Author Topic: David Bentley Hart: "Christians and the Death Penalty"  (Read 190 times)

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Offline Gebre Menfes Kidus

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David Bentley Hart: "Christians and the Death Penalty"
« on: November 20, 2017, 12:11:48 AM »
https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/christians-death-penalty

I realize that David Bentley Hart can be pedantic at times, but this might be the best Christian refutation of capital punishment that I've ever read. Below are some salient excerpts from the lengthy article, which deserves to be read in its entirety. Excellent stuff.

Selam


To cultivate pity (or at least concern) for those who deserve no pity—even those justly condemned of monstrous evils—is not sentimentality but charity, the chief of all Christian virtues. It is a hard discipline, and usually evidence of a genuinely diligent conscience. It is also an extremely valuable intellectual hygiene. Compassion is a philosophical virtue, one that makes it possible to grasp truths invisible to the morally obtuse. The limits of moral imagination are also the limits of the capacity to reason well.

In a very real sense, Christian morality is nothing but the conquest of proportional justice by the disproportion of divine love.

The question of whether the death penalty is in some sense “just” is wholly irrelevant in the context of Christian belief. As far as the Fathers were concerned, all of us merit death. This does not mean that they believed Christians are permitted to impose such a penalty.

The Sermon on the Mount’s prohibitions of retaliation are absolutely binding on Christians, in both the private and the public spheres, for on the cross Christ at once perfected the refusal of violence and exhausted the Law’s wrath.

It is simply a fact of history that the more or less ubiquitous conviction of the earliest Christians—those whose communities most immediately arose from the church of the Apostles—was that Christ’s command not to judge others was more than a mere prohibition of private prejudice. For this reason, Christians were not supposed to serve as soldiers or magistrates.

According to the ancient document called the Apostolic Tradition, no one intending to become a soldier could be received into the church, and those who had been converted while already in the army were forbidden to carry out even a properly pronounced order of execution. Arnobius clearly stated that Christians were not allowed to impose the death penalty at all, even when it was perfectly just. Athenagoras stated that the killing even of those guilty of capital offenses must be repugnant to Christians, as they are obliged to view all killing of humans as a pollution of the soul. Cyprian too said that Christians believe that the innocent may never slay the guilty. Tertullian not only repeatedly asserted that Christians must not kill other humans for any reason, but also claimed that when Christ disarmed Peter in Gethsemane he effectively stripped all soldiers of their arms, and numbered the office of executioner among occupations deserving of damnation. Origen unequivocally stated that the law of Christ forbids all killing, and opined that God providentially allowed the fall of the Jewish kingdom in order to end the practice of capital punishment among his people.


~ DAVID BENTLEY HART ~

I have shortened the text because of the copyrights.
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« Last Edit: November 20, 2017, 08:50:50 AM by Dominika »
"Whether it’s the guillotine, the hangman’s noose, or reciprocal endeavors of militaristic horror, radical evil will never be recompensed with radical punishment. The only answer, the only remedy, and the only truly effective response to radical evil is radical love."
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Offline Volnutt

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Re: David Bentley Hart: "Christians and the Death Penalty"
« Reply #1 on: November 20, 2017, 12:32:17 AM »
Sorry, but if pacifism (and by extension the death penalty, which is essentially the government making war on one of its own citizens) is an essential part of the Church then Orthodoxy (and probably all of Christianity save the Quakers and the Anabaptists) is apostate. It's been in bed with imperial and military power waaaaaay too long to be able to play that card.
« Last Edit: November 20, 2017, 12:34:01 AM by Volnutt »
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Offline Gebre Menfes Kidus

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Re: David Bentley Hart: "Christians and the Death Penalty"
« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2017, 12:36:48 AM »
Sorry, but if pacifism (and by extension the death penalty, which is essentially the government making war on one of its own citizens) is an essential part of the Church then Orthodoxy (and probably all of Christianity save the Quakers and the Anabaptists) is apostate. It's been in bed with imperial and military power waaaaaay too long to be able to play that card.

Did you read the article? Do you have any specific points that you'd like to address or refute? DBH was very thorough here, and he certainly addressed Church history. This was specifically about capital punishment, not pacifism (although it's pretty hard to separate one from the other.)

Selam
"Whether it’s the guillotine, the hangman’s noose, or reciprocal endeavors of militaristic horror, radical evil will never be recompensed with radical punishment. The only answer, the only remedy, and the only truly effective response to radical evil is radical love."
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Offline William T

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Re: David Bentley Hart: "Christians and the Death Penalty"
« Reply #3 on: November 20, 2017, 04:26:45 AM »
This is just Hart being Hart, a kind of Rob Dreher for academics.

1) The article itself is a refutation of a book's argument, not a be all end all argument for capital punishment itself.  As far as that goes he may have a slam dunk case, but that would require slogging through what sounds like some parody of a predictably political American scholastic philosopher just trying to justify his easy to discern political biases as "natural law" as Hart is doing the same banking on his kind of solipsistic postmodern trends.  I personally really don't care who wins in a fight of titanic ego's and their causes in King Kong vs Godzilla.  Whichever one is more ignorable I suppose.


2) Even here if we want to take Hart seriously simply to justify our confirmation biases, to argue against capital punishment would be the same as to argue for capital punishment on the civic sphere...because for Hart every engagement with the world is tainted, and we should be drop outs with no argument.  Hart clearly doesn't believe that, he's just social signaling to his in group, he'll gladly take up any cause they find fashionable and pepper it with theology.


