A Life is a Life Right? Apparently Not to Some
Texas Governor Rick Perry said on the day his State passed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country that he and the people of Texas “…celebrate and further cement the foundation on which the culture of life in Texas is built.” Ironically, he was celebrating this ‘culture of life’ just as Texas was undertaking their 500th execution since the return of the death penalty in 1976. Declaring the sanctity of life while taking one away is a policy paradox that I have always found fascinating and is a debate that can be found in both liberal and conservative circles, religious and not; a discussion that tries to determine the line between when it’s OK to take a life and when it’s not.
Being born and raised on the east side of Toronto – a liberal part of a liberal city in a liberal country to Greek immigrant parents who were, generally, fairly liberal, it should be no surprise that I am, well, liberal. In Canada abortion is legal and capital punishment is not and the view of the population is a reflection of these laws on those issues, in a general sense, of course. I was no exception and I say ‘was’ because over the course of years (and really, it changed at the time I watched my wife give birth to our oldest), I became pro-life, probably the only pro-life liberal you know. I believe in life, all life. I feel life is precious and, at times, too easily fleeting and should be preserved at all costs using any and all available methods.
This stance is not only a demand of my personal moral code but the moral code I follow as an Orthodox Christian. It may surprise you, but the Orthodox Church is officially against the death penalty, as they are against abortion. Fr. Peter Preble does a good job describing the church’s stance on the subject in his piece “Orthodoxy and Capital Punishment” as he interprets the writing of Fr. Stanley Harakas on the subject. Without going into a deep discussion of theology, Fr. Preble states that “…every life is precious from conception until its natural death. Capital punishment not only plays into retribution but it eliminates the possibility of reconciliation, another very important aspect of life as a Christian.” While everyone can point to passages in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to justify state-sanctioned executions in the name of justice, there are an equal amount of passages in the New Testament, uttered by the Apostles and Christ himself abhorring the loss of life, all life. Even the most basic tenet of Christianity found in Matthew 5:38-40, ‘turn the other cheek,’ can apply to this instance.
As Fr. Preble states, “[Pre-reformation] Christians have always been opposed to capital punishment because it is the taking of a life that is created in the image and likeness of God.” This is it – it comes down to this baseline that as not just only Orthodox Christians but as Christians at-large, we are to reject all loss of life as all life is given by God. Judgment of this sort is not for us as corporeal beings but is reserved to God in the life hereafter. That’s why it is incumbent to all of us to not only protect the life of the unborn, but the life of the guilty.
So why is it then that those who identify themselves as religious seem to place different levels of worth on life? From the most innocent and pure unborn child to the most heinous murderer, life is life and it’s all precious… right? A poll conducted by the Gallup company says otherwise. While there is overwhelming support of anti-abortion legislation among those who identify themselves as Christian, there are also equal amounts that support executions. Nearly three quarters of Protestants support the death penalty, as do 66% of Catholics. Granted, the poll doesn’t cover Orthodox respondents, but Catholicism and many elements of Protestantism also decry the use of the death penalty as a viable punishment, as do the Orthodox. I personally know of many Orthodox Christians who are rabid supporters of capital punishment despite the teachings of our church – many of them probably reading this piece, which confuses me.
I’m confused about how people can do it. How can they (you) have it both ways? How can you be a fervent believer in the word of God and at the same time believe in the exaction of vengeance versus reconciliation and forgiveness? How can you yell and protest and defend the right to life of an unborn child but not do the same for a human who has strayed from the teachings of God so that they may have the chance to get on the right path? How can you declare the sanctity of life at an anti-abortion rally yet at the same time support the condemnation of humans to die?
If it’s a question of cost, according to the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the numbers overwhelmingly support never having an execution again. It costs the State of California $137 million a year to keep an inmate on death row and the average stay on death row in California is 20 years; for a grand total of $2.74 billion (yes, billion with a ‘B’) per inmate. Life in prison, conversely, costs $11.5 million a year which over 20 years adds up to $230 million per inmate. These are some staggering numbers. If the death penalty in California were to be abolished, the State would save over $125 million a year per death row inmate (or just over $2.5 billion over the same 20-year course). So, we can scratch the notion of executions being more financially sound off the list, right?
Is it a sense of justice? Statistic after statistic shows that those with means nearly always escape death row. As Fr. Preble states, “Generally speaking, only the weak, the poor, the friendless have been executed in recent years.” Where’s the justice here? The Christian virtue of fairness? Quite frankly, nowhere to be found. This can come off the list too then, I suppose. So what do we have left? Just vengeance and a need for retribution, it seems. A normal human reaction to a murder – an eye for an eye, right? Isn’t that how it goes? Not according to the moral code of Orthodox Christianity, or the New Testament for that matter, so that’s not going to cut it either now, is it?
At the end of the day, you will believe what you will and you will justify in your mind to make it palatable to yourself. That’s fine, that’s what humans do. But the next time you debate and argue your pro-death penalty and anti-abortion stances, think of what life is, what it really means. Think of the paradox that you are living and ask yourself how comfortable you are with that – not just from the perspective of Orthodox Christian thought but from a completely humanistic sense. If you’re fine with it, then good for you, but I suspect at least a few of you, when you think about it, will have trouble making this reconciliation.