Orthodoxy and the Death Penalty [AUDIO]

Fr. Peter-Michael Preble

On March 9, 2011 the Governor of Illinois signed a law banning the death penalty in his state, commuting the death sentence of 15 prisoners on death row. In the current episode of The Illumined Heart, Fr Peter-Michael Preble, a staunch anti-death penalty advocate, and host Kevin Allen discuss the pros and cons of capital punishment from an Orthodox perspective.

Listen here:

Podcast courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio.


  1. Thanks Fr Hans for posting this link. As you know your work on O.T. (Orthodoxy Today) and AOI (American Orthodox institute) has seeded (including this interview, the article for which I originally saw on the O.T. site) many of my interviews. Thank you for your good and hard work!

  2. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Thanks Kevin. Glad it helps.

  3. One thing often neglected from this discussion is the spiritual good of the executioner acting on behalf of the State. Surely, to be actually responsible for knowingly taking the life of others (even if through relatively painless methods), especially when on a repeated basis, must have an impact on one’s psyche and spiritual health.

  4. Scott Pennington :

    You know, the Church leadership should really refrain from taking up trendy political causes. Abortion is one thing. It has always been condemned by the Church. The death penalty never has. God ordered the Israelites to execute those who committed certain acts. Therefore, it cannot possibly be inherently evil to execute evildoers. St. Paul stated that the sword was given to the government to punish evil and establish order. When a citizen or subject of the Roman Empire heard “sword” and “punish”, they would naturally recall that Roman citizens found guilty of capital crimes were executed by the sword (as opposed to crucifixion). The Byzantine empire practiced capital punishment, although from time to time they did ban it. The Russian Empire practiced it as well.

    Now, if someone forms the opinion that they themselves, for personal reasons, are opposed to capital punishment, that’s all fine and well. It may be imprudent to continue the practice. That’s a political question, not one of Christian morality.

    Also, “homicide” is not murder. Homicide means killing of a human being. Murder is a type of unlawful killing of a human being. The term used in the Old Testament in the Ten Commandments is “al tirtsah”. The verb “ratshah” means murder, not just any killing. When Israelis protested against Ariel Sharon over the massacres at Sabra and Shatillah, they chanted, “Sharon rotseah”, “Sharon is a murderer”. Obviously a general is a killer. That’s his job. Not every general is a murder.

    Fr. Prebble is simply wrong regarding the Roman position. It is true that Pope John Paul II used only the argument of public protection in his argument against the death penalty. He largely ignored the other justifications for punishment in Roman Catholic tradition. This was pointed out ably by Justice Scalia and the late William F. Buckley at the time.

    God Himself certainly holds human life sacred. And He Himself ordered His people to kill murderers.

    It is simply not true that Christians have always been opposed to capital punishment. If you look at the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia from the turn of the 19th-20th century, it states that their Church has no teaching opposed to the death penalty. The last Pope invented his new doctrine out of wholecloth.

    Moreover, it is simply not true that if we quote this or that provision of the Law of Moses, that we have to obey all of it. That’s fairly absurd. Specifically, during the time of the Judaizers, it was decided that the gentiles only had to obey the Noachide laws. Moreover, Peter received a dream from God that lifted the laws of kashrut even for Hebrew Christians.

    From the very beginning, every leader responsible for enforcing the death penalty has known that it was entirely possible and probably inevitable that mistakes will be made. Yet they still passed death sentences. Now, we can be more certain than ever as to whether a person is actually guilty or not. This is actually an argument in favor of the death penalty. A person facing imminent execution is much more likely to repent than a person who has his whole natural life ahead of him. Christians certainly don’t believe that this life is the end of all.

    Moreover, John Lott did some research on the effect of the death penalty and found that each execution saves between 5-17 innocent lives since some murderers are eventually released and since once someone is the subject of a life sentence, they might very well, and sometimes do, kill in prison.

    If Fr. Prebble personally feels that it is wrong to execute murderers, that’s fine. It’s just that there isn’t anything in Christianity that militates against it and, on the face of it, a considerable amount to support it.

    These are just all the typical liberal arguments against the death penalty given a Christian veneer. There is nothing in Orthodox Christianity which militates against the death penalty. The OCA and GOARCH are simply wrong on the subject and should not give the personal opinions of their clergy the weight of Orthodox moral teaching.

    • Scott Pennington :


      Fr. Peter, I just realize I misspelled your last name. I apologize for that.

      Also, I’m not necessarily saying you’re wrong in opposing the death penalty and I’m certain that a Christian can oppose it in good conscience. It just seems to me that a Christian can also support it in good conscience and that the faith does not militate against it.

  5. Michael Bauman :

    Scott, you are correct. The death penalty in and of itself is well within Christian moral teaching. I support the death penalty in general–the right of the state acting on behalf of its citizens to kill for protection and even justice. I also support the fact that facing death is the only way some folks are going to look at their own life and repent.

    Dead Man Walking (based on a true story) stared two actors who arre adamantly anti-death penalty and was, I think, supposed to be an anti-death penalty movie. After watching it, however, I came away convinced that facing death was that the only way the criminal executed was able to face his own responsibility and repent. The one factor in his life that is not in the life of most murders was the spiritual counsel and prayers of the Roman Catholic nun. That has as much to do with his repentance as his approaching death.

    Perhaps those that oppose the death penalty should take a more active role in the justice system, working with murderers and other violent criminals to bring them to repentance?

    None of this, of course, addresses the administration of the death penalty. Rich men, powerful men (or women) rarely face the death penalty even if their crimes warrant it.

    My own opinion is that it should be reserved for the most heinous of crimes and a burden of proof that goes beyond reasonable doubt to as close to certainty as possible. None of that has anything to do with the teachings of the Church however.

  6. I hope what we accomplished with the interview is precisely to show that there is no uniform, consistent, canonical position on capital punishment.

    • Michael Bauman :

      Nor should there be. That is part of the beauty, flexibility and power of being in the Orthodox Church.

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