Friday, May 2, 2014

St Isaac the Syrian and botched death penalties

Lately many people have been talking about the botched execution of convicted rapist and torturer Clayton Lockett, who writhed in pain for around forty-five minutes until finally he had heart attack and died. The occurrence has moved many persons to respond with horror at the death penalty in general and its particular execution in this specific case; others are shocked that anyone could feel for Lockett, who caused others such horror and grievous pain in his own life time. For some persons, this is even a bit of God's justice -- the one who raped and tortured others felt himself a bit of pain as well.

In speaking to this issue I wish to cite a passage from St Isaac the Syrian, who speaks of the "merciful heart" one has when one participates in God's love:

And what is the merciful heart? It is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. By the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and by his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart for the likeness of God (Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, p. 43).

As Alfeyev comments, The 'merciful heart' in a human person is therefore the image and likeness of God's mercy, which embraces the whole range of creation, people, animals, reptiles, and demons. In God, there is no hatred towards anyone, but all-embracing love (ibid.).

A person in whom the Holy Spirit puts the merciful heart, according to Isaac, will feel mercy, pity, and compassion even for demons and for persons who hate him. All things created by God are dear to him, and the fact of their corruption is just one more motive for pity and compassion, not a cause of anger or hatred. Applied in the present case, it seems to me that the merciful heart of which Isaac spoke feels even for Lockett, who threw away his life and corrupted himself in the most profound way through his crime. The shamefully painful way in which his life was terminated is a cause for pity, and the fact of his evil which necessitated the death in the first place is too a cause for tears.

It is understandable that some persons may find some kind of cosmic or divine justice in the circumstances of Lockett's death. It is a perfectly natural response, and a reasonable and a justified one, too. But it seems to me it is not the response of the merciful heart given by God; it is not the response of someone full of the Holy Spirit.

Consider the example of Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles, who calls for God to forgive his murderers as they are hurling stones at his body (7.60). As I've commented before, this is an act in which the entire Trinity was involved: Stephen, who is full of the Holy Spirit (6.5), is moved by that Holy Spirit in imitation of Christ's own prayer at his crucifixion (Luke 23.34) to plead with the Father to forgive his murderers (7.60). God himself wants to forgive murderers and to restore them to his fellowship. For this reason he gives Stephen a merciful heart at the hour of his death, even though previously in his speech he was angry with the Judean authorities, and that is what makes his martyrdom a beautiful and inspiring one.

None of this entails that the death penalty is to be abolished; I'm inclined to think it shouldn't, though perhaps there are reforms to be made to prevent this sort of thing. None of this entails that other persons are wrong to be glad that evil does not go unpunished, which is also an eminently biblical principle. But it seems to me some ways of responding to Lockett's death are less than what the Holy Spirit inspires.