Capital Punishment, Part 4
Steve Robinson · August 13, 2009
Audio length: 16:12
What are the pitfalls of a "Christian State"? Can or should the State govern according to the Gospel? Can "forgiveness of enemies" be a valid principle of civil order? What do the Fathers of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches say about the relationship of Church and State in regard to civil order and capital punishment?
Welcome to the fourth installment of the ongoing series on Capital Punishment. To begin this week, I’d like to respond to a couple of emails that said essentially, “As Christians we shouldn’t be promoting capital punishment.” Basically the purpose of these podcasts is not to PROMOTE capital punishment as much as to defend it as a legitimate Christian doctrine which has been held from the beginning by many prominent Church Fathers, east and west, and not by just fringe elements of the Church. Among modern activists and scholars, there seems to be aspects of the issue that are completely ignored, not fully explored or downplayed. The issue is too critical to be discussed in sound bytes lifted from scripture, patristics and social research, not only for the sake of the life of the evildoer facing execution but also for the lives of the innocent and the wellbeing of society.
So, last week we began talking about the Church and the state which are both ordained by God and their mutual and exclusive roles in the world. As we noted the theocracy of Judaism which included capital punishment based on the covenant with Noah is fulfilled in the Church through the Gospel. However, we also noted that civil government outside of Judaism’s theocracy is also ordained by God. Nowhere in the Old or New Testaments do we find the State held to the standard of the Gospel in how it orders society, nor do we find any evidence that the covenant with Noah has been abrogated in the divine order of civil authority.
So this week I want to continue the discussion of some of the relevant nuances of Church and State relations and their God ordained roles in the fallen order. We’ll also examine some of the patristic and modern church’s writings about the Church’s relationship to the State.
Bill Gould and I were having lunch last week and were discussing the concept of the possibility of a “Christian State” and what that might look like. Would civil authority be utopian (or at least more perfect) under Christian rule? Bill had quite a few good things to say that I’ll summarize here:
The ancients understood that their moral and religious frameworks were not easily divorced from civil concerns, and throughout Church history it has always been considered, by most Christian expressions, a possibility to have a Christian State. Israel’s history is the story of the “Christian State” imperfectly administered by a series of kings that would bring either blessings or curses upon the people at large depending on their actions. It was never Utopia, but it was most assuredly an integration of Church and State.
In light of this, the prophet/king relationship, the patriarch/emperor relationship, Pope/Monarch etc, and the wielding of power in their respective spheres is quite natural - and it has yielded, at times, good outcomes for citizens even up to the modern era. But it is also clear from Church history that religious coercion by the State does not generally yield good results. The Church AS the State is untenable and cannot be justified either scripturally nor pragmatically. As an example we can look at what John Calvin established in Geneva to see how his theology of Church and State got worked out in praxis, (which included capital punishment to Severus’ chagrin)…and a Christian Taliban essentially describes his church/state experiment. But this does not mean that the State cannot or should not align itself with the Gospel. However, we must understand that there are boundaries between the roles of the Church and the State and not ALL of the Gospel’s demands on the Church and the individual Christian can be integrated into a civil order . The soteriological mission of the Church in the world does not cancel God’s divine order that the evildoer is restrained by means of the State. The Christian State is one that promotes freedom and justice for all, and not the conversion of souls by its civil powers, and the Church within the secular State does not seek to use the State for its own ends. The Church understands that the State is in and of itself a manifestation of God’s wisdom that does not need the Church’s meddling or even direction for it to be at work for the good of the people.
So if we reject the Church AS the state as an unscriptural and unworkable concept, the Church influencing the State is another matter entirely. The monolithic witness of the Church fathers is that Christian influence on anyone is a matter of persuasion, not coercion. The question is, do Christians especially in a free society such as the USA and other democracies, have an obligation to engage the civil dimension of their existence? Should we use our influence in the political realm for “good” as defined by the Gospel, and admonish evil as a prophetic voice, flawed as we are and regardless of the fact that, in an ultimate sense, it is doomed to fail because of the Fall?
There’s a lot here in Bill’s comments and we’re going to unpack some of them in this podcast.
So for the sake of this week’s discussion we need to flesh out a point I made last week: What if the state actually governed unbelieving society by the selected Christian ethic of forgiveness of enemies as some Christian anti-death penalty advocates seem to imply it should? Let’s use this as an example (and bear with me, this is not going to be a straw man argument): Say a Christian forgives an unrepentant pedophile for raping and murdering his child, and the state sets him free because he has been “forgiven by his enemies”. He is still a pedophile and will now victimize other kids. Whose responsibility is it to see that the “forgiven” evildoer does not victimize others and does the one who set him free bear any responsibility for the evil he perpetrates after being freed? (This is not a hypothetical, by the way…there are plenty of stories of people who, through the help of activists, have had sentences commuted who have raped and murdered after getting out of prison but more on that later…) If we take forgiveness to the ridiculous extreme of removal of all consequences, the only restraint of the evildoer is the individual…me, my gun and my definition of justice. And if that was the case, we’d STILL have the same issues of evildoers, restraint, retribution, punishment, death penalty and protection of the innocent, only boiled down to an individual level instead of a corporate one. But, if we equate “forgiveness of enemies” to removal of the death penalty, which is a legitimate God ordained consequence for capital crime, then the question is, where DO we draw the line and by what principles and authority do we draw it at one place or another?
