With Envy and Justice for All

evil_eye_by_vintagexxrose-d5fxqy8We use many words and concepts in our daily lives without bothering to consider their true content. In my experience, few words are less examined than “justice.” It is a word that is foundational in the modern world with deep roots in religious tradition. Most people would agree that the desire for justice is virtually innate in human beings. However, it has a dark side of which very few seem to be aware.

In the religious tradition, justice is usually grounded within God Himself. Some associate this justice with God’s demand for right conduct from His creation. There is also the sense that justice has a way of “balancing the scales.” An evil done brings an evil reward (punishment) while good brings blessings. In theory, at least, justice plays a role in the legal systems of almost all cultures. We desire to make things right.

Or so we tell ourselves.

There is a darker desire that masks itself as justice – and I would contend that it is this desire that most people experience when they speak of justice. It’s name is envy.

Envy is not the desire to have what someone else has – that desire is named covetousness. Envy is the desire we have for the other to “get what’s coming to him.” It does not mean that things will, in fact, be made right. But there is a feeling that wants the other to suffer, to be deprived, to be shamed, to be punished, to be plundered or suffer loss. All of these things are the work of envy.

In the Tradition, envy is considered by some to be the primary sin. The Scriptures say that Christ was put to death on account of envy (Matt. 27:18).

Envy is also associated with what is popularly called the “evil eye.” Though many of the things associated with the “evil eye” are purely superstitious, the evil eye itself is quite real. It is referenced by Christ Himself (Matt. 6:23). Pagan cultures of antiquity believed that the eye emitted something like “rays” or “influence.” Thus a wrong look could cause harm to another. This was rejected by Christianity and Judaism. Christ describes the eye as something which “receives” rather than “projects.” Thus the “evil eye” does its primary harm to the one who is doing the looking. Nevertheless the envy of others is quite dangerous and we do well to pray for protection.

Our instinct for equality (even children complain when someone is not sharing) is easily translated into envy. We no longer look for equality. If you will not share with me, then I will at least be satisfied if what you have is taken away from you.

In the course of our day we see the world through this lens of envy. Someone annoys us and we quietly, even secretly wish them harm.

A pro-football player makes public remarks that seem arrogant. We quietly think that it would be quite fitting if he would fail in his game and be shamed before all.

This desire for the failure and shaming of others, however, is often interpreted as “justice.” When we say that someone has gotten what they deserve – we perceive this as justice and we do not see ourselves as doing anything wrong in having such thoughts.

Here the full quote of Christ regarding the evil eye is worth noting:

The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Mat 6:22-23 NKJ)

How we see the other is essential. The only manner of seeing the world that is commanded by God is to see the world with blessing. Everything else is born of sin. And sin, when properly understood, is not about the breaking of rules and legal or moral debt. It is always about death – our own death – physical and spiritual.

When we see the other as the object of our desire (other than the desire for blessing) that desiring quickly becomes envy. We want them to get what they deserve. We want them to do what pleases us. Even our desire for others “to behave” is frequently still a form of envy. And these desires darken the eye. They harden our hearts.

And the eye is the “lamp of the body.” The look of envy darkens the soul and makes true discernment impossible. It is in this lack of discernment that people fall into the delusion of “justice.”

Those who call for the “justice” (or “wrath” etc.) of God to fall on others only succeed in darkening their own eye. I have noted that few in our culture refrain from such pronouncements – only in the nature of the crimes for which they call for justice to fall.

The path to the light is difficult. We refrain from judging not simply because it’s “wrong.” We refrain from judging because it darkens our very soul. I would suggest as well, that Christians who ground their view of our relationship with God in ideas of justice seriously reconsider. It is a theological pathway that will darken the soul. Rather than revealing the true and living God, it will distort our understanding.

In the words of St. Isaac of Syria: “We know nothing of God’s justice.”



  1. I’ve always understood jealousy and envy as distinguished from from another in this: jealously desires to acquire what the other has; envy, on the other hand, wants the other deprived of his advantage. Jealousy in the one-eyed man says, “I want to see like two eyed people.” Envy in the same man wants their second eye put out. The jealous man wants to acquire the same goods the rich possess; the envious man wants their wealth destroyed so they can live at his level. Much of politics is motivated by envy.

    Christ does command us not to judge “lest we be judged; for with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged and with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.” Not quite the absolute prohibition it is made out to be when only “judge not” is quoted.

    On the other hand, Christ also commands: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” (John 7:24) It is not often quoted. I wonder why not?

    I don’t think on the Scriptural basis it can be baldly said that ‘judging is wrong.’Does judging righteous judgment not according to appearances also darken the soul? If so, why does Christ command it? Or does Christ say that so that we’ll all disqualify ourselves as incompetent to judge righteous judgment, because we all are capable only of judging according to appearances? How about those who job it is to pass judgments? Are their souls darkened thereby?

