Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Church Fathers and Capital Punishment: Athenagoras

IN HIS PLEA FOR CHRISTIAN TOLERANCE called Legatio Pro Christianis (A Plea [or Embassy] for Christians),* Athenagoras, the self-described "Athenian, Philosopher, and Christian" (ca. 133-190), defends the Christian Church against allegations of ritual cannibalism which, of course, implied prior murder of victims. This was a common accusation against Christians because of the Pagan misunderstanding of the Eucharistic celebration and the eating of Christ's Body.

Opponents of the death penalty frequently point to this excerpt of Athenagoras's apologia as evidence of early Church opposition to the death penalty:
What man of sound mind, therefore, will affirm, while such is our character, that we are murderers? For we cannot eat human flesh till we have killed some one. The former charge, therefore, being false, if any one should ask them in regard to the second, whether they have seen what they assert, not one of them would be so barefaced as to say that he had. And yet we have slaves, some more and some fewer, by whom we could not help being seen; but even of these, not one has been found to invent even such things against us. For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God s for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God's care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it. But we are in all things always alike and the same, submitting ourselves to reason, and not ruling over it.

Leg. pro Christ., XXXV.

The Culture of Death against which Athenagoras Rails

In my view, Athenagoras's apologia for Christians cannot be twisted into advocacy against the immorality of the death penalty without wresting it from its context.

First, there is no suggestion on the part of Athenagoras that Christians held that the death penalty was immoral or against divine law.

Second, the context--which is his defense against the accusations of ritual cannibalism--appears to be founded upon a comparison of general attitudes between Pagans and Christians, and not upon any Christian doctrine that capital punishment was immoral. Clearly, Athenagoras is contrasting the characteristic Pagan schadenfreude or epicaricacy**--its delight in seeing others suffer death-- and the compassionate or sympathetic attitude of Christians, who do not revel in death. Athenagoras condemns the "Roman Holiday," where, as Lord Byron states in his poem "Childe Harrold's Pilgrimage":
There were his young barbarians all at play,
There was their Dacian mother—he their sire,
Butchered to make a Roman holiday.
canto 4, st. 1. Here, Athenagoras is consistent with overwhelming Christian opinion.

Third, the examples Athenagoras points to appear to are, in fact, violations of the Fifth Commandment as traditionally understood: gladiator combats, abortion, infanticide. The Christian view that these practices are immoral cannot be applied to capital punishment legitimately applied by the State.

Fourth, the only possible language that refers to capital punishment by the State is Athenagoras's first statement--wherein he states that Christians "cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly." If this is taken as a reference to the State's use of capital punishment and not killing in self defense, it actually suggests that there may be instances where a man may be put to death "justly" or righteously (dikaios/δικαίως). I think, therefore, James Megivern is on good grounds when he states in his book The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, that Athenagoras "takes for granted that the death penalty could be imposed 'justly' by the pagan Roman courts," but goes beyond the text when he suggests that Athenagoras judges the death penalty meted out by those Pagan courts as "incompatible with Christian sensibilities,"*** at least if by Christian sensibilities he means moral sensibilities. What Athenagoras seems to be saying, and which no Christian would ever contradict, is that capital punishment when justly meted out by the State always involves a great physical evil (for all loss of life is a physical evil), though not for that a moral evil.

*Athenagoras actually wrote in Greek, and the Text is known as Πρεσβεία περί χριστιανών (Presbeia peri Christianon).
Τίς ἂν οὖν εὖ φρονῶν εἴποι τοιούτους ὄντας ἡμᾶς ἀνδροφόνους εἶναι; οὐ γὰρ ἔστι πάσασθαι κρεῶν ἀνθρωπικῶν μὴ πρότερον ἀποκτείνασί τινα. Τὸ πρότερον οὖν ψευδόμενοι ... τὸ δεύτερον, κἂν μέν τις αὐτοὺς ἔρηται, εἰ ἑωράκασιν ἃ λέγουσιν, οὐδείς ἐστιν οὕτως ἀπηρυθριασμένος ὡς εἰπεῖν ἰδεῖν. Καίτοι καὶ δοῦλοί εἰσιν ἡμῖν, τοῖς μὲν καὶ πλείους τοῖς δὲ ἐλάττους, οὓς οὐκ ἔστι λαθεῖν· ἀλλὰ καὶ τούτων οὐδεὶς καθ´ ἡμῶν τὰ τηλικαῦτα οὐδὲ κατεψεύσατο. Οὓς γὰρ ἴσασιν οὐδ´ ἰδεῖν κἂν δικαίως φονευόμενον ὑπομένοντας, τούτων τίς ἂν κατείποι ἢ ἀνδροφονίαν ἢ ἀνθρωποβορίαν; τίς οὐχ ἡ τῶν περὶ σπουδῆς τὰς δι´ ὅπλων ἀγωνίας καὶ διὰ θηρίων καὶ μάλιστα τὰς ὑφ´ ὑμῶν ἀγομένας ἔχει; ἀλλ´ ἡμεῖς πλησίον εἶναι τὸ ἰδεῖν [τὸ] φονευόμενον τοῦ ἀποκτεῖναι νομίζοντες, ἀπηγορεύσαμεν τὰς τοιαύτας θέας. Πῶς οὖν οἱ μηδὲ ὁρῶντες ἵνα μὴ ἑαυτοῖς ἄγος καὶ μίασμα προστριψαίμεθα, φονεύειν δυνάμεθα; καὶ οἳ τὰς τοῖς ἀμβλωθριδίοις χρωμένας ἀνδροφονεῖν τε καὶ λόγον ὑφέξειν τῆς ἐξαμβλώσεως τῷ θεῷ φαμεν, κατὰ ποῖον ἀνδροφονοῦμεν λόγον; οὐ γὰρ τοῦ αὐτοῦ νομίζειν μὲν καὶ τὸ κατὰ γαστρὸς ζῷον εἶναι καὶ διὰ τοῦτο αὐτοῦ μέλειν τῷ θεῷ, καὶ παρεληλυθότα εἰς τὸν βίον φονεύειν, καὶ μὴ ἐκτιθέναι μὲν τὸ γεννηθέν, ὡς τῶν ἐκτιθέντων τεκνοκτονούντων, πάλιν δὲ τὸ τραφὲν ἀναιρεῖν· ἀλλ´ ἐσμὲν πάντα πανταχοῦ ὅμοιοι καὶ ἴσοι, δουλεύοντες τῷ λόγῳ καὶ οὐ κρατοῦντες αὐτοῦ.

**A rare word which stems from Greek epichairekakia (ἐπιχαιρεκακία), sometimes spelled epicharikaky. It is a blend of three Greek roots: ἐπί (epí, “upon”) + χάρις (cháris, “joy”) + κακός (kakós, “evil”). It is a joy felt upon seeing someone suffer evil or death.
***Megivern, 21.

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