Thursday, July 23, 2009

Capital Punishment, Part 1

I'm beginning a four part series on "Capital Punishment" on the "Steve the Builder" podcast. Part One is the beginning of my shift from Woodstockian radical pacifism to the reconsideration of the death penalty from my experiences working with emotionally disturbed boys.
What does Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris have to do with it? LISTEN HERE.


David Bryan said...

I thought you were shutting down the podcast indefinitely to "go fishin'." Guess I misread. GLAD I misread!

s-p said...

Hi David, Welllll...yes and no. (That's a good Orthodox answer). I have a bit of backlogged material for podcasts that I haven't recorded yet. Basically if I get around to it, I'll post one. If my dad says "Let's go fishing" and I miss one, I won't get bent about it. I've had time this past week because I've been working outdoors and I have to quit by one before it hits 115. Priority is still fishing. BTW, may God bless your next 3 years.

David Bryan said...

Ah. I see. Well, good to know there's still some "leftovers" yet to come.

And thank you. Please, keep us in your prayers.

Kirk said...

I sure enjoy your podcast. I agree with you on the death penalty. Can't wait to hear your reasoning.

robert said...

Hi Steve,

I don't have a strong opinion one way or the other on the question itself, but part of what you've said so far could use some push-back. Hopefully it's helpful in strengthening your argument (and perhaps already part of what's upcoming).

1. Your near-mocking of the pacifism you once held was somewhat mean-spirited. I tend to agree with your assessment (especially of the naive and self-righteous Humanistic- and Hindu-inspired academic and Hippie versions) but you're not accounting for the fact that such extreme pacifism was part of the lives and ethos of so many of the Church's saints. There are several levels of distinction, of course, between the holiness of such saints and the naivete of these others (as well as between their situations and responsibilities and our own), but your podcast dismissed peaceableness itself, and in toto, as incompatible with "the real world" rather than specifically the distorted philosophy of those who had influenced you.

2. The "all violence is bad" pacifism you rejected is indeed silly. Like all such black-and-white extremism it is very easily dismissed. However, the question having been framed in such a way easily invites an equally silly response. We are not, in fact, forced to choose between "capital punishment/violence are wrong" and "capital punishment/violence are right". You're correct that the simple pacifism you once held should be rejected because, among other reasons, it lacks the nuance life in this world requires. But it's important, too, I think, to be unswerving in insisting on appropriate nuance in any alternative. I should show my hand here and say that my own not-too-well-though-out position is that violence/capital punishment may be called for at times, but that judgment is required; a blanket statement one way or the other on violence is as useful as similar statements on eating, sex, entertainment, etc.; either position is likely going to be just moralism, not holiness.

An example to elaborate: The boy who attacked you and first made you question your old beliefs quickly made you realize that those beliefs were faulty. The new belief you came to, though, was certainly not that violence is good or even, I'd argue, that violence is acceptable. These are both absolutist statements lacking nuance, just like your old stance. It was something more complex: in this situation, violence was required. In your actual action, you used violence to subdue the young man. You did not do so (I'm assuming) to punish him for his inherent "badness", to take revenge, to use him simply as an object lesson for others, or out of any other sinful motivation, but simply because it was the only way available to you to prevent a specific bad outcome (for both him and others).

robert said...


3. This one is most important, I think: I'm not sure you're asking the right question. I think it's why you're in disagreement with Bishop Seraphim and don't see wiggle-room in his statement. Perhaps the question should not be "is violence right or wrong?" (a question which drives out nuance) but "what are the proper aims of violence?". I would suggest that Bishop Seraphim may not have judged American capital punishment as evil because of its violence, but because of its motivations and ends.

And here's where we'll get more controversial. I believe that it's simply not possible to argue that the motivations and ends of capital punishment in the US are anything other than (1) punishment/revenge and (2) coercive deterrence. The claim that it's to prevent someone from committing further or worse acts of evil (as your own violence against the young man at your center was clearly intended to do) is simply not credible in a land with the resources, stability, and power to restrain such individuals through means far short of killing them. Once someone is in our justice system, restraining them from future evil violence through execution rather than through imprisonment is nearly always a choice rather than a necessity. I suspect it is Orthodox people urging the unnecessary choice of execution that Bishop Seraphim found lamentable, not their refusal to swear off violence. But I could well be completely wrong here. Did the Bishop similarly condemn support of other state violence such as defensive war or police violence?

Sorry for the length and please forgive my presumptuousness.


s-p said...

Hi Robert, Thanks for the comments and you are actually tracking my train of thought well. I will deal with almost all the issues you mention in future podcasts. The nuances are important, including retribution, punishment and restraint etc. I didn't intend the intro to come off mean spirited since it was entirely self referential. Unfortunately there were a lot of us like that back then who were cultural pacifists, not "holy people". The nuance I was addressing was not "holy pacifists", which I think we all understand exist, it was the impression that the Church has no room for anyone BUT pacifists (or that non pacifists are on the fringe). So yes, the point of the series will be to make your point: life is not black and white/either or, and in upcoming episodes I'll unpack the various arguments regarding the use, meaning and purpose of capital punishment both in our society and in others. Its a tough topic, thanks for the feedback, I really do appreciate it. I've gotten quite a bit of email already that has helped sharpen the coming weeks.

Dion said...

The ultimate lurker posts. I tend to agree with Bishop Seraphim on this one. I just can't make the Christian Gospel and capital punishment work together. It is for these reasons that I have always thought it impossible to have a truly Christian state in this age. It wouldn't last long enough to turn it's national cheek before it was overrun by the bully of the month. Self preservation is not one of the takeaways from the Sermon on the Mount. Islam and Judaism are much better equipped to deal with worldly justice, and capital punishment plays a big role in their theocratic legal systems. It seems to me that the justification of violence has been a matter of economia for the Church, like divorce. I know that many Roman soldiers became Christians and remained in the military, so it goes to say that they continued killing in some sort of "just" manner. I guess the question is whether capital punishment is a justified form of state sanctioned violence.

Father Stephen Freeman has a couple of good posts on justice that may apply to this discussion. Perhaps you've read them:


It's ironic that, stereotypically, political conservatives are pro-life/pro-capital punishment while political liberals tend to be pro-choice/anti-capital punnishment. At first glance it appears inconsistent. Each group wants to have control over someone's fate, and both defend their positions from a standpoint of preserving rights or upholding justice.

As Robert put forth, it doesn't seem necessary to put someone to death in this day and age. Considering the potential for mistakes to be made, I would think we would try to avoid it.

That being said, I am looking forward to hearing the rest of your podcasts on this and any other subject. It's obvious that you have come to your opinion through much thought and experience.

s-p said...

Hi Dion, Actually it has been impossible to have a "Christian State" in any age. I don't believe there is a "national cheek" to turn, but a private one. That, I think, is the problem I have with Bp Seraphim's exposition, "forgiving your enemies and turning the other cheek" are a call to the Christian, not the state, hence I can personally forgive someone who murders my family and still believe the state has the right (and perhaps even the responsibility) to execute them (which of course will be unpacked in future podcasts). I plan on doing some future work on why the "death penalty/abortion" flipflop between "conservatives and liberals". Hugs to your kiddo ans wifie.