At 9:13 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 23, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed 41-year-old Teresa Lewis. She was convicted of plotting to kill her husband and stepson.
She became the first woman in 100 years to be executed in Virginia and the 12th woman in the United States to be executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. (Side note: The United States ranks between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in deaths from capital punishment.)
Without dwelling on the facts of the case mentioned above, let us look at the view of the Orthodox Church regarding capital punishment. First, no single official speaks for the Orthodox Church; each bishop is entitled to interpret church teaching and Scripture as he sees fit for his particular jurisdiction.
However both the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in North and South America as well as the Orthodox Church in America have statements condemning capital punishment. I myself reference “Contemporary Moral Issues Facing the Orthodox Christian” by Father Stanley Harakas, a significant resource on Orthodox ethics in the United States today.
Leviticus 24 speaks of “an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Also in Exodus 21 we read, “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” That would be pretty clear evidence that Scripture allows the death penalty for certain crimes.
I will also admit that the state has the right to do whatever it wants. We, however, as Christians can influence the state as these things are done in our name.
The entire theory of capital punishment is based on retribution. All systems of law as far back as one can be certain espouse this right of the state. However, Jesus teaches that retribution is not right in the love that we are to have toward our neighbor.
In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil … love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Christians have always been opposed to capital punishment because it is the taking of a life – life that is created in the image and likeness of God. The clearest statement comes from the early Christian author Lactantius, who lived between 240 and 320 A.D:
“When God prohibits killing, He not only forbids us to commit brigandage, which is not allowed even by the public laws, but He warns us not to do even those things which are regarded as legal among men… and so it will not be lawful for a just man… to accuse anyone of a capital offense, because it makes no difference whether thou kill with a sword or with a word, since killing itself is forbidden. And so, in this commandment of God, no exception at all ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a man, who God has wished to be regarded as a sacrosanct creature” (Institutes VI, XX, 15).
More recent, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has this to say regarding capital punishment:
“With more information available to us today about the consequences of capital punishment, many Christians are of the opinion that it no longer serves as a deterrent to crime. Statistics of the United States show that the existence of capital punishment in some states and its absence in other states seems to have no measurable effect on the rate of various capital crimes. For a long time now, persons accused of capital crimes who can afford the legal expertise nearly always escape capital punishment. Generally speaking, only the weak, the poor, the friendless have been executed in most recent years.”
The state may have a right to do what the state wishes to do in this regard, but a Christian point of view holds that if the state chooses to employ these methods, then they ought to be consistently enforced. In the words of Harakas, “It is clear that in America we are not willing to do that.”
We Christians have an enormous voice in American society, and the way we can change things is by changing the society at large. I maintain that we should not be trying to influence legislation, but we should be influencing the society at large by our teachings and our witness.
The bottom line in all of this is that each and every life is precious from conception until its natural death. Capital punishment not only plays into retribution, but it eliminates the possibility for reconciliation – another very important aspect of the life of a Christian. We now have the ability to keep a person incarcerated for the rest of his or her natural life, so the need for capital punishment no longer applies.
Scripture implores us, or should I say commands us, to visit those in prison. Therefore we have an obligation to be concerned about those in prison. Christians need to concern themselves not only with capital punishment, but also prison reform. If the idea behind prisons is to reform and correct, then we need to ensure that this is being done.
Pray for the soul of Teresa Lewis, and pray for the souls of those whose lives were lost because of her actions. May their memories be eternal.