The Execution of Death
Ancient Faith Radio · January 24, 2012
Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos speaks out against the death penalty on Sanctity of Life Sunday, 2012. The lecture took place at Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Westchester, Illinois, and was preceded by a prayer service.
It’s good to be back at Holy Apostles here in Westchester, as we once again pray for the sanctity of all life, and it’s indeed good to come together as sisters and brothers in Christ in one family, in Orthodox unity together with my brother bishops who are with us today: Bishop Daniel of Pamphilion in the Ukrainian Church and Bishop Matthias of the Orthodox Church in America. We welcome them. We thank the reverend fathers for their kindness and their hospitality in welcoming us here today.
A recent report on Fox News after Christmas focused on the life of a young Palestinian woman living in Gaza under the Palestinian authority. She was studying at university to be a journalist and, unlike most residents of Gaza who lived in relative poverty, she was a member of a comparatively affluent family who owned a retail store. What made her story so interesting was that she was recently released from an Israeli prison along with hundreds of others in exchange for a single Israeli soldier being held captive by Hamas. She was imprisoned because she had attempted to detonate an explosive vest she was wearing at an Israeli checkpoint, but the explosive failed to detonate. Now back at school and studying to be a journalist, she calmly tells her interviewers that she is awaiting the opportunity to repeat her suicide mission, looking forward to the day she can kill her enemy and enjoy martyrdom.
In a recent documentary on Cook County prisons, a young man’s scars from gunshot wounds are revealed as the young man admits that he simply does what he needs to do until the day he dies. That’s just the way it goes. There’s nothing to live for. He has nothing to lose. When his time comes, he admits it will not be “any big loss.”
A recent article in The Greek Star, a local Greek-American publication, written by John Vlahakis, implicitly suggests abortion as the appropriate means to control population, now that seven billion people inhabit our planet, straining our resources and affecting our shared environment. And just as recently, the introduction of the Air Jordan shoes on the day before Christmas resulted in several acts of lethal violence in the competition to gain footwear. Apparently the $200 shoes were equated with the value of a human life.
I begin with these descriptions that are only indirectly connected with my topic to illustrate an underlying concern to all of us who have gathered at this church of the Holy Apostles in the interest of the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the proclamation of eternal life, sacred life, for which our Lord was born, ministered, taught, died, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and sent to his disciples the Holy Spirit. The underlying issue is the degradation of life’s sanctity exhibited in some form by all these examples, from distorted religious fervor, from what is essentially philosophical nihilism, from political relativism, and economic priorities for our standard of living.
All these examples among a host of others each of us would probably recall subordinate the gift of life to other concerns. Interestingly, except for religious zealots of the world, very few propagators of what has rightly been called “a culture of death” commit suicide. Those who espouse in some form or another the value of death are usually unwilling to die themselves. They do not, however, object to others dying—the undesired enemy, the unwanted or inconvenient preborn, the criminal, persons who live far away who do not look, talk, or think as we do—and this, of course, is hypocrisy.
One writer recently defined hypocrisy as “the art of affecting qualities for the purposes of pretending to an undeserved virtue.” And he added, “Imagine how frightful truth, unvarnished, would be.” How frightful truth, unvarnished, would be. Many of the issues that we as Americans have come to argue so passionately are not immune from our collective hypocrisy. Our political discourse has become mercenary. On the political left, euphemistically they talk about a woman’s right to choose when they really mean her right to kill her preborn child, and certainly not about the right to choose to abstain from those behaviors that result in the conception of an unwanted child. Self-control is a virtue if it involves killing someone else; it is not a virtue if it involves moral behavior. A frightful truth, unvarnished.
On the political right, they will condemn this culture of death and espouse the right to life while advocating for capital punishment in the name of public safety, and denying that right to persons deemed criminal, no matter how corrupt the system, no matter how many persons have been proven to be erroneously convicted. Christian politicians of the right routinely invoke moral values as originating from our Creator, court the evangelical Christian vote, and protest the current administration’s war on religion, but also, as at a recent debate, routinely espouse the surprisingly evangelical idea concerning our enemies: kill them. Truth, unvarnished, is indeed frightful.
The position of both political parties, of course, can be reduced to self-concern and indeed, selfishness. Political conservatives live up to the specific etymology of the word, “serving themselves and their own interests.” Liberals have devolved, in many cases, to moral libertines. The two dominant political parties take up diametrically opposed and unChristian positions on two issues which, for Orthodox Christians, are inherently related, since they both concern the execution of life.
Undoubtedly, most Americans who claim to support the so-called right to life or sanctity of life position do so with abortion in mind. Indeed, public opinion polls consistently show a majority of Americans are against the idea of elective abortion on demand. And a far greater number assumedly would consider abortion “wrong,” but hesitate when making discussion turns to making it illegal, due to largely hypothetical circumstances, such as rape, incest, or threats to the life of the mother.
This is why so many pro-choice advocates so urgently resist the label “pro-abortion.” In our culture, it is so much more difficult to argue against free choice. In any case, with some important exceptions, such as the Terry Schiavo case in Florida back in early 2005, a broad coalition of activists and supporters has successfully managed to make “right to life” and “anti-abortion” almost synonymous.
Public opinion polls regarding another right-to-life and sanctity-of-life issue, capital punishment, are likewise consistently high in the United States. Politicians who publicly vow to put an end to abortion routinely espouse the “necessity” for the death penalty. Among evangelical and free church Protestants, the overwhelming majority is opposed to abortion, but more than half support the death penalty in some form in some cases. In some regions of the country, support is far higher.
Through casuistry and sophistry, it would appear that many persons claiming to respect the sanctity of life on moral or religious grounds reason that the preborn are “innocent,” while those who have been found “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” have somehow either forfeited a right to live or, perhaps worse, they have decided that the general principle of life’s sanctity must be modified due to circumstances that are ugly, uncertain, or repugnant in and of themselves.
It is as if disrespecting the rights of others to live renders a convicted criminal’s life unsacred in the eyes of God. There seems to be some type of cognitive, if not spiritual, distance at work in such minds. I raised this point because when it comes to my main concern this evening there is often an emotional, even visceral, reaction to the concept of capital punishment. The intentional causing of the death of the preborn as a matter of convenience, freely chosen murder, is always unjust and unrighteous, a distinction to which I will return. Yet there is often a sense that capital punishment is somehow necessary, however lamentable, for a just society.
While not an exact analogy, the killing of Osama bin Laden, a punishment for the horrific murders he ordered in our nation aroused enthusiastic cheers across our land. Perhaps this could be rationalized as an act of war, so perhaps a better example would be an actual execution of a convicted criminal, by any comparison to others, a true monster. A sigh of relief was heard around the world when Saddam Hussein was hanged after his trial in Iraq, an outcome little in doubt at its outset from a man we have learned may not have had weapons of mass destruction, but either personally killed or ordered the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.
There is a basic and well-ordered rationale for the existence of capital punishment, at least as a response to some crimes. This is, in fact, part of its appeal, not to mention biblical warrant for it in the Old Testament. The United States is one of the few nations to retain it, though we would probably not like to be compared as a nation-state to others such as China, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and so forth. Nonetheless, in the context of retributive justice, there are times when capital punishment makes logical sense according to human reason. Opposition to the death penalty, in all cases, is rather incomprehensible and non-rational, and that is precisely why I am opposed to it.
Before proceeding, let me clarify one terminological distinction that I believe is quite important for Orthodox Christians. In the Bible, the Greek word “dikaios” and its congnates such as “dikaiosyne,” is often translated “just, justice,” and so forth, as in the description of Joseph the Betrothed of Mary: “a just man.” The word can also be translated as “righteous.” Indeed, when Joseph is introduced to us as “a just man,” the application is paradoxical in the context of Joseph’s Jewish culture and piety. We are told that he resolved to divorce Mary quietly or discreetly when she was found to be pregnant during their betrothal, before their actual marriage and coming together.
Under the law of Moses, justice would have been far stricter for Mary. Stricter? She should have been stoned to death, since there’s no indication she was pregnant due to rape. As far as Joseph knew, this was a violation of the Law. Joseph is actually violating the Law in seeking to avoid the harsh penalty for Mary’s condition, which, of course, was an act of God and the Holy Spirit, as he is informed in a dream. Yet the Evangelist is noting he is “dikaios,” actually shows Joseph was concerned about righteousness, not justice as defined in his culture. In other words, Joseph, and not the letter of the law, was right.
In our culture, justice is ideally blind. Equality under the law is a basic principle, and identical or nearly identical crimes are punished, in theory, with identical punishments. Yet we can clearly understand that justice being blind sometimes gets the story wrong. Justice and truth do not always coincide in our Western culture, not even ideally. There is widespread agreement that justice does not always concern truth, but rather certainty beyond a reasonable doubt. Serving justice does not mean serving the truth. Sometimes the two might coincide, but other times they do not. And sometimes what is just is simply not right. It is clearly wrong. As an example, we can return to the so-called constitutional right of a woman to abort her preborn child. It may be known as justice in our society, but it is clearly wrong.
In an Orthodox context, we serve the Truth who is Jesus Christ. Our concern is not about justice in the normal, you might say, human sense of the word, but about being right and righteous. The concept of justice might be ambiguous in our culture, but being right and righteous before, with, and in God is never ambiguous. Either we are or we are not. Either we are on the mark, and right, or off the mark, which is exactly what the Greek word signifying “sin” means: “amartia.” There can be no doubt that even in the biblical sense, the position of capital punishment in some cases is just. The Law came through Moses, but originates in God. There can also be no doubt that in the same biblical sense it’s always wrong and even the authors of the Pentateuch presumed this, since death itself in any form is always wrong and contrary to the will of God for his creation. It is the result of sin. Of course, this is more explicit in the Christian Scriptures, and I will return to this thought later in our presentation. Let me return now to the subject of capital punishment.
I have long been an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. My active involvement began when it was made personal. Prior to my personal involvement, it was theoretical. While I was vaguely aware of the issue and was always opposed to it in principle, I confess that my views were largely shaped by the injustice of capital punishment. By this I refer to the fact, one that was vividly demonstrated here in our state of Illinois, that the ultimate penalty of death can be and has been imposed on those who were later proven to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. It goes against reason that those vindicated while on death row and subsequently released were the only examples of the miscarriage of justice, when a just sentence is simply wrong. We cannot know how many have been executed when actually innocent.
However, the injustice of our justice system continues beyond this. Rather than equal penalties for equal crimes, the death penalty is disproportionately imposed upon the poorest, the dark of skin, and the most shoddily represented among us. Rather than saving the state an expense of life imprisonment, implementing the death penalty costs at least three times more as the cost associated with sentencing a convicted criminal to life without the possibility of parole. Rather than being a deterrent to crime, states with the death penalty actually have a higher homicide rate and overall crime rate. Rather than providing victims and their families any timely sense of retribution, vengeance, or closure, the condemned typically spend well over a decade awaiting execution during a complicated appeals process that often causes continued pain and anxiety for the survivors.
The injustices of the system have all been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. They provide compelling reasons to abolish the death penalty, and this is why an Orthodox Christian clergyman such as myself was able to work with a broad coalition of persons and organizations to organize against the death penalty.
During my presidency of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, I worked with persons who often held very different religious or even moral views from the Church. And some were opposed to capital punishment for reasons unrelated specifically Christian moral principle, such as economic reasons. Nonetheless, I became involved because I saw this both as an opportunity to work toward a new moral awakening in our nation, to work for the cause of righteousness and not simply social justice, but above all I felt it imperative to do what I was able to do to save lives. In fact, one life in specific.
I met the notorious Andrew Kokoraleis at the Pontiac Correctional Institution, just weeks before his scheduled execution. Although I had visited inmates before, this was the first time I was to meet with a death row inmate. After encountering the institutional and callous prison personnel, as well as enduring a body search, I passed through several gates, which seemed to close the outside world behind. I was then taken to a cold, concrete visiting room. I was instructed to sit in one of four chairs around a bare table, all of them bolted to the floor. Andrew, with his hands shackled together, was escorted to my table by a prison guard. Of course, I do not reveal the details of our discussion, however, I need you to know that instead of encountering a monster, I found Andrew to be a person of great faith, who was at peace with himself as well as with his accusers.
