Archive for June 21st, 2007

Orthodoxy and Torture

June 21, 2007


I generally try to respond to questions, when asked, though my main guidance in writing is to follow what seems good to me and that which I have some experience in. Therefore the limited range of topics…

However in one of the comments recently, I was asked to consider a post on the Orthodox Church’s view on torture and “enhanced interrogation.” First, let me say that I have never served in the military (my draft number was 2 numbers away from being called up during Vietnam), and have no connections with three-letter agencies other than my faithful contributions to the IRS. But having said all that I will share a brief thought on the subject.

When St. Vladimir was received into the Orthodox faith (around 988 A.D.) along with many of his countrymen. Among the incredible deeds of this sainted king were:

  • the establishment of a tithe to the Church from the holdings of the Prince
  • the abolition of capital punishment in the Russia lands
  • the abolition of torture
  • the establishment of public schools (in the 11th century!)

There were many other marvelous works which he set in motion. The ban on torture was counseled against (even by some of the Greek Bishops) for fear that he would not be able to rule effectively without it.

But St. Vladimir’s instincts were correct and founded upon the Gospel. The Church has always embraced the commandments of Christ, even if the state sometimes finds it necessary (in statecraft, not in the Kingdom of God) to do something other than the commandments of Christ.

It is a sin to kill and even treated as a sin if I inadvertently cause the death of another. Torture is certainly a disobedience to Christ’s commandments to love your neighbor and to love your enemies.

Having said that – the Orthodox Church treats those who have violated these commandments as we treat all who violate God’s commandments – we lead them to repentance and the new life in Christ.

Officially, in the U.S., the Orthodox Church of American has urged abolition of the death penalty. Reader’s on the subject would also be interested in the larger statement of the Basic Social Teaching of the Church put forth by the Moscow Patriarchate. They state:

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.

The Church of course condemns both euthanasia and abortion as a matter of Church teaching.

But the Church is not merely a collection of more excellent moral discerments. It is the living body of Christ in this world. We should not be surprised that the world will choose to act as it does in violation to Christ’s commandments. The kingdoms of this world always have and always will do so until “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of Our Lord and His Christ” (Rev. 11:15).

As a citizen in a democracy you may vote for whatever policy a candidate or party advocates, or even work to change such policy. Though politics being as uneven as they are, you will also find (regardless of your political affiliation) Orthodox Christians who vote differently.

What remains unchanged and unchangeable is the Church’s understanding of the faith we have received. If someone participates in a sinful activity, even in obedience to the State, they still need to deal with their sin in the presence of God (generally in confession).

Men should not kill, but they do, and when and if they do, they should turn to Christ asking His mercy. They will find a merciful God. Neither should we cause hurt or harm to others, and if we do we should turn to Christ asking His mercy.

The political agenda of the Church, if there is one, is summarized in the quote I gave from Revelations. But this event is described as an eschatological event and as an intervention by God. If I live long enough to see it, I promise I won’t be blogging.

Pray. Fast. Give alms. Be kind to all around you. Forgive your enemies. Vote if your conscience directs you and never confuse the Kingdom of God with any agenda of a political party. They are not us and we are not them.

I hope this is a helpful reflection on the question that was asked. If it sounded ambiguous on political matters, forgive me. I do not think there is any ambiguity on the Commandments of Christ and His kingdom.  Politics is always ambiguous because their agenda is not the same as the agenda of Christ. They want your votes and they want power.

I have yet to see a saint in the office of the President, much less an Orthodox saint. But I think the actions of St. Vladimir are a good meditation for us all. Imagine making such declarations in the 10th century! It is yet more evidence that the Orthodox faith has not changed. While Vladimir was outlawing torture and capital punishment – Kings of the West were shortly to urge Rome to officially sanction a Crusade. There is no such concept in Orthodoxy. If you’re wearing a cross as an Orthodox Christian, it should be proclaiming that you have willingly embraced the Cross of Christ and are willing to die for the truth of the Gospel – on a daily basis. It does not mean that we have a new symbol enfranchising us to kill others in the name of that symbol.

There are interesting materials for reading on the Orthodox faith and war (with varying perspectives). The web site of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which numbers among its members, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Frederica Mathewes-Green, and others) has a good page of references at their web site. The last year or two have seen a number of books on these topics published. The most difficult thing to do, as a believer, is to sort between one’s political loyalties (which are quite high at the moment) and the truth as taught in the Church. Pray, looking for a pure heart as much as possible, read, and pray some more. God will give us grace to know the truth. And when you know the truth, don’t forget to forgive those who don’t. I encourage you to look at these resources. They are doubtless more informed on these matters than this poor, Southern priest.