Priest Aliaksandr Shramko: “Death penalty contradicts the Gospel”
Orthodox priest Aliaksandr Shramko, who serves in the church of St.
Archangel Michael in the Sukharava neighbourhood in Minsk, reflects
on the reasons to abolish the death penalty.
“As of today , what is the Christian view on the death penalty?”
“The complexity of the Christian view on the death penalty is connected to the fact that the Orthodox Church doesn't have a clear social concept, there is no clear ban on the death penalty. However, if we think formally keeping to the content of the Christian doctrine, we can come to another conclusion. First of all, even in the Old Testament, which has more stringent laws, including the ones which are directed at the destruction of human beings, "an eye for an eye", "a tooth for a tooth" purport to contain the society which was in a wild state at the time, so that a man who has killed could kill no more. "An eye for an eye" means a limitation and not a command, not a call that a man had killed the murderer, but a call not to do worse and not to kill more. In our times we can often hear that it is necesssary to put criminals on a stake – not just kill them, but kill with cruelty. That's why it was a limitation even at that time. Secondly, even in some parables of the Old Testament it is stated that revenge is bad. For example, as the Scripture says, "a vindictive will get the vengeance of the Lord". Vengeance is not supported even in the Old Testament. But the present supporters of the death penalty, although they say it is a just punishment, psychologically advocate it on the grounds of revenge.
“And what can you say about the New Testament?”
“This is a new era, the era of charity, having quite different moral criteria, aimed at improving the man. Sermon on the Mount ends with the words: "Be as perfect as your heavenly Father". Although Jesus did not say that it is necessary to abolish the death penalty, he could not say so because he had come to preach the New Kingdom, the Kingdom of God as opposed to this world. So he did not give orders to the laws in this earthly realm, he said that we need to grow and grow to the Kingdom of God – we are given the grace to rise to the Kingdom of God . And when we think about the death penalty, we need to think from the point of view of Christianity – how it will affect Christ's sermon. And in this sense we can see that the death penalty is in conflict with the Gospel. The whole Gospel, the entire New Testament is built on compassion, forgiveness. And in the case of the death penalty forgiveness and mercy don't work. Christianity is aimed at improving the man and his free expression of feelings, not just on restraining his instincts, but on breeding the feelings of Christians in him, as Christ lives in the heart – it is so in the New Testament.
“If the advocates of the death penalty say about its necessity, there is such an argument that in this case people will be afraid to commit crimes ...”
“But this is again at odds with the Gospel. Because the fear of God is one thing, and the fear of a man leads to the oppression of the person, which leads not to the free expression of a person, but to its closure and conservation. That's why if we look from the Christian point of view, we won't see the death penalty in the perspective of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, we will proceed from the fact that from the viewpoint of the New Testament there is no place for the death penalty. Lord Jesus Christ, when the disciples wanted to punish the guilty, asked him: “"Lord, do you want to call fire down from heaven and destroy everything, as Elijah did? But he rebuked them, and said : "I have come not to destroy men's lives, but to save them". So we have to think about it, the salvation of human souls.
Sometimes supporters of the death penalty draw the argument that the most important thing is to save the soul, not the body – they say that even if a person is killed unjustly, the soul will be saved, for he is an innocent casualty. But the Church is against suicide, against euthanasia, against anything that interrupts a person's life, because God has given the man his body and life on earth. Earthly life is just given to man in the perspective of the eternal life, so that he would have an opportunity to come to God during the earthly life, to evolve. And here we cut this evolution. THey say that a person can repent for three minutes. Yes... It can take even three seconds, as in the case of the robber on the cross. But it may as well take ten years. It is necessary to give the opportunity to repoent, God gave people the opportunity to save their souls.
In today's society there are a lot more opportunities to limit the offender. The ancient societies didn't have such an opportunities, as the penitentiary system wasn't developed that well. At present people have the opportunity to live in isolation from the society. Cruelty, which was typical of ancient societies, is declining gradually thanks to Christian education . Human rights and respect for the dignity of man – this is is consistent with the spirit of Christianity. And the respect for the individual, as a unique microcosm in which we can not interfere, crush and destroy it – this is what was brought by Christianity. As the Apostle Paul says: "Don't you know that you are the Temple of God?" It is explicitly stated that a human being is the Temple of God, and one cannot simply come and destroy it. Of course, the man may have himself committed the crime and destroyed such a temple, but it does not mean that he has to be treated the same way.
“During Stalin's purges millions of people were killed, dozens of thousands of priests were shot. Speaking of death, we often forget about the victims of the shooting . How can we separate the concepts of "the death penalty" and " political repression"?
“Millions of people were exterminated at that time. We need to remember these victims, and not just to pay tribute to their memory, but also to think about the consequences of violence, the desire to destroy, to kill. Now they say – one should received a deserved punishment. During Stalin's times they thought that everything is done fairly. However, what is a “deserved punishment”? It is subjective. Someone says that murder should be punished with death, others also say it should be done for the state treachery or an idea, or for belonging to a harmful social strata. This gradually develops such an attitude to people that they can be killed, destroyed.
“The executioner, hangman... How is his profession assessed from the viewpoint of the Christian ethics? There is the commandment “Thou shalt not kill ... " and the executioner kills on behalf of the state.”
“I think that's painful. I have even read the memoirs of some of these people. This is a terrible job. Naturally, a Christian is unlikely to carry out such work. It is simply impossible to imagine. Because a person can not be good, have god in his heart, take the communium and kill at the same time. It is unthinkable. As far as a person who kills another person even occasionally (for instance, by knocking down while driving a car) cannot be a priest. The church doesn't allow it. The demands here are stricter than to an ordinary Christian. And what if a person does not just kill, but does it as a regular job? This is a lost person in general. The existence of such people is detrimental to the society. A judge who passes sentence ... It is also detrimental to them. This judge is also a killer actually. Although he does not pull the trigger , but he orders to kill. Stalin also didn't shoot anyone personally, he just gave instructions to shoot, but we call him a murderer.
“What if such a man comes to confession?”
“All this conerns the state of the man's soul. Such people haven't confessed to me, and I have never heard about such cases. Here appears the question – maybe, even the judges who issue such sentences, and the executioners don't come to confession? I even admit that this is so incompatible with Christianity, that Christians can not tolerate such sentences and don't work as executioners. However, if they issue such a verdict and repent, everything will depend on the individual case. Sometimes it is complicity in the murder, as the decision to make such a judgment comes from some higher instance. People don't just come to church to confess – they don't just come and go... In fact, it is a long work. If such a man comes to church, noone will reject him. However, everything will depend on how he feels it. When he repents , it means that he feels that something is not right.
“Apart from the religious ones, what is Your main argument against the death penalty?”
“In our country, death sentences are executed very quickly, and there is low probability that a miscarriage of justice can be corrected for such short time. The very fact of the miscarriage of justice is a sufficient reason to refuse from using the death penalty. We know that there were many miscarriages of justice, especially in the cases of serial killers. Supporters of the death penalty support the ideal variant – they know who has killed, that he is guilty and they known what to do with him. If there was no death penalty, there would always be an opportunity to correct the miscarriage of justice.
Our Metropolitan Filaret called for abolition of the death penalty back in 1996, during the referendum. And this year he also said: "We, Christians can not justify the death penalty, as it is the sin of murder. The life of every person belongs to God. We didn't give the life to a man, and we cannot deprive him of life. As far as our Lord Jesus Christ sacrificed his life on cross for the life of each of us. The government re-crucifies Christ each time it punishes its citizens with death."
The interview was taken by Palina Stsepanenka especially for the campaign "Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus"