian painter, showed in one of his most famous paintings tsar Ivan the Terrible – a symbol of oppression and terror – shocked after having killed his son, and in another one St Nicholas stopping an execution and taking the sword out of the executioner’s hands. It is the scene depicted by the icon at the beginning of the post – one of the stories of St Nicholas’ life passed down by the tradition.
In almost every branch of Christianity there are people who recognize the horror of the death penalty and want to prevent it. We have already mentioned the Roman Catholic nun, sister Helen Prejean, whose prayer you can find here. The Episcopal Church has opposed the capital punishment particularly firmly and early. Already in 1958 has the General Convention condemned it, which was later reaffirmed more than once in subsequent resolutions, while the Lambeth Conference did the same in 1988 on behalf of the whole Anglican Communion. You can find interesting resources on the death penalty at the website of the Diocese of Chicago – I would like to thank Rev. Gunter, whose blog you can visit here, for suggesting it to me. At the Diocese’s website you can find, among other things, a letter by Bishop Lee in which he wrote:
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church first stated our opposition to capital punishment in 1958. Repeatedly, our Church has re-affirmed this position citing some of our dearest values: the conviction that life is infinitely valuable and that we are called to follow Jesus in the demanding practice of forgiveness and restorative justice.
It has been over 50 years since we first declared our opposition to state killing and we now know that, in addition to these theological considerations, there are many practical reasons to oppose the death penalty system. Like any system run by human beings, mistakes are made and bias creeps in. However, with life on the line, any margin of error is unacceptable. We know from years of research and study that the death penalty is applied in unjust and capricious ways and is not a deterrent to violent crime. Here in Illinois we have sentenced 20 men to death for crimes they did not commit. And while services for victims of crime and crime prevention programs are underfunded, we spend millions of dollars every year to maintain the death penalty.
(…) Your prayer on this matter is greatly appreciated.
The Episcopal Peace Fellowship, on the other hand, has issued an interesting leaflet with a brief summary of the church’s attitude (you can download it here; I’d like to thank Mary Miller and her husband for finding and scanning it). According to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in America, whose website contains many interesting resources on the death penalty and the issues of peace and war, the majority of local church synods condemned this sanction. I would especially like to recommend an article by Danny Abbott, Assessing the Death Penalty: Let the Punishment Fit the Time, in which you can find a good diagnosis of the origins of our approach to the death penalty in the early Christianity. There are also many secular foundations and organizations that take part in the debate on the capital punishment and even achieve some results. Here, however, I would like to mention only one, namely MVFR (Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation), for its members prove that resentment can be overcome and firmly oppose the death penalty. Such a witness has a particular meaning and is exceptionally powerful, because it reveals one of the best aspects of human nature and gives us hope that all these beautiful appeals can actually become concrete, that they are not merely an empty letter condemned to yield to the tough reality. The murder victim’s loved ones suffer often more than they themselves, whose life was often taken quickly and sometimes even when they were unconscious. Those who live have to struggle for years with their own loss and the phantoms of their lost loved ones’ suffering. Truthfulness of any speculative proof may not be compared to the power of words like the below statement, found at the organisation’s website:
Helene, a registered nurse working in Austin [whose mother was murdered], is opposed to the death penalty because she believes it creates more victims than it helps. “There is no closure after a loved one is murdered.” “The criminal who is executed leaves behind relatives/friends of their own. These families not only have to live with the anguish of knowing their loved one was a murderer, but they then live a lifetime of grief after the execution. Tragedy begets tragedy, like a snowball rolling downhill,” she explained.
I’m concerned with the topic of the death penalty because it shows in a painfully clear way how far we have gone from what is especially significant in the message we profess to hold dear, its essence. And finally it reveals the masks with which we cover our delusions of justice and most horrible violations of God’s Justice. It seems to us that we create decent Christian states which realize Christian values. That we live with them, agree on them – it is understandable, inevitable. But if one doesn’t sense the horrible tragedy of this situation, the insolvable conflict of Justice and justice, if one uses this or that primitively optimistic kind of Thomism, always having the last word and granting a peaceful sleep, than one can not comprehend the essence of the problem. The death penalty is the ultimate, highest expression of the triumph of the ordinary and worldly justice. And here again – many refer to its alleged affirmation in the Bible and sleep peacefully. Of course, we will never defeat the state and codify the Sermon on the Mount – and it would also mean its death. Yet if our time gives us possibilities, real possibilities, of putting an end to a barbarian practice, possibilities the Apostles haven’t even dreamed of, than all of a sudden… we start to defend it as if it were God’s Word itself. The death penalty is such a practice we can, we should oppose. Symbolically it points also at a broader context – out thinking about justice, atonement, forgiveness, the state and the world. It opens a discussion far to profound to be summed up on a few pages. There are many people, however, many organizations and churches, who recognize its meaning in this context and courageously, persistently remind us of Justice, even though they know well they will not put any final full stop to this. The Russian Orthodox tradition, one especially close to me, has much to say on this issue. Centuries of barbaric oppression and practically idolatrous caesaropapism have been covering these territories in blood. Militarism, fondness for cruelty – the famous Dostoyevsky’s birch-rod and the beating – executions and pogroms, this all was present there. There were people, nevertheless, who could better than anyone else anywhere else in the world brake through to the Gospel, to Justice. Paradoxically, such was even the first prince of Kiev, who in 988 prohibited the death penalty as an unchristian practice… There follow of course Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Berdyaev and others. Their voices are, in a sense, considering the nature of that reality, a true cry out of the depths. And that is why they so strongly oppose our European love for the civilized iustitae of the decent death penalty. Below I reproduced A Christian Prayer of Confession by Janet Chrisholm which, like the prayer we published for the Day against the Death Penalty, we received from our friends form the Episcopal Church. The author recognizes where our imperfections lie and probably no one can simply ignore this prayer.
Spirit of God, forgive us. For 2000 years, we Christians have failed to live the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Instead of sharing with our sisters and brothers, instead of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and healing the sick; we have stored up treasures and sent the vulnerable, sick, hungry and homeless from our door.
Instead of forgiving , we have sought vengeance retribution, harsh punishment and death. We have asked the state to kill in our name.
Instead of crying out against injustice, we have dominated, discriminated and demeaned; and we have benefited from the economic oppression of our neighbors.
Instead of holding your Creation in sacred trust, instead of respecting the inter-connectedness and beauty of our universe; we have wasted and polluted, disrupted the balance, and ignored our responsibility to those who come after us.
Instead of loving our enemies, we have demonized them. Instead of peace, nonviolence and reconciliation; we Christians have unleashed in your name, violent crusades, slavery, the Holocaust, and nuclear war. We have killed through landmines, depleted uranium, bombing runs, smart weapons and economic sanctions.
We confess that we have neglected our prayer life and community building. We have lost our way and are not the people you called us to be. Accept our prayer and restore us. In your mercy, forgive us. Forgive us. Forgive us. Amen.