For all the seventeen years he had been imprisoned, Andrew had maintained his innocence. On the basis of that first visit and many other direct experiences I had with Andrew, I firmly believe that he was indeed innocent of the crime for which he was ultimately killed. Notedly, others convicted as accomplices in the same crime, the so-called Ripper Gangs of Chicago, were either not executed due to subsequent events or were not sentenced to death. In any case, I cannot communicate to you what it felt like to have bonded so deeply with a person who had spent all of his adult life in prison. Nor can I describe what it felt like to have seen Christ face-to-face in prison, shackled, alone, with no family or friends. His only remaining family was his church. His Greek Orthodox Church stood by his side as his family and galvanized the wider religious community in the face of the great social evil of capital punishment.
We felt it incumbent upon ourselves to stand decisively for clemency for Andrew and to stand in opposition to the death penalty in general. Even though our pleas fell upon insensitive and even deaf political ears, we knew that we had to do what was Christ-like. We tried. With letters, with demonstrations, with all the moral authority we could bring to bear, we publicized the facts that not a single shred of physical or scientific evidence existed that tied Andrew to the crime for which he was to be executed: no fingerprints, no DNA, no eyewitnesses. In fact, the only evidence against him was the confession gained by police brutality that Andrew almost instantly recanted.
As the final day of his execution approached, we gathered many religious leaders in the Greek Orthodox cathedral to offer the then-governor our collective wisdom and prayers in his struggle. Former governor and current inmate George Ryan, as you know, had turned a deaf ear to the religious community in general, and in particular to the religious community of which Andrew Kokoraleis was a part. On March 17, 1999, our brother in Christ, Andrew, was put to death by the state of Illinois.
Two days later I returned home from a very emotionally draining and difficult day in my office and received an ominous letter in the mail. It was from Andrew. With great care, I opened the envelope and read the enclosed card. I absorbed every word into my being, I took what Andrew told me to heart, and I clearly heard his every word as a personal calling. Andrew’s correspondence gratefully asked and hoped that somehow, by his execution, others would be spared a similar fate, and that all executions might be terminated. He thanked me for the support I provided, and he told me that we would certainly see each other again in the Kingdom of Heaven. I live every day with the prayer that Andrew’s dying wishes will be granted.
As it happened, two weeks after Andrew’s sanctioned homicide, the former governor indicated a reduced obstinacy toward the religious community by making a public appearance at a prayer breakfast. Later, as we know, he publicly announced he regretted the various decisions he made in regard to the implementation of the death penalty in Illinois, and placed a moratorium on executions, although in theory it was temporary until reforms for fairness to ensure “just” executions occur. In other words, that innocents might not be put to death mistakenly, as so many in Illinois almost were and perhaps, as I believe, actually were. Of course, more recently under Governor Pat Quinn, the hopeless broken system has been finally abolished, at least for now.
Of course, there’s still work to be done. Indiana, Iowa, and Missouri, three states in which our holy Metropolis has parishes, still maintain the death penalty, while the other three are death-penalty–free: Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Obviously, other states do as well, as does our federal government; that is, maintain the death penalty. Working for the abolition requires a long-term commitment, but after the United States, we will continue on to eliminate it in all corners of the world.
It’s one thing to be an advocate for the unjustly accused or convicted. There’s a general recognition and recognized nobility in such a struggle. It’s another thing, much more difficult, to be an advocate for the guilty. Inevitably, this is what those who work for the abolition of capital punishment are, in part. In our society, there is usually only scorn for those who seek to prevent even the guilty from being put to death by the state. In Orthodox sacred tradition, every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. We are each an icon, an image of Christ, and a mirror to one another of God’s loving presence in the world. No human being—no murderer, no governor, who in essence flipped the switch, nor citizens who in theory he represents—no one is a monster. And every human being, including Andrew and every other death row inmate, is of infinite value and worth as a person. This is true even for those who seem most evil, and this is a mystery and perhaps the ultimate challenge of our faith.
St. Paul mentions in his letter to the Corinthians “a more excellent way: the way of love.” In the Bible and in theology, love is not a sentiment or feeling or emotion. It is a manner of existing. The Greek word in the New Testament for love, “agape,” literally derives from “a-ego”: “not me.” Thus, to love means to live in such a manner as to not be concerned with the self, but only with the one we love. Of course, the teaching of Jesus Christ is that we love everyone, and this without condition. It means to be concerned with the life of the one we love, and this, of course, precludes ending that love.