  2. Interesting. When I think of my own desire for justice, I think of the world’s human rights abuses and inequalities. I hope for those in power to refrain from misusing their positions. Although I’ve occasionally been guilty of holding a grudge in my personal life, most of the time I see justice and punishment as independent of one another. Other than economically, one person’s gain usually doesn’t necessitate another’s loss.
    But I’m certain to have blind spots, perhaps I’m wrong or delude myself.

  3. You have given my children and me much to think on with this post. I have been hearing too much “it’s not fair” from my boys and this post was very timely. Thank you, Father.

  4. As always a very well written and thought provoking post. As a convert this is the first I have heard of the “Evil Eye”, is this perhaps more prominent in certain Ethnic Groups within Orthodoxy? More elaboration on this would be helpful.

    I did have a couple of practical questions, Are you telling us we as Mankind should not enact Justice as we often fail in our attempts by bringing in envy and other sinful behaviors into our decisions but leave it to God in his time and is his way? As imperfect as our systems of “Justice” are we do need some guidelines to have a functioning Society and to keep Evil from harming others. Should I as an Orthodox Christian ask for relief from Jury Duty (esp. Capital cases) in order not to pass Judgement nor support a system that is not (primarily) based on Godly principles but on the Laws of Man?? Perhaps I am not smart enough to grasp your full meaning so forgive any errors I may have in my questions. I always want to be able to,put my Faith into practice as our lives are the best tool for bringing others to the True Faith.

  5. Fr. Justin,
    Christ is in our midst!
    I agree that judging is not inherently wrong – but – I think righteous judgment is inherently difficult. My purpose in describing the envy that is often described as a desire for justice is that we not think so easily about “righteous” judgment. Often, though our cause is “just,” our judgment is not.

    It is a difficult and even dangerous life that those whose task it is to pass judgment engage in. Like a soldier in war, whose task is to kill, he will not escape with no damage to his soul regardless of how just his cause. So, yes, the souls of those who have to pass judgment are darkened by their work. We should pray for them and be merciful to them, and they should pay close attention to their souls lest their hearts become too hardened.

    The few times in the life of a priest where we actually have to judge (I think of certain circumstances in managing a parish), can be extremely difficult. Firing an employee would be an example.

    Disciplining a child can carry this same burden. I’ve seen parents darkened in the course of discipline. The life of the Cross is a difficult life, as you know.

  6. Tikhon,
    Obviously, we have to enact justice in our laws. But we will fail to a greater or lesser degree. And, as I noted in my reply to Fr. Justin, the exercise of “justice” carries a burden and a spiritual weight. It should not be ignored.

  7. Father Stephen, could you speak to the avenue of criticizing God for the ideas of Hell, there is a movement that seems to call God on his sense of Justice if one soul ( God forbid , goes to hell), there seems to be something shallow about the thesis , ( besides misreading some of the fathers ), it’s more born of an ultimatem of ‘ my sense of justice’ …, sorry not sure , can’t put finger on it ,

  8. Our Holy and God bearing Fathers interpret the Scripture this way:

    “It is not right to judge anyone, even if you have seen someone sinning and wallowing in the violations of God’s laws with your own eyes, as is said in the word of God: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Mt. 7:1).” St Seraphim of Sarov. May we be illumoned by his holy prayers.

  9. Thank you, father Stephen, for writing this post, which I am taking very personally and which brings a much needed clarification for me:) I struggle sometimes with grudges and envy (not jealousy, because I think I know enough about the human nature to know that having something we want doesnt always feel as good or fulfilling as we had imagined before getting it). It is an envy triggered by the arrogance and carelessness I perceive in others (which probably speaks volumes about my own) and sometimes I irrationally want them to be “toned down” a little. It’s always triggered by my ego being hurt one way or another and yes, it is very darkening. I thank God for the sting of shame I feel when I have such thoughts, shame which serves as a warning and which helps me to not succumb completely to envy.

    The common folk around here are both religious (though uneducated about our own faith) and superstitious (through lack of education, I’d say) and expressions like “God sees”, “God’s justice will come”, “God doesn’t beat with a stick”, “may God give him/her what they deserve” (punishment) are very frequent when we are under the impression that someone faults us. I find this repugnant and invoking of a God that maybe isn’t the real One.

    I have huge troubles understanding justice in a punitive way because whatever punishment may be inflicted upon someone after making a bad deed, it will NEVER UNDO the wrong which had been already done. So the entire concept of punishment is something I don’t really understand, it feels unnecessary and absurd. I understand that the human justice operates in this flawed way, punitively, but I trust that God’s justice is completely different from ours, even with hell being a reality that cannot be denied. (It was on this very blog that I first learned, that the forensic model of hell was inaccurate and realized how much work God has to do with us to make us suitable for heavens).

