‘He Beareth Not the Sword in Vain’


Nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot.” – San Francisco Police Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood (Magnum Force, 1973)

The modern world is remarkably blasé and hypocritical when is comes to who gets killed, whether by shooting, by sword, or by other means. This is especially true of the bien pensants of the globalist order, who from their perch high atop their moral Mount Olympus are more than happy to set the lumpen straight on when and how killing is good or bad.

For example, government, media, and think tank mouthpieces of the western establishment are quick to scream that the designated Hitler-of-the-month – Milosevic, Hussein, Kaddafi, Assad – is “killing his own people” and that it’s a humanitarian duty for the so-called “international community” to engaging in killing to put a stop to it. On the other hand, cuddly Saudi “reformer” Mohammad bin Salman kills lots and lots of innocent civilians in Yemen – though admittedly, not his “own” people – with lavish help from the same governments that in other contexts favor humanitarian killing. (With friends like Mohammad, who needs Yemenis?)

Or consider abortion. Every right-thinking sophisticate knows that innocent unborn children are expendable and that it is a mark of a country’s respect for women’s rights to dismiss their lives as worthless (predictably, this video was pulled down). (Also worthless are some children with medical issues like little Alfie Evans, condemned to death by the enlightened conscience of British medicine and jurisprudence; or elderly and others now considered candidates for euthanasia.) That’s why once-Catholic Ireland felt the need in a recent referendum to modify protective language in its constitution so they could be like the rest of the chic free-thinking countries in the European Union, which at the moment still excludes Poland and Malta. (Most of Latin America, including perpetual American bêtes noires Venezuela and Nicaragua, has strongly protective laws. An exception is Cuba, which approximates the US policy of abortion at any time in pregnancy for any or no reason.)

But when it comes to killing, the hot topic these days is capital punishment in view of Pope Francis’ recent pronouncement that seemed to change his confession’s teaching on the subject. The previous Catechism of the Catholic Church (Paragraph 2267) promulgated by Pope John Paul II held that “traditional teaching of the church does not does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” That section now has been modified to read:

“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.

“Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

One could argue with the rationale for the change. Few who affirm the moral acceptability of capital punishment would suggest that that the “dignity of the person is lost” because of “the commission of very serious crimes.” Quite the contrary, some would argue, on very high authority indeed, that it is precisely because of human dignity with its divine origin that death is the proper consequence of murder: “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” (Genesis 9:6) As Aaron Wolf of Chronicles magazine observes: “Capital punishment is necessary to preserve the dignity of man, the honor (marred by sin yet still present) bestowed upon man which distinguishes him from the gibbon and the orangutan and the shrimp and the house cat.  Certain crimes against God’s image-bearers have mortal consequences.”

Lest one suppose this is a standard laid down only for ancient Israel (though, given to Noah, it preceded the Old Covenant and applied to all postdeluvian humanity), note that the Apostle Paul laid out the godly duty of secular rulers to enact justice by violent means: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. … if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Romans 13:3-4)

There’s also a sharp debate on the consequences of the Pope’s making the change itself and whether it means other seemingly long-settled teachings are up for redefinition, including on matters like homosexuality. As Rod Dreher of The American Conservative comments:

“So, today, there is no ‘if’ about it: Pope Francis has said flat-out that the death penalty is immoral, and has ordered the Catechism to be written to reflect this new teaching. … It seems to me that the Pope has crossed a bright line. He is denying, for the first time in nearly two millennia of Catholic teaching, and in direct contradiction to the Fathers of the Church, that the state has the right to impose capital punishment. That’s a meaningful difference from saying that the state has that right, but shouldn’t use it.

“Even if you disfavor the death penalty, understand what this means: this Pope has claimed forthrightly that the Catholic Church taught error, but now, at long last, he has set the Church straight. [ … ]

“Catholic friends keep saying to me how much they hope that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches can end our thousand-year schism, and reunite. I would love for that to happen myself, but I keep telling them that even if the Orthodox set aside the historical prejudices that stand in the way, there is no way that Orthodoxy is going to take the chance of reunion with the Latin church that is so unstable, liturgically and doctrinally.”

However, there are those in the Orthodox Church (as well as in mainstream Protestant denominations, most of which have long supported abolition of capital punishment, along withvarious non-Christian groups) who are thrilled with Francis’ change and who call for following his lead.  Notable is Jim Forest, a principled and passionate advocate for the unborn, the disabled, and the imprisoned, as well as a committed opponent of war as international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, writing recently in support of the new Roman Catholic position and advocating its adoption by Orthodoxy (“POPE FRANCIS’S CHALLENGE TO ALL CHRISTIANS: END THE DEATH PENALTY”).

There are at least three things wrong with Forest’s article:

First, its placement in Public Orthodoxy, the publication of the “Orthodox Christian Studies Center” of Fordham University is problematic. Along with The Wheel and Orthodoxy in Dialogue, Public Orthodoxy seems little more than a vehicle for revisionist academics to stir ecclesial discord and advocate the importation into Orthodoxy of moral pathologies that have wrought havoc among the western confessions and in society at large. (See “A Two-Pronged Attack on Orthodoxy and Russia.”) It’s a questionable venue for someone of Forest’s quality.

