Late last year, the outgoing Trump administration started carrying out federal executions for the first time in 17 years. By the time he left office yesterday, President Trump had overseen 13 such executions, more than any president in over 100 years.
Before November’s election, there had been a 130-year-old precedent of pausing executions during a presidential transition. But the Trump Justice Department raced through as many executions as possible in the lead-up to Joe Biden’s inauguration. This might be because Biden has promised to put an end to the federal death penalty, or it might be because Trump had such a difficult time reconciling himself to the fact that the last few months even constituted a transition period at all.
In any case, it was significant that the Trump DOJ’s last-minute execution spree got very little attention, and garnered hardly any blowback. Trump’s opponents and supporters alike were, of course, taken up with more pressing matters over the past few months. But the latter group includes a key demographic that would likely have approved of the administration’s actions even if the election’s chaotic aftermath hadn’t been dominating the news cycle: conservative Christians, who have long been particularly enthusiastic supporters of the death penalty. A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research institute in 2014 showed that White Evangelical Protestants and White Mainline Protestants were the only demographic groups in the country at the time to register majority support for the practice. There have been some signs of that changing in the years since, but it remains the case that white evangelicals make up the backbone of support for capital punishment in the U.S.
Well-intentioned concern for victims of the worst kinds of crimes likely plays a big part in this phenomenon. But the government’s meting out the ultimate punishment — one that can’t be reversed if a case turns out to have been flawed after the fact — should be incomprehensible to those who’ve grasped Christianity in its essentials. The same theological commitments that place the burden of pro-life activism on Christians’ shoulders also require the end of the death penalty.
That this is so is shown by St. Gregory of Nyssa in one of the most remarkable texts to come down to us from the ancient world. During his fourth homily on the book of Ecclesiastes, Gregory, alone among the luminaries of his age, calls for the complete abolition of slavery. When read against the backdrop of the times, the homily strikes the reader like lightning from a clear blue sky. Nothing as humane and compassionate as this can be found anywhere else in the literature of late antiquity outside of the gospels themselves:
You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and you make laws opposed to God and contrary to His natural law. For you have subjected one who was made precisely to be lord of the earth, and whom the Creator intended to be a ruler, to the yoke of slavery, in resistance to and rejection of His divine precept. . . . How is it that you disregard the animals which have been subjected to you as slaves under your hand, and that you should act against a free nature, bringing down one who is of the same nature of yourself, to the level of four-footed beasts or inferior creatures?
The logic of Gregory’s condemnation of slavery also applies to capital punishment. All of his thoughts on these matters are conditioned by his belief in the unity of human nature. He believes that only the entirety of the human race taken together properly makes up the image of God; exclude even one soul and the image is irreparably broken. Any kind of violence exercised by one human being over and against another therefore amounts to a fracturing of human nature. As Gregory puts it to his opponents in his broadside against slavery, “you have divided human nature between slavery and mastery and have made it at once slave to itself and master over itself.” The premeditated killing of one human by another also divides our nature, making it at once the murderer and the murdered.
All manner of evils emerge from this tendency we have to treat others as if they were a different kind of creature than we are. Politicians in particular are plagued by this way of thinking, as Gregory could see even in his own time:
Those however who strut on the stage of life because of imperial office . . . stay no longer within the bounds of human nature, but assume divine power and authority. They believe they have sovereignty over life and death because to some of those who are judged by them they give sentence of acquittal, while others they condemn to death; and they do not even consider who is truly the sovereign of human life and determines both the beginning of existence and its end.
Such language is entirely alien to most of modern Christianity. Gregory speaks of those office-holders who kill others legally and within the prescribed constitutional structures of the polity as being “no longer within the bounds of human nature.” They’ve separated themselves from “the human being,” which is nothing other than the full totality of our species, with every member accounted for.
This is the only kind of pro-life rhetoric that makes any sense, especially for Christians. The principal objection that the pro-life movement raises against the present legal order of the United States is that it divides human nature — between the born and the unborn — in precisely the manner Gregory condemns. Advocates for the death penalty certainly have an easier case to make than advocates for abortion, because of the appeal they can make to guilt and personal responsibility. But does making a final, lethal division in human nature between the guilty and the innocent as determined by the imperfect mechanisms of the American justice system square easily with belief in a God who assumed in his own flesh universal human nature?
If Christians want to lead the way in promulgating a politics of life in the United States, their vision of life can’t be a limited one. Every door that opens onto some kind of qualification of or limitation on the sanctity of life should be shut and barred. Progressive Christians largely accept all of this as far as the death penalty goes, and conservatives are fine applying it to life in the womb. But the pro-life movement would find itself in a much stronger position if believers on the left and the right could only come together in full voice behind both causes.