    Also, I have noticed that in our society we are very easily offended and sensitive to what we perceive as judgement. You can hardly say, “this is a wrong thing to do”, because people tend to immediately take it personally and react with “only God can judge me”, “who are you to judge me”, even if there was no judgement being passed on the person but only on a specific behavior. But this is something linked to many of Father Stephen’s articles about individualism, democracy and choice. Everyone feels entitled to being right because everything is relative.

    But I don’t think I will be called to answer for that and for what others are doing; may God help us all overcome our grudges to the point of never feeling a grudge again. And I guess it is not wrong to pray to have the satisfaction of seeing somebody being punished for their deeds (justice being served) removed from us as well.

  10. Saint Isaac also provides us with an unfailing criterion concerning our success in nearing God or not (which criterion, is not unconnected to freedom from envy), by saying that, ‘the closer one gets to God, the hollier all others seem to his eyes’.

  11. ‘lia,

    you might want to listen to this http://www.sfintiiarhangheli.ro/multimedia/conferinte/doamne-lumineaza-ochii-mei-ca-nu-cumva-sa-adorm-intru-moarte – it is rather long, but definitely worth the trouble, there is somewhere in the middle a very-very edifying part, a deeper digging into “how we see the other” (my apologies for those who do not understand Romanian, the English version of the site is not available yet).

    Father, please forgive me this boldness. And thank you for this reminder. Envy is such a cancer.

  12. This is so interesting, Fr. Stephen. Thank you for lifting up ‘envy’ as such a (negatively) powerful motivator in seemingly ‘good’ actions. As you have written before, it goes so hidden much of the time. I didn’t even know what it was (consciously) until a few years ago–no one talks about it.

    I think I mentioned sometime back a powerful book I read on this that changed my perception entirely–Cinderella and Her Sisters; The Envied and the Envying, by Ann and Barry Ulanov. It’s part psychological, part theological, using the story of Cinderella to highlight movements of envy. If I remember rightly, the emphasis is that envy arises out of despair of the ‘good’, and hence seeks the destruction of ‘the good’, rather than, as others have noted, jealousy which, although covetous, at least actually recognizes the good as good. Envy tries to annihilate the good, which is what feels so shameful about it to me. What I like about the book is the compassion it offers for those of us who suffer from envy, and the hope of envy’s transformation.

  13. Thank you Fr. Stephen,

    My priest recently preached on Christ’s actions which constituted judgement. The upshot was a judgement that brought the person to a place of clarity for decision, not a pronouncement of wrath or punishment. It is active discernment for the salvation of the other, nothing more nor less. In this case judgement is at the service of mercy. Perhaps this should be our litmus test when we are judging?

  14. Whenever a topic like judgement (or wealth) comes up, many people want first and foremost to figure out how to justify what is forbidden- our Holy Fathers say judgement is forbidden us.

    “”An old man said, ‘Judge not him who is guilty of fornication, if thou art chaste: or thou thyself wilt offend a similar law.  For He who said, ‘Thou shall; not fornicate’ said also ‘Thou shalt not judge.'”

  15. Dostoevsky channeling for contemporary staretzi sums things up beautifully:

    “Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of anyone. For no one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime. When he understands that, he will be able to be a judge. Though that sounds absurd, it is true. If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me. If you can take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach. And even if the law itself makes you his judge, act in the same spirit so far as possible, for he will go away and condemn himself more bitterly than you have done. If, after your kiss, he goes away untouched, mocking at you, do not let that be a stumbling-block to you. It shows his time has not yet come, but it will come in due course. And if it come not, no matter; if not he, then another in his place will understand and suffer, and judge and condemn himself, and the truth will be fulfilled. Believe that, believe it without doubt; for in that lies all the hope and faith of the saints.”

  16. Father Stephen,

    i wonder, how do you see this applying to imprecatory psalms? i understand we interpret these allegorically, but at the more prima facie level, is this what they express?

    Isn’t there any sense in which we might desire punishment for someone–in the sense that we want them to reform their ways for their own good? i understand the temptation for envy is still latent here, but aside from that. What if i am concerned because of someone’s reckless, destructive path in life, and it appears he/she won’t ever turn around until he/she faces dire consequences? People often say “i had to hit rock bottom…” That desire in itself is not evil, is it?


  17. Please don’t confuse “justice” with “fairness”. Justice is to fairness as miracles are to magic. One is from God, the other from the Devil. “Fair” is not necessarily evil, but “fairness” nearly always is because it is rooted in envy.

  18. James,
    I agree that justice and fairness are not the same thing – though in popular consciousness, little distinction is made between them. Justice, setting things in their right order, is difficult, even simply an ideal. Thus jurisprudence, particularly in civil law, works primarily with fairness. Justice is too removed to be truly implemented.

    More importantly, the justice of God remains hidden. I do not suggest that a concern for justice be discarded – only that true discernment reveals most discourse about justice to be little more than conversations driven by envy.

  19. Speaking as someone that had to hit rock bottom, it is more important for people not to participate in my sin, not to help me sin, if you see what I mean. Someone that loved me very much decided that I couldn’t live with her anymore because of my sin and the fact that I was hurting others around me. She did not want to see me punished or to see me hit that bottom, she wanted me to get well. There is a difference in wanting someone to hit the bottom and wanting someone to find grace and mercy and wholeness. If you have ever seen what rock bottom looks like, then you would never, never!, want to see that happen to anyone.

  20. There is a difference between punishment out of fear or revenge and coercive correction for the protection of others AND possibly for the salvation of the offenders soul. Of course, modern civil ‘justice’ does neither of those things as it has become as capricious and ideological as the rest of the secular culture.

    The movie, “Dead Man Walking” was filmed with the intent that it be an anti death penalty film. It was a well not and well acted piece of work. Since it was based on the real relationship between a murder and a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean a lot more than the ideology of the makers came through.

    The murder ends up being executed but during the months he and Sister Helen worked together, he grudgingly came to see that what he had done was wrong and, to some degree, repented. As I watched the movie, it was clear to me that the killer would ever have been likely to get to that point if the death penalty was not. So despite the ideological bent of the film makers, I came out of watching the movie more sympathetic to the death penalty than I was before.

    I would never want to be on a death penalty jury yet it is clear to me that the state has the authority to impose such penalties. Whether it should is another question.

    God never coerces us but He definitely uses the consequences of our actions to help wake us up to our need to repent.

    Once again, the court room scene in Merchant of Venice has a great deal to say to this dilemma:

    The quality of mercy is not strained.
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
    ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
    The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
    His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
    But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
    It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
    It is an attribute to God himself.
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
    When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this-
    That in the course of justice none of us
    Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
    The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
    To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
    Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
    Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.”

  21. Michael,

    “There is a difference between punishment out of fear or revenge and coercive correction for the protection of others AND possibly for the salvation of the offenders soul.”

    This definitely helps me formulate my question better. Given that there is this distinction, can a person ever desire the latter purely–without any taint of envy?


    i’d say it’s in virtue of my ‘rock bottom’ experiences that i have come to desire that for others in some cases. Not because i wish them the harm that i experienced, but the redemption. Like David writing “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn Thy statutes.”

    But maybe that’s still just latent envy on my part.

  22. Perhaps it is all about motive and why we want what we want. I also think that sometimes we must walk away from that sort of judgement call because we cannot, at that time, have a pure motive. It is very hard for me to have a pure motive about anything.

  23. guy, everything we do as human beings is tainted to some degree. The greatest of saints may get beyond such things, but not by there own testimony.

    I am certainly not a saint so I could never achieve the level of purity.

    There is an important distinction here though: individual vs corporate, desire vs law.

    In a nation where fealty to Jesus Christ was the norm, the death penalty might be administered well–an open question. BUT it would not be needed as much if at all.

    In any case, the law is always superseded by mercy as Portia’s speech makes clear and mercy is not merely a personal, individual responsibility. In fact, it is not primarily an individual responsibility.

    Also as Portia’s speech makes clear, mercy is just as much about the accuser as it is about the one accused. Shylock’s refusal to grant mercy and demand the law ends up costing him everything, even his beloved daughter.

  24. Stanley Hauerwas at Duke University, famously notes that anytime we agree to take charge of the outcome of history, we agree to do violence. It’s not just that we lack pure motives – in some situations the purest motives will still require us to kill. And I see the enemy’s hand in that. No matter how lofty the goal (and justice gets very lofty), when finally he whispers in your ear, “And then you kill him…” we should know whose voice we are hearing. He wants to draw us into his conspiracy of murder (for “he was a murderer from the beginning”).

  25. Father Stephen,

    i’m a little confused about how this comment relates to your essay. i thought the topic of the essay was the matter of motive and intention (and perhaps self-deception). We have motives/desires that we have named “justice,” but as you point out, this is just envy or revenge masquerading as righteousness. My only question was whether it is ever possible to desire that consequences of sinning befall a sinner without any such evil motive or desire. In other words, i’m asking about the scope of your claim. Are you claiming that *all* desires for “justice” entail an underlying evil desire?

  26. Guy,
    Hmm. We could certainly pray for the correction of another – but I think the whole issue of consequences winds up not as justice, but as wanting to be in control of how the correction is to occur – which probably winds up as envy. Is it impossible to righteously desire justice? I suppose so. It’s just that we’ll rarely see it. Perhaps I should amend and say “virtually” all entail an underlying evil desire. But then, of course, all of our desires will become exceptional.