Love is an act of freedom, a choice we make: to love or not to love. In the New Testament it’s clear: we love because God first loved us. In other words, the capacity to love—and we each have this capacity—comes from God, but it’s an act of freedom. Love brings us to a place that is really beyond our conventional sense of justice and our commonly shared social ethics—what we “ought” to do or not to do—and systems of law. Love is not about law and ethics, but it is about our ethos, our way of being in the world. The simple text of the Bible is that we should love our neighbor, and this really means everyone, as the parable of the Good Samaritan shows.
But Jesus Christ takes this one step further: “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” We heard it this evening in the Gospel lesson. And this means precisely that we must treat each and every human being as we would treat Christ. We must treat each and every human being as we would treat Christ. It sounds rather simple, but is in fact the most difficult of teachings, for if we truly love, there is nothing we would not do for our beloved, and this moves us beyond what “ought” to be done. It moves us beyond the categories of right and wrong and into the realm of self-emptying for the sake of the other person. It is the sacrifice of our life, plain and simple, for the other, whoever that might be.
Obviously, such a calling, such a vocation and ethos, is simply impossible to legislate and is, as Metropolitan John of Pergamon states in his recent publication, Communion and Otherness:
...inapplicable in a justly, that is, morally, organized society. it would be inconceivable to regulate social life on such a basis of unconditional love for our neighbor, for there would be no room for law and order.
Love is not a law, uninfringed without freedom, nor can it be ordered. The prescriptions on the Sermon on the Mount, such as the one to turn the left cheek to someone who strikes you on the right, [are] certainly a far cry from our society’s sense of justice. The comfort of our enemies in the Christian tradition is another example of ethos that is largely inapplicable in the American justice system or, frankly, anywhere in the world. But then the problem from an Orthodox Christian point of view is the very idea that justice can be systematically administered in a manner that is righteous, a standard that means for us consonant with God’s unconditional, self-emptying, and self-sacrificing love and example.
One may point out that I have been an activist for seeking to reform our system of justice. This is not because I believe that the system can be reformed in such a manner as to be consistent with this ethos of love. It cannot. We live in a society of law, a society of systems, a society where justice requires the repayment of debts, not the forgiveness of them—unless of course you have extremely good political relations with the U.S. congress. It’s a society where the death penalty still exists because, in fact, it holds a certain logic of its own, consistent with the lex talionis: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. It also, paradoxically, perhaps, appeals to feelings of grief and anger.
Yet, as a bishop of the Church, I fight against the injustice of capital punishment because the Church cannot abandon or betray or distort the Gospel and present to society at large an ethos different from that of Christ’s life. In the final analysis, the Church is in the world but not of it. Despite the way of the world, the Church must persevere in converting the ethos of the world, and this we can only do with acts of love, one at a time.
And so, at a very basic level, to change minds and hearts—in the meaning of the New Testament word we usually translate as “repent,” “metanoite” literally means to change one’s mind—to change minds, we begin at a common denominator of language, those elements on which we can agree. These are the practical and moral, because there certainly is a right and wrong, aspects to abolish state-sanctioned murder of human beings created in the image and likeness of God. On these our rational minds can agree, whether they will or not.
From this point, what I call our new moral awakening, we can move to a more excellent way, and for Christians, this is always the way of love in Christ Jesus. We will never be capable of healing all the hurts of the world and fixing all the problems. We are actually told this, yet to live together as a sign and an icon of the Kingdom means to endure in this age and fight against, as St. Paul so aptly phrases it, our final enemy, death.
The images that I presented at the beginning are indicative that there is still a great need for a proclamation of the sanctity of life in all cases and all forms. Perhaps unlike ancient times the message of hope that we proclaim at every Pascha rises to the place above where most hearts and minds can comprehend the good news of the Resurrection. The success of St. Paul and the Church in ancient times was predicated on a certain cultural perspective of life and death, one that has largely changed in our contemporary Western, technological, scientific, and largely urban setting.
The Church cannot simply offer words of encouragement to a world immersed in death and corruption. We must be actively seeking to put into action the annihilation of death and the wages of death in our broken world in an obvious and practical manner. I, and others, will continue advocating in ministries revolving around social justice, for if we can achieve some measure of justice, we can move on to righteousness, the more excellent way. By this, we can transform our culture from one where the execution of life—abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment—is commonplace to one where the goal is indeed the execution of death. Thank you.