Last spring, I had the privilege of hearing oral arguments for a lethal injection case at the U.S. Supreme Court. Working as a television reporter in Washington, D.C. at the time, I had the station’s legal beat and occasionally found myself at the nation’s highest court.
In this case, inmates sentenced to death in Oklahoma were suing the state over its use of a drug called midazolam, the first administered as part of the state’s lethal injection protocol.
There was growing evidence that midazolam—which is meant to render a person unconscious before the painful drugs that actually stop the heart are injected—wasn’t doing its job. A man in Oklahoma and another in Arizona were seen gasping and writhing in pain during their respective executions.
The legal question was whether executions involving midazolam constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” violating the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court wasn’t convinced, narrowly deciding (5-4) to uphold Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol.
The five justices who ruled in favor of the this iteration of the death penalty formed their opinions on legal grounds. I would argue that, perhaps, they were not formed on a moral or ethical ones.
However, the Orthodox Church—through several local Churches worldwide—has taken action to oppose it.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken about the perversion of violence and hatred against other people in any form, including corporal punishment.
“How can [Jesus] support the death penalty for people’s wrongdoings, especially when He came to save the lost, and desires ‘that all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth?’” Patriarch Bartholomew said during a 2013 speech at an ecumencal gathering in Espoo, Finland. “How can life possibly embrace death?”
The Moscow Patriarchate has also encouraged mercy over lethal punishment, noting that the abolition of the death penalty provides more opportunities both for the Church to engage in pastoral work and for those who have committed crimes to repent.
“Today, many states have either abolished the death penalty by law or stopped practicing it,” the Russian Church’s document on the basis of the social concept states. “Keeping in mind that mercy toward a fallen man is always more preferable than revenge, the Church welcomes these steps by state authorities.”
Fortunately, 82 percent of countries have either introduced moratoria on the death penalty by law or in practice or have abolished it entirely.
Here in the U.S., where the practice is still legal in most states and in the federal government, Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos has worked extensively to put an end to the death penalty, having served twice as president of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty before it was finally banned there in 2011.
Like virtually all contemporary social issues, this one is vastly complicated and riddled with nuance. But the data and research overwhelmingly paint a picture of a death penalty that doesn’t really work.
Death penalty convictions are often based on the race of the accused and of the victims, inmates are frequently removed from death row after evidence is found of their innocence, claims that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder are flawed, and enforcing the death penalty costs taxpayers millions of dollars more than it would to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison.
When basing a decision in the supreme value of human life and the virtue of mercy, it becomes even more obvious that the death penalty should be discarded.
If your justification for opposing abortion is a personal commitment to champion life, why let the death penalty slide? Surely, “pro-life” has to actually mean “pro-life.”
Remember that Christ Himself prevented the legal execution of a woman (John 8:3-11), saying “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”
World Day Against the Death Penalty is marked every year on Oct. 10.
Andrew Romanov is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).
The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.