  27. The only way I can pray for someone who I think needs correction, especially an enemy or someone who has/is hurting me, is the prayer of Jesus from the Cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Then, I’m including myself too especially if I follow it with the Jesus Prayer.

    Anything else and I end up praying “at them” in a self-righteous rant rather than for them. Don’t think that is what St. Paul meant when he said to pray for your enemies and thereby heap coals of fire on their head.

  28. Father Stephen,

    That’s clearer, thank you. i recognize you’ve given a definition of justice here, but my concern is this: when we think of justice more conventionally understood, i guess i’m not prepared to say that when people desire justice, there’s no sense in which they desire a good thing or there’s no part of what they desire that is worthy of desire.

    i recognize that often when we want “justice,” what we want is revenge. (While reading your article, i thought of the scene in Order of the Phoenix [Harry Potter] where Harry is expelled and his uncle with sinister satisfaction says “Justice!”.) i can definitely name you occasions in my own life where in hindsight that’s all my cry for ‘justice’ was about. But i’m thinking about Paul saying ‘God is not mocked, whatever a man sows, he’ll reap.’ Is there no sense in which it is good for people to reap what they sow?

    i recognize the pastoral warning here–“Yes, but, exceptions quickly become justifications for normalization and self-righteousness.” i grant all that. i’m certainly not denying any of that, and i’m not claiming any sort of immunity from such temptations. i just mean to be asking a question about ethics.

  29. Guy,
    Ethics is about the rules governing things, but I’m speaking of the human heart and its healing. I believe it likely that even hell is for our correction in the hands of a good God, though when we damn someone to hell it isn’t at all what we have in mind.

    We sometimes speak in “abstract” terms, and may say that’s what we mean when speaking about justice. And perhaps we would like justice done in the abstract. But justice is never an abstraction. And when it is actually applied, I find no one that I know so altruistic as to be free from envy as I’ve described it. Look to the heart for the answer to this and not to the abstract.

  30. Father,

    “Look to the heart for the answer to this and not to the abstract.”

    i appreciate the answer, and i’ll think about it. But i think philosophy has probably ruined me on being able to do what you suggest here.

  31. The problem comes in when we decide what someone else should reap based on what we believe they have sown.

    True justice only exists in the presence of omniscient kenotic love–that is why only God judges rightly.

    For the rest of the course of justice does not lead to to salvation.

  32. Guy,
    By heart I do not mean sentimentality. Philosophy does many things but nothing robs us of the heart. It is the seat of the true self. A man has no self knowledge if he does not know the heart. The first word of philosophy belongs to Socrates: “Know Yourself.”

  33. Concerning the idea that one may wish justice on some wrong-doer for their own good, for their own correction, out of pure motives, I would humbly suggest the following.

    Given our Lord’s perfect goodness and wisdom, we should rather pray for mercy upon the evil-doer, trusting that any facing of consequences for their action would be of benefit to them, this would fall under the umbrella of said mercy.

    Conversely, any justice or part thereof that is not, in itself, part of mercy cannot be justice for the sake of the offender.

    Furthermore, though it may be argued that such justice may at least be for the sake of the offended and the society as a whole, I have a suspicion that mysteriously it would not.

    In other words, I suspect there is only the “justice” part of mercy, which, like the rest of mercy, heals Man, and there is “justice” outside mercy, which only harms Man.

    (Not that these things can really be chopped up and compared – the language is figurative).

  34. Sometimes folks just need to be separated from most others because they don’t play well with others and have neither the intention nor the ability to do so–like the man who “got saved” while in jail for fraud committed at age 21. He got out became a preacher and began working with the FBI to catch other fraudsters. Trouble is he embezzled 2,000,000 dollars from the church and used the investigations of the FBI to manipulate stocks.

    No justice, but it is a mercy to him and to others that he be restrained don’t you think?

  35. Michael Bauman,

    I agree on restraining people from crimes of opportunity as you describe but in your earlier discussion you were talking about the death penalty. I do not think as an Orthodox Christian I could ever support this. To so remove or reduce someone’s opportunity for repentance seems to go against the gospel.

  36. Victor, while I think it is prudent of the state not to use the death penalty, it is within the authority of the state.

    Whether that removes or reduces anyone’s chance to repent is unsure to me. For some people, it may well accelerate the process.

    The problem is we have no way of knowing.

    The only cases in which I would think of supporting the death penalty are 1. The crimes are especially brutal; 2. there is clear, unimpeachable evidence that the person charged with the crime did it; 3. there is no remorse; 4. A high probability that the killer will kill again if given the chance, even in prison.

    Given our human capacity for error, that would likely reduce the number of death penalty cases to near zero.

    Of course, even then, it may be a case of just giving the devil what he wants.