Second, Forest cites the views of a number of early Christian authorities in a manner that implies they said what they did not say. St. Hippolytus of Rome, St. Basil the Great, St. John of Kronstadt, and Athenagoras of Athens – these, like many others throughout the ages, have spoken in favor of mercy, of inducing repentance by the wrongdoer, and of the terrible gravity of taking human life under any circumstances, even accidentally or in self-defense. That attitude is reflected in historic Orthodoxy’s hesitance to inflict death on criminals (as compared to Western Europe, where in some countries mere thieves were hanged until the 19th century, notably in England). In Byzantium this meant mitigating the many capital offenses in Roman law and even sparing the lives of those guilty of crimes of state, substituting corporal mutilation as a more humane and Christian alternative (“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and …  if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, … for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Matthew 5:29-30). Similarly, until the Bolshevik orgy of slaughter (of course, that wasn’t capital punishment but the “supreme measure” of “social prophylaxis”!) Imperial Russia made sparing use of the death penalty even for murder, as illustrated in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment by Rodion Raskolnikov’s eight-year sentence for a double murder – something that would unheard of in Europe or America. But mercy and forbearance are quite different from claiming that the death penalty is wrong in and of itself and impermissible in all circumstances, which, as Forest must be aware, no Ecumenical or Regional Synod has ever decreed, nor (to this writer’s knowledge) has any Church Father ever taught. Certainly one may personally adhere to an abolitionist view just as one can be an absolute pacifist, but it cannot be claimed that is the Church’s position.

Third, misleading references to two important historical episodes refute Forest’s own argument. Forest cites the action of St. Nicholas of Myra in rushing to the defense of three men condemned to be beheaded by an official, Eustathios, where the holy hierarch “took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed,” forcing Eustathios’s repentance. He also describes how the fierce convert from paganism, Saint Prince Vladimir, Enlightener of Rus’, became so meek a Christian that he ceased putting anyone to death.

With respect to St. Nicholas, Forest omits (no doubt inadvertently, since he mentions it elsewhere) one key fact: that the three men were innocent. Hence, not only were they spared death by the saint’s intervention but all punishment. This account is hardly a basis for arguing that those guilty of terrible crimes should never be executed.

The reference to Saint Prince Vladimir is even more inapt, and Forest has neglected to give us the rest of the story. As related in The Primary Chronicle (or Tale of Bygone Years, Повесть временных лет):

“While Vladimir was thus dwelling in the fear of God, the number of bandits increased, and the bishops, calling to his attention the multiplication of robbers, inquired why he did not punish them. The Prince answered that he feared the sin entailed. They replied that he was appointed of God for the chastisement of malefaction and for the practice of mercy toward the righteous, so that it was entirely fitting for him to punish a robber condignly, but only after due process of law. Vladimir accordingly abolished wergild and set out to punish the brigands.”

Plainly, the very priests sent from Constantinople to nurture the sprouts of the Christian faith in Vladimir’s newly planted land told him in no uncertain terms that the sword on his hip wasn’t just a fashion statement. It was Vladimir’s job as prince, they admonished him, to go out and use deadly force as justly as he could within the limits of human fallibility, whatever the hazards to his own soul. (The reference to wergild is significant. Even Vladimir-baptized-Basil seemed to prefer the Germanic custom of paying restitution for harm, including even taking a life; he was counseled otherwise by Christian catechists who knew their Saint Paul.)

Contra Forest, and with due respect to Pope Francis, the historic, scriptural, patristic teaching that balances clemency with justice was summarized by the Moscow Patriarchate in its Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church: “IX. Crime, punishment, reformation” – as posted on Forest’s website, where it is inaccurately claimed that “the death penalty is condemned”:

“The death penalty as a special punishment was recognised in the Old Testament. There are no indications to the need to abolish it in the New Testament or in the Tradition or in the historical legacy of the Orthodox Church either. At the same time, the Church has often assumed the duty of interceding before the secular authority for those condemned to death, asking it show mercy for them and commute their punishment. Moreover, under Christian moral influence, the negative attitude to the death penalty has been cultivated in people’s consciousness. Thus, in the period from the mid-18th century to the 1905 Revolution in Russia, it was applied on very rare occasions. For the Orthodox church consciousness, the life of a person does not end with his bodily death, therefore the Church continues her care for those condemned to capital punishment.

“The abolition of death penalty would give more opportunities for pastoral work with those who have stumbled and for the latter to repent. It is also evident that punishment by death cannot be reformatory; it also makes misjudgement irreparable and provokes ambiguous feelings among people. Today many states have either abolished the death penalty by law or stopped practicing it. 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.”

It should be noted that while the Russian Federation has observed a moratorium on capital punishment since 1996, the law still remains on the books. If that changes in the future, either by abolishing the death penalty entirely or by reinstating its use, it should be, as the Social Concept states, a matter to be determined by society freely in light of all the issues involved put into proper context. The same is true for other countries, whether or not they are Orthodox or even Christian.