Joseph Bottum’s article opposing the death penalty on putatively Christian grounds has gained some attention online. Winning the prize for conciseness and clarity is The Japery‘s brief statement at The New Pantagruel. Hugo Schwyzer, a liberal Christian blogger (or, as he would have it, a “progressive consistent life-ethic Anabaptist/Episcopalian Democrat”), applauds Mr. Bottum for bringing First Things closer to what he calls a “consistent life” position, which by itself should make Mr. Bottum very nervous.
But I appreciated Mr. Schwyzer’s comments, as it drew my attention back to what I suppose must have constituted the theological core of Mr. Bottum’s argument (I might be forgiven for having missed the importance of this element with all the erroneous discussion of divine right of kings, et al.). This was supposed to be the profound and insightful bit of exgesis that would convince the readers of First Things that, even though murderers really did deserve to die, they should nonetheless be spared. What was it? It was the fact that Cain killed Abel, but that even then God protected Cain’s life (therefore, we should do likewise in similar circumstances). Wow. What is the bulk of Church Tradition against a piece of Sunday afternoon interpretation like that? What does Mr. Bottum make of the rather blatant and obvious problem that there are entire books of Scripture that lay out, again and again, the ordained killing of not just murderers but a whole host of transgressors? Of course, being under the New Covenant we all generally agree that the Law does not have the same supreme authority that it once had under the Old, but whether or not a particular punishment is specifically mandated by divine law there is no escaping the fact that legitimate magistrates are authorised to use such extreme punishments. As First Things‘ contributors love to remind us all when it comes to warfare (a kind of killing Mr. Bottum’s colleagues can really get behind almost without reservation), these prudential judgements are made by the secular authorities, and the Church recognises that it is their place to make these decisions.
A few things should be cleared up. In the Orthodox Church, as among Catholics, the Fathers do not ‘endorse’ capital punishment, partly because almost all Fathers of the Church have not lived in societies where the usage of capital punishment was ever seriously questioned on moral or any other grounds, so that it was especially incumbent on them to try to alleviate the harshness of a law that would undoubtedly be too brutal. Most never saw a world where the taking of innocent life could be treated so cavalierly, so we can imagine that they would have stated their abhorrence of murderers and the punishments due such people had the society around them not already held such a strong view.
In truth, as the Book of Ezekiel (Ez. 33:11) tells us, as phrased in a common Orthodox prayer, God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should return to Him and live. This is, in brief, the whole of God’s desire throughout salvation history. Nonetheless, just as death has entered the world through sin, because God has allowed it as a limit to sin, so it is fitting and reasonable that God would permit, nay, require that a vicious and impious person who not only steals another’s life but commits sacrilege in marring and attacking one made in the image of God be put to death as a limit to his sins and a limit to the destructiveness wrought by sin in the world. Certainly, the Fathers acknowledge the authority of the secular arm to do this, and in the past in the Byzantine case they acknowledged its legitimacy under Roman law.
Even though God did not create death, and He takes no pleasure in the death of any of His creatures, He turns even this evil to some good and to the accomplishment of His will. And it is painfully evident that God wills that men love one another as He has loved us, and certainly not that men slay one another: what could be more heinous, more alienating from God and sinful, than repudiating one of the two great commandments given us by the Lord by doing violence against another person? How else should we treat someone who has transgressed this sacred boundary than to execute him in payment of his debt? Against this, what possible sense can Mr. Bottum’s argument make?