    There are some who are so influenced by the evil one that they have lost a significant part of their humanity. I’ve known people like that. They may not be murders, but the crimes they commit are worse than murder and deeply evil, yet they have no feeling of remorse nor are they likely to–just the opposite. Subjecting them to capital punishment may be a bit like making an offering to satan himself.

    In short their is no earthly justice yet we cannot allow that to erode our ability to restrain and even punish those who cause egregious harm.

  37. While death’s prospect may “concentrate the mind wonderfully”, this does not make it right. Christ did not strike anyone dead who was in obvious sin or opposition to Him. To His disciples He said “you know not what spirit you are of” when they wished to do so. While the state does ‘hold the sword’ this does not mean that we should encourage it to wield it in this way. What I meant by removing occasion for repentance is that once dead, from my (admittedly limited) understanding of such things repentance is more difficult, not less. Those who encourage the state to conduct executions, therefore, are not blameless in the likely result.

  38. Michael:
    “…No justice, but it is a mercy to him and to others that he be restrained…”

  39. There are three basic thoughts behind the use of the death penalty: revenge, deterrence, putting someone out of their misery. None of them hold water from a Christian perspective. Deterrence does not even hold water from a worldly perspective.

    It seems to be, as Shakespeare noted, a demonstration of the power of the state over its citizens, “the fear of kings”.

  40. Although Jesus taught that not one jot or tittle of the law was to be abrogated, he also said that He would have mercy not sacrifice. And the heart of the law as is explicit in Deuteronomy is loving God with all of our heart. That love is the fulfillment of the law is it not?

    In a Christian perspective, mercy is paramount is it not? Ideally, folks guilty of what are considered capital crimes would be put into an intense Christian spiritual counseling involving confession on a sub-liturgical level. That is what actually happened with the two main characters in “Dead Man Walking”. Still, the murderer only came to some sort of compunction because death was staring him in the face.

    Such counseling takes tremendous patience, skill and compassion. There are all types of psychopathology, spiritual delusion and demonic influence involved.

    We don’t have that. We have a secular, anti-Christian state who holds no life dear, only the ideology of the moment. Therefore no capital punishment is simply an expedient, utilitarian revenge (if the appeals don’t last too long). Mostly it is a cynical tool of politics and for that reason alone, ought not to be allowed.

    Clearly in the OT, the community of Israel was God’s people in a unique way. While we inherit that community it is much more intimate and inclusive that it was at that time.

    I suspect that the capital punishment of the OT is fulfilled in Jesus’ Death on the Cross and Resurrection.

    The crimes that called for the death penalty can still kill one’s soul, but forgiveness and resurrection are always offered if we go boldly before the throne of grace. We have the example of the woman caught in adultery.

    And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Mt 10:28

    Those who are so damaged that they absolutely refuse to repent? Well, God, or so I have been taught, allowed death to come into the world so that sin would not be permanent. Sin is infectious. Should some be sacrificed so that others might live?

    Killing another human being darkens the soul of the killer, even if it is done in self-defense or accidentally.

    Like most such things that are not dogmatic in nature, the Church allows a lot of leeway.

    The best I can do is speculate that while capital punishment is a valid option for the state that, in and of itself, need not be opposed; the current political and spiritual condition of our country makes it a real problem. Even in the best of situations, it should be used only rarely. I believe that the OT required two or three direct witnesses to the crime.

  41. Michael,

    Thanks for this. Definitely good things to think about. i lean toward opposition to the death penalty, but am ultimately undecided i think. i definitely don’t think i could ever in good conscience take part in deciding a capital case.

    Anyway, i bring up the OT for a couple reasons. The Israelites did have the death penalty. i take it their penal code really was given them by God. If so, not sure i can say that the death penalty is inherently opposed to the nature of God, can i?

    Second, the purpose seems to be one not mentioned in your list. The reason given in the Law was purging evil from the community. (Deut 17:7) i don’t understand this as being retributive or deterrent. i’m not sure how to cache out what “purge the evil from your midst” means exactly. But it does strike me as an additional reason.

    Nevertheless, i think it is arguably the case that in America, anyway, we’re sorely in need of exploring more restorative and rehabilitive forms of penal practices. It appears to me (though i admit this is not my area of research or expertise) that our system ends up leaving criminals worse off than they were, not better.

  42. guy,

    I too have been ambivalent on the death penalty for years and still am.

    Actually cleansing the community of evil was in my list: sacrificing some for the good of others because sin is infectious. That is clearly the motive in the OT as I read it. If it is not done, the infection (evil) becomes embedded in the heart of the community. Just as God allows death so that sin does not become permanent in general, perhaps capital punishment is a specific application of that. But do we judge righteous judgment? It is not present just in the OT, but universally in Christendom including the Justinian code.

    Only since the rise of humanism has the use of capital punishment been curtailed. That is in part due to the erosion of understanding sin and the effect it has on the human soul and the communities of human souls.