So the issue is not, as I mentioned before, “forgiveness”, but “what does forgiveness look like” in the context of civil order and the State. Nor is the issue, as Bp. Seraphim seems to imply, that those who believe in the death penalty are not upholding Christ’s command “to forgive one’s enemies”. It is clear that forgiveness cannot always mean removal of consequences or removal of the state’s responsibility to protect the innocent from the evildoer. So really, all Christians, when it comes down to pragmatics and belief, do not hold that forgiveness means removal of consequences for sin or evil, and most will actually acknowledge that. The Church may forgive the sin of embezzlement by one of its members, but it cannot commute the sentence of restitution. It forgives adultery, but it does not pay the child support of the adulterer. It forgives the negligent homicide but it cannot serve the prison sentence for the drunken driver. It forgives even premeditated murder, but in doing so does not commute the civil sentence. So while we all essentially agree that consequences are not always abrogated by forgiveness, for some reason when it comes to the death penalty, some people make a categorical leap and connect the removal of the death penalty to “the forgiveness of enemies”. It is clear that this is bad rhetoric at best and bad thinking at worst. The discussion is really then, “Is the death penalty a legitimate consequence?” Not, “Christian forgiveness of one’s enemies”. In summary, to be blunt, do not lay “unforgiveness” at the feet of those who believe in capital punishment.
But, on the positive side of the coin, as Bp. Seraphim admonishes, and I would agree wholeheartedly with, the Church IS called to visit those in prison, and to preach Christ crucified to the incarcerated sinner. The Church can affirm life, repentance and forgiveness, and at the same time permit the State to deal with the good order of the society within which the Church functions…and there will be more on that later, but for now, the bottom line is, the State might be INFLUENCED by the Church, but it cannot BE the Church. It is only the Church that is held to the gospel. No Christian who supports capital punishment believes the Church should execute the evildoer, or even its own sinners and heretics or apostates (although in the Church that has been the case at times in the past). We all agree (this includes me), that the Church exists for the redemption of the human being and an agent of the Gospel of forgiveness, the giver of the sacraments, the bearer of grace to the fallen race.
So we are still left with, what are the boundaries and inter-relationships of the Church and State when it comes to capital punishment?
The historic concensus of the great theologians of the Church, both East and West uniformly affirm the existence of the State as a God ordained power separate from the Church, and its authority to exact capital punishment as an option for the good of society.
One of the quotes from St. John Chrysostom that is usually put forth by anti war and death penalty advocates is, “in our case (as Christians) the wrong-doer must be made better, not by force, but by persuasion”. However, the full quote is from “On the Priesthood”:
“Christians above all men are not permitted forcibly to correct the failings of those who sin. Secular judges indeed, when they have captured malefactors under the law, show their authority to be great, and prevent them even against their will from following their own devices: but in our case the wrong-doer must be made better, not by force, but by persuasion”
St. John is not denying the authority of the State, nor its responsibility to punish and restrain the evildoer. What he is saying is the Church does not use force to convert souls.
In the Christian West, St. Thomas Aquinas sums up the consensus of the Western Fathers in his commentary on I Corinthians 5: “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump’ (1 Corinthians 5:6)” (ST II-II q. 64, art. 2).
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states in section 2267 :
“Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
The Lutheran Church in America, in a statement issued by the Third Biennial Convention in 1966 states that Martin Luther and its historical confessions recognized the inherent authority of the State to resort to capital punishment in order to protect society.
I cite the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions because they are still essentially rooted in and refer to many of the pre-schism traditions of the historical Church. Both of these reflect not just isolated quotes from their respective Fathers, but the corpus of both pre-schism and post schism patristic witnesses. However, the statements I quoted are not the full story and they have both, in the last few decades, issued statements essentially saying there is no good warrant for the state to exercise its authority in this realm for various reasons. And I will address those issues and reasons in later podcasts. The point for the purposes of this topic is to show that the universal Christian witness from the beginning points to the State’s divinely ordained permission to execute evildoers if it deems it necessary for the common good.
On the Orthodox side of things, in the “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” the Russian bishops underscore St. John and Bill Gould, and essentially concur with the Catholic and Lutheran statements. It says,
“The Church should not assume the prerogatives of the state, such as resistance to sin by force, use of temporal authoritative powers and assumption of the governmental functions which presuppose coercion or restriction. At the same time, the Church may request or urge the government to exercise power in particular cases, yet the decision (to do so) rests with the state…. There are no indications to the need to abolish (the death penalty) in the New Testament or in the Tradition, or in the historical legacy of the Orthodox Church either…. Keeping in mind that mercy toward a fallen man is always more preferable than revenge, the Church welcomes these steps by state authorities. At the same time, she believes that the decision to abolish or not to apply death penalty should be made by society freely, considering the rate of crime and the state of law-enforcement and judiciary, and even more so, the need to protect the life of its well-intentioned members.”
One might argue that the patristic witness supporting the death penalty was written in the context of a predominantly “Christian world view of the inherent value of life” and therefore may not be fully applicable within our modern “culture of death” as Pope John Paul wrote. I don’t believe that holds up in the face of the covenant with Noah, the fact that the Church at times in its history executed people for heresy under the rubric of “the value of life”, and most importantly that the words of St. Paul were written in the context of a pagan culture and government that had far less regard for human life than our modern era.
“The state does not bear the sword for naught”, St. Paul says. St. John Chrysostom comments on this passage in Romans 13 and says: For he bears not the sword in vain. You see how (God) has furnished him with arms, and set him on guard like a soldier for a terror to those that commit sin. For he is the minister of God to execute wrath, a revenger upon him that does evil.”