3) And to tick off Hart more, if we are to trust the "bourgeois" historians, it is generally true that  Christendom (under Imperial Christianity!),  utilizing their Christian worldview and the Roman Law it inherited, and in accordance with the Church helped drastically reduced capital punishment , punishment in general was softened within Christendom, and this helped to move arguments further along to look for other ways to think about justice. St. Vladimir almost abolished it.  Any look at justice, secular or otherwise, that existed owes at least some recognition to that if it is trying to be intellectually honest.  Saying such things may be out of fashion now, especially with Hart's hipster set that seems determined to make the humanities irrelevant, but I don't care, it's true, and it's fun to pull those tenured bureaucrats by the beard.  But it doesn't matter anyway, they were all inauthentic sellouts, and none of that history is true, or matters, because it's not cool man and if we claim it we are stupid, evil, heretics, and bourgeois.  We're best without it, all that matters is David B.  Hart's translation of Christ's Sermon on the Mount (he read it in Greek!)  , taken "pitilessly" literally...or is Hart the one that proposes all sorts of hyper allegory that follows Origen except when it doesn't?  Fortunately Orthodoxy doesn't believe in guruism, or follow cult like thinking.  Nor is Christianity ever going, nor ever was, that totally cool authentic retro thing that is now obscure thing that academics seem so drawn to so they can get on some high horse (Orthodox Christianity, you never heard of it).

For the record I think a Christian should try to see how Capital Punishment should be practically off the table and as near abolishment as one can get.  But there is nothing in Hart that will even allow for worthwhile argumentation or honest looks at justice or a being a Christian in our civil society.
« Last Edit: November 20, 2017, 04:38:25 AM by William T »

Offline Gebre Menfes Kidus

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Re: David Bentley Hart: "Christians and the Death Penalty"
« Reply #4 on: November 20, 2017, 07:44:33 AM »
This is just Hart being Hart, a kind of Rob Dreher for academics.

1) The article itself is a refutation of a book's argument, not a be all end all argument for capital punishment itself.  As far as that goes he may have a slam dunk case, but that would require slogging through what sounds like some parody of a predictably political American scholastic philosopher just trying to justify his easy to discern political biases as "natural law" as Hart is doing the same banking on his kind of solipsistic postmodern trends.  I personally really don't care who wins in a fight of titanic ego's and their causes in King Kong vs Godzilla.  Whichever one is more ignorable I suppose.


2) Even here if we want to take Hart seriously simply to justify our confirmation biases, to argue against capital punishment would be the same as to argue for capital punishment on the civic sphere...because for Hart every engagement with the world is tainted, and we should be drop outs with no argument.  Hart clearly doesn't believe that, he's just social signaling to his in group, he'll gladly take up any cause they find fashionable and pepper it with theology.


3) And to tick off Hart more, if we are to trust the "bourgeois" historians, it is generally true that  Christendom (under Imperial Christianity!),  utilizing their Christian worldview and the Roman Law it inherited, and in accordance with the Church helped drastically reduced capital punishment , punishment in general was softened within Christendom, and this helped to move arguments further along to look for other ways to think about justice. St. Vladimir almost abolished it.  Any look at justice, secular or otherwise, that existed owes at least some recognition to that if it is trying to be intellectually honest.  Saying such things may be out of fashion now, especially with Hart's hipster set that seems determined to make the humanities irrelevant, but I don't care, it's true, and it's fun to pull those tenured bureaucrats by the beard.  But it doesn't matter anyway, they were all inauthentic sellouts, and none of that history is true, or matters, because it's not cool man and if we claim it we are stupid, evil, heretics, and bourgeois.  We're best without it, all that matters is David B.  Hart's translation of Christ's Sermon on the Mount (he read it in Greek!)  , taken "pitilessly" literally...or is Hart the one that proposes all sorts of hyper allegory that follows Origen except when it doesn't?  Fortunately Orthodoxy doesn't believe in guruism, or follow cult like thinking.  Nor is Christianity ever going, nor ever was, that totally cool authentic retro thing that is now obscure thing that academics seem so drawn to so they can get on some high horse (Orthodox Christianity, you never heard of it).

For the record I think a Christian should try to see how Capital Punishment should be practically off the table and as near abolishment as one can get.  But there is nothing in Hart that will even allow for worthwhile argumentation or honest looks at justice or a being a Christian in our civil society.

I appreciate the thorough reply.

With respect, it seems your prejudice against DBH is clouding your objectivity here. I really don't know enough about DBH to form an opinion about the man (other than that he is too often pedantic IMO), but his arguments seem pretty solid. His thesis is that whatever one may think about Christian emperors, the "justice" of the state, and the violence and bloodshed that are committed in the name of defense, protection, and social security, such violence can nowhere be sanctioned by the life and teachings of Christ or the life and teachings of His apostles.

DBH clearly states that his argument is not a pragmatic or utilitarian argument, because the Gospel is not pragmatic or utilitarian. And I appreciate his articulation of this truth. I also appreciate his examination of the Church Fathers and his correction of some of the misrepresentations of their words and beliefs.

The dude may be a theological hipster who appeals to other theological hipsters, but if he's right he's right. And I find nothing irrational or unorthodox about what he said here. I think this is a brilliant article, in most every way.

Selam

"Whether it’s the guillotine, the hangman’s noose, or reciprocal endeavors of militaristic horror, radical evil will never be recompensed with radical punishment. The only answer, the only remedy, and the only truly effective response to radical evil is radical love."
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Offline Iconodule

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Re: David Bentley Hart: "Christians and the Death Penalty"
« Reply #5 on: November 20, 2017, 11:54:34 AM »
I think this is a good article. I also find the argument rather straightforward and sound, whatever one might think of DBH's other work.

The historical questions it raises are indeed uncomfortable but that is never a good reason for dismissing something.
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