    In the Church today, protecting the community against evil can be achieved through exclusion from the Eucharist permanently and perhaps other sacraments such as Unction and not allowing a funeral to be done depending on the decision of the bishop. That is different than a temporary suspension for the purposes of healing.

    Of course that does not keep the person from infecting others in the larger society. Is that our job?

    But it seems obvious to me that willfully unrepentant sinners should not be admitted to the Eucharist.

    People who follow evil should be at least isolated but our culture no longer really believes in evil. The application of the law is more and more capricious. We have no control and little influence over the law makers. But we do have the responsibility to speak prophetically.

    As such, we need to call others to the highest standard don’t you think? We have the responsibility to remind others that there is evil (not in a dualistic/gnostic sense) but as an existential reality that has, at times, a physical manifestation.

    As hard as it is, sometimes that evil is so much a part of the soul of a person that the only way to stop it is to kill the person. That cannot be an individual judgment though, but a community one.

    What is the difference, really between police using deadly force and capital punishment? How can we forbid one but not the other?

    So perhaps we are meant to remain with an uncomfortable ambivalence neither too easily ignoring or acquiescing to evil in our midst nor too easily willing to take the life of another human being?

    BTW the quickest way to get excluded from a capital jury is just to say you have a problem with the death penalty.

    To get excluded from any jury just say, honestly, that you believe it is every citizen’s duty to interpret the laws based on the fundamentals of the Constitution (in the U.S) and not just go with what is instructed by the judge.

    In other words, you don’t blindly trust the state and its officers to impartially mete out justice, nor do you blindly trust defense lawyers and their clients to tell the truth but that we are all sinners and allowance needs to be given for that.

    The lawyers and the judge will know that you are not really going to play well by their rules and will likely exclude you. Or as one of my favorite history professors used to say: “I have a degree in history and have been a student of history all of my life. As such, I am better trained and more practiced in evaluating evidence than any lawyer.”

  43. Michael,

    You said:
    “What is the difference, really between police using deadly force and capital punishment? How can we forbid one but not the other?”

    They are completely different. In the one case someone is acting to protect life. In the other the state is acting to potentially protect life.

    The first instance is the logic of defence while the second is the logic of preemptive striking, the logic of war. While one might say we are at war, the war in question is against evil, not against humans. While some humans are manifestly on the wrong side in this war, our battle is as much for them as it is against their actions.

  44. On capital punishment. The Synod of the OCA specifically condemns capital punishment. All killing in Orthodox thought is inherently a sin. We might find ourselves in situations (protection, war, etc.) where we feel that killing is required or necessary, but we can never say that it is good. The state can do whatever the state wants (and always has). There are arguments from utility (this is more useful than that) for the death penalty (it’s kinder to kill than to imprison), but not killing is a commandment regardless. Anyone, including the state’s executioner, police officer, etc., involves themselves in sin when they take a human life. Anyone who has ever taken a life and is “sane” will tell you how much they hated it and the inner damage that it did. We do no one any favors by telling them that it was justified, etc. Those who kill need to do penance and to be healed, regardless of the circumstance. And the canons are quite clear about this.

    When St. Vladimir embraced Orthodoxy in the 10th century, among his first acts were to abolish capital punishment and torture. Incredible for a newly-converted former pagan Viking-like guy! But he understood the faith. He also tithed everything he owned.

    “What we should forbid” is not a question for Orthodox theology or, even, for the blog. Societies are full of compromise, half-measures, and sin. They belong to that gray realm of “garments of skin,” provisional activities in which we engage that cannot be understood as “forbid” this but not “forbid” that.

    I personally oppose capital punishment. I cannot ask someone else to kill when it is not necessary. And I have had two murders in my family – so this is not theoretical for me. But it’s not a “political” question for me. The state will do what it will. If I have a choice, and can say no to it – I do. And I think it is an appropriate choice in our democracy. But this is all I want to say on the matter.

  45. Father Stephen,

    i have a broader question–this is still a splinter in my mind about Orthodox ethics. Does Orthodoxy hold that it is sometimes necessary to commit an evil act? And if so, necessary for what? To avoid death? Should we ever consider it necessary to avoid death? If so, then what does it even mean that Jesus conquered death for us? What does it even mean to obey Jesus when He says not to fear death?

    Is it because the normativity of good and evil comes apart from the normativity of praise/blame? Or even of obligation? Are there things we are obliged to do (thus necessary in that sense) but are evil? Or when some say things like “it was necessary” do they just mean that the person who committed the act is not blameworthy though it was still evil?

    i am having the hardest time understanding the basis for the talk of things being “necessary” or “required” even though they are evil.

