Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On Capital Punishment

For many years now, I have been, to use a label, “pro-life.” By that, I mean that I consider that an abortion is the unnecessary taking of an innocent human life. I will concede that there are sometimes circumstances in which this action is necessary, although extremely rare; and, given that so much of what we believe and do as Orthodox Christians comes out of the interplay of the tensions between the theoretical norm and the pastoral realities of life, I can live with that small exception to the rule that all life is sacred.

Running concurrently with my pro-life position has been a position in support of capital punishment. I have cited, as a basis for this position, the numerous instances in the Bible in which capital punishment is mandated. Of course, when I said, “Bible,” I was being, to a certain extent, disingenuous. The more correct statement would be, examples from the Old Testament of the Bible. Sitting here at my desk today, with thoughts prompted by an article in Christianity Today, it occurs to me that the instances of capital punishment that come to mind from the New Testament – the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the stoning of St. Stephen the Protomartyr – were not examples that support the modern-day arguments in favor of capital punishment. These do not negate the Old Testament directives; but we should be willing to consider the change in circumstances that is in operation now that we do not live under the Law, but under grace in this, the New Testament era.

This brings us to the case of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, a medical doctor who was the director of one of only three clinics in the United States where abortions after the 21st week of pregnancy were performed . He was shot and killed while he was serving as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas. In an article entitled, After George Tiller’s Death, Ted Olsen considers the implications of this on the on-going debate about abortion in the United States today. In the article, he quotes Professor Robert P. George of the Princeton University School of Law, who said, among other things, “Every human life is precious. George Tiller's life was precious.” Olsen also quotes Paige Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, as saying, “The murder is not wrong because it hurts the pro-life movement. It's wrong because it's wrong.”

Ms. Cunningham is correct: murder is wrong. The deliberate and intentional killing of unborn children by abortion is wrong; and so is the deliberate and intentional killing of those who perform abortions, and those whose counseling centers direct pregnant women to seek abortions, and those who support the “right” to an abortion. After all, if the response is to lynch physicians who perform late-term abortions, as did Dr. Tiller, why stop there? Why not kill all physicians who perform abortions? And why should those who assist – nurses, anesthesiologists, and so on – be let off the hook for their role in the process? Then, since it takes janitors and clerks and counselors, why not eliminate them as well? And since there are many, many people whose support for abortions creates the political environment that prevents state legislatures from limiting or outlawing abortions altogether, why not erase them from the face of the earth? After that, all we have to do is get rid of those whose silence and indifference kept them from supporting the cause, and everything will be fine – right?

OK, so, I indulged in a bit of hyperbole. So shoot me! Actually, I pondered whether to say that – because the same people who cannot see the flawed reasoning above, who cannot discern that the murder of Dr. Tiller is wrong, may take what I have said (in the ironic voice) as being serious. “Well, you see, officer, Fr. John told me to shoot him…” The vast majority of those in the pro-life movement have not hesitated to say that the murder was a reprehensible event, and that the person who committed this terrible crime needs to be punished to the full extent of the law.

Now, typically, a conviction for the charge of murder carries with it the risk of the death penalty. Here’s one place where the abortion/capital punishment lines cross. Should the murderer of Dr. Tiller, who was, without doubt, responsible for a large number of abortions, and so, in a sense, is guilty of murder… Should Dr. Tiller’s murderer, if found guilty, be put to death?

Is capital punishment – the term we use when the state, presumably after due process of law, puts someone to death – murder? My reason tells me that there are a great many differences between the two; and yet my conscience is tweaked by what Prof. George said: Every human life is precious. And I agree with him: even George Tiller’s life was precious. At some point in such a discussion, someone usually will ask, “Well, was Hitler’s life precious?” While this risks skirting "Godwin’s Law," the question remains; and the answer is, yes, even Hitler’s life was precious, even if it was so only to God. This is not to say that criminals, even in cases of offenses with which the death penalty today is associated, should not be punished. But it is legitimate, even necessary, for Orthodox Christians to consider whether the taking of a human life by the state is desirable.

I think not.

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