  46. Guy,
    “Necessary” is a poor choice of words on my part. What I mean is our perception of necessity, “If I don’t kill this person they will kill me (my family, my country, etc.)”. It is not indeed necessary. Not to kill them would likely involve a martyrdom (of myself or someone else).

    Orthodoxy does really have “ethics,” in the sense of rules for right and wrong. Sin is not a legal condition but more like a disease (it is death working within us). I can say, “Don’t do this. But if you do this there will be consequences to your soul.” The Church does not compromise in these matters, it is not trying to figure out how to have a nice or better world. It is here as the proclaimer of the Kingdom of God and an instrument in its presence.

    I should be merciful in understanding that someone is not a complete pacifist. Just as I should be merciful towards someone who choose to run away rather than die as a martyr. Or even towards someone who apostasizes under threat of torture, etc. But mercy does not say that there is no damage done in these things. And there is always damage done to the one who kills. Killing is not necessary. Only God is necessary.

  47. Father bless,
    Where I have a struggle with this is in the possibly mistaken belief that I hold that I should turn the other cheek, yet it is not right to insist that others turn theirs, or to stand by doing nothing while another does violence to another. Violence is an immediate situation where anything can happen and sometimes deadly force or the threat of it will stop the violence. Yet as you have said this is a sin and I know that engaging in violence darkens the soul, even choosing not to help or not being able to help those suffering from violence that I have witnessed brings its own pain, so I feel damned if I do or damned if I don’t. I keep praying that God’s mercy will keep me from such situations in the future, yet it is a real struggle.

  48. Guy,

    I’ll share my thoughts on “necessary” evil, such as they are. Don’t take these as anything more than my own personal and still developing reflections. I don’t and can’t speak for anyone but myself.

    First, I find I need to step back a moment from the individual to the role and purpose of the state in the world as it is. Fundamentally, the state provides order and some degree of stability to those within it. One need only look at a failed state with the seemingly inevitable development the rule of fear by many competing “strong men” and those who follow them to recognize that often the absence of a functional state is even worse than a despotic dictator. And we see that recognized within Christianity as well. Overall, the function of the state is a good thing, even though no state can ever really be described as “good” in and of itself.

    So states maintain internal order and they do so using the sword. States also protect their members from external threats. They stand against invading forces. This was a very real and pressing matter for many in the past. St. Augustine comes to mind. He wasn’t simply indulging in theoretical fancy when it came to war. The invaders were at the gate!

    And then there are times when states witness another state acting beyond the pale. Genocide, an evil so large it almost has to be sponsored by a power like a state to succeed, is one such example that comes to mind. Uninvolved states then have a decision to make. Do they stay out of it and allow genocide to proceed? Or do they intervene? When a rogue state has devolved to that point, often the only sort of intervention that will work is a military intervention.

    Having set that stage, we then bring it down to the individual level. For though a state certainly has something of an existence of its own, its own identity among the powers and principalities, a state, as such, cannot act. A state has police forces to enforce internal order. The police are composed of individual human beings. A state has an army to protect against external threats and intervene against what we call a rogue state. (Yes, in places, the military and police are the same group, but conceptually they can be differentiated.) The state acts, when it acts, through them.

    And that means there are times when a human being fulfilling one of those functions must kill. Is that evil? Yes. And it damages people. Is it necessary? While any given single individual could choose to opt out either by not serving or by suffering martyrdom instead, if all did so then the power of the state would collapse. And in our world as it is, that means evil would run unrestrained.

    I don’t have an easy answer. And as far as I can tell, nobody within Christianity has ever really found a way to resolve that particular gordian knot. It’s simply the messy reality of our world. The thing I appreciate about Orthodoxy is that they acknowledge the messiness and evil without trying to justify it or call evil good. Killing is evil. People who have killed need healing and restoration. Here’s a way to approach repentance and healing for this person.

    I will note that it’s never necessary under any definition for the state to kill someone who has been captured and imprisoned. The evil that person could do has been restrained and they have at least the possibility of meeting and embracing Christ — of being healed themselves. So I’m personally opposed to capital punishment.

    (For the record, I was in the military, though that was during a period before my journey was at a point where I identified as Christian. Even so, I had to consider what it would mean if I had to kill.)

  49. Father Stephen,

    I would first like to say that I feel blessed, like many others I’m sure, to have discovered your blog. Glory to God for His lamp stands amongst which you are a very precious one.
    I haven’t read all the commentaries, but I did get to the part about justice and fairness and I remembered a folkstale I’d like to share with you and your readers. It’s called “Five loaves of bread” written by Ion Creanga (John the Twig, literally, as my sister and I like to call him in English ;p) I’ve seen there are quite a few Romanians around here, I’m sure many are familiar with it.
    http://www.romanianmum.com/2011/11/romanian-folk-tale-loaves.html#.UwThfaFVHZs It’s very short, I hope you enjoy it.

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