Back in 1979, Walter Berns wrote an essay entitled, “The Morality of Anger.”* Berns was attempting in this essay to justify the death penalty on the grounds that, “A people that is not angry with criminals will not be able to deter crime.” (22) Berns attempted to locate any and all opposition to the death penalty in a sort of mushy softness that arises as a consequence of modern liberalism. In effect, he was trying (in the nicest way possible) to categorize those who might have ethical qualms with capital punishment as squeamish ninnies running from the God-given gift of righteous rage. Thus he wrote:
[Of trying and executing Nazi war criminals] We surely didn’t expect to rehabilitate them, and it would be foolish to think that by punishing them we might therefore deter others. The answer, I think, is clear: We want to punish them in order to pay them back. (15)
Modern civil libertarian opponents of capital punishment . . . say that to execute a criminal is to deny his human dignity; they also say that the death penalty is not useful, that nothing is accomplished by executing anyone. Being utilitarians, they are essentially selfish men, distrustful of passion, who do not understand the connection between anger and justice, and between anger and human dignity. (15)
[Channeling Rousseau] To exclude anger from the human community is to concentrate all the passions in a ‘self-interest of the meanest sort,’ and such a place would not be fit for human habitation. (22)
To sum up, according to Berns, those who oppose the death penalty do so because they are “utilitarian,” “selfish,” and “distrustful of passion,” who “do not understand the connection between anger and human dignity.” So basically a baffling hybrid of Mr. Spock and Mr. Potter (not the scar-headed wizard boy, the one from the Frank Capra film)? On the other hand, no matter what they might say, those who support the death penalty do so not because they believe that “punishing them . . . might deter others,” but in order to “pay them back.” And apparently they see the “connection between anger and human dignity” that those opposed to capital punishment do not, and that only by channeling that anger into “paying them back” can we maintain “a place . . . fit for human habitation.”
I’ll leave you to your own judgments about Mr. Berns’ rationale for preserving capital punishment. I do want to say that Berns was unfair by painting all capital punishment opponents with the broad brush of “utilitarian” liberals “distrustful of passion.” Granted, there are plenty of folks against the death penalty who could be categorized thus. But others, not so much. For instance, when the Christian apologist Athenagoras wrote the following in the 2nd century C.E., was he being a selfish utilitarian liberal?
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? . . . For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fœtus 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.
What about Tertullian, later in the 2nd century? Was he a selfish liberal distrustful of passion when he wrote: “in our doctrine we are given ampler liberty to be killed than to kill”?
What determined the stances of these early theologians of the church–and most Christians in those days, generally–was not utilitarianism, liberalism, a concern that killing the offender would not deter others, selfishness, or (at least probably not) a distrust of passion. A people “given ampler liberty to be killed than to kill” is simply not a description of a selfish, utilitarian people. Furthermore, these writings were produced by a community formed in solidarity with Jesus, a man who had suffered the death penalty, and were themselves occasionally the victims of violent persecutions. It ain’t like they’d never seen blood before. They weren’t squeamish. So what determined their opposition to state-sponsored violence? It was determined by their interpretations of passages like Gen. 1.27; Matt. 5.38-48; and Rom. 12.17-21. In Tertullian’s case, he was spurred on by Matt. 26.51-52; Luke 22.50-51; and John 18.10-11. I’m not really interested in debating the merits of their interpretations in this venue; goodness knows the church came up with alternative interpretations friendlier to defensive and retributive violence in general, and to Caesar’s violence in particular. All I am saying is, right or wrong, agree with the pre-Nicene theologians or disagree with them, their aversion to violence in whatever form–executions, the gladiatorial contests, wars, retribution, revenge, abortion, infanticide, murder–was not determined by civil libertarianism, or utilitarianism, or a pragmatic bent that says capital punishment does not “work.” Their aversion to violence and killing was their interpretation of passages that say humans are created by God in God’s image and thus to take a life is to infringe sacred space. It was determined by the words of Jesus and Paul–both of whom were executed by the state–who instructed those who follow not to repay evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good. It was informed by Jesus’ own response to his friends when they tried to defend him by violence against attackers.
My point is, the values and postures to which Berns attributed opposition to capital punishment may obtain in some who oppose it, but not nearly all. Christians opposed to the death penalty may well be (though not always) arguing from positions much closer to those of early Christian theologians than modern liberalism or utilitarianism.
Now that I have written almost a thousand words regarding Berns’ attenuation of the issues at stake, I want to draw a line from his mischaracterizations of those opposed to capital punishment to those who are pacifists–that is, those who like the earliest Christians renounce and denounce all forms of violence, whether state-sanctioned (executions or wars) or retributive, or even in self-defense. I do so because it seems to me that many of the charges that Berns has leveled against those who are against the death penalty are leveled at general pacifists as well. For instance, Berns wrote:
Anger is somehow connected with justice, and it is this that modern psychology has not understood; it tends, on the whole, to regard anger as a selfish indulgence. Anger can, of course, be just that; and if someone does not become angry with an insult or injury suffered unjustly, we tend to think that he does not think much of himself . . . If [people] are not angry when someone else is robbed, raped, or murdered, the implication is that no moral community exists, because those [people] do not care for anyone other than themselves. Anger is an expression of that caring . . . It is the passion that can cause us to act for reasons having nothing to do with selfish or mean calculation . . . It is the stuff from which heroes are made. (16-17)
You know what? Reading that makes me angry, like mad as hell angry. That’s right, I am a pacifist, and I am angry. Over that. Mr. Berns insulted me and mine unjustly. And I am angry over it. See–he’s wrong already.
We Christian pacifists are as prone to anger as anyone else. We don’t “distrust” this passion, but we do not let it override our scruples. We have been taught “be ye angry and sin not” (Eph. 4.26)
Seriously, what Berns did here was restate the claim that pacifists are irresponsible members of society (after all, the anger that is willing to do violence is “the passion that can cause us to act for reasons having nothing to to with selfish . . . calculation”). We are irresponsible because we are not willing to kill someone else in the face of evil. Yes, Mr. Berns–but we are willing to die to protect both those we love and those who call themselves our enemies.
Furthermore, it is downright false that people being exploited, injured, put down, oppressed, or killed doesn’t make pacifists angry. We are angry indeed in the face of such evil. A pacifist just might be the angriest person you know; especially a Christian pacifist. It’s just that violence and exploitation and deceit and scapegoating make us so angry that we refuse to participate in further violence to counteract them. We are angry at the violence that continues to fragment and distort God’s good world. We refuse to kill for peace and justice for the same reason you don’t shoot heroin for sobriety and you don’t throw an orgy for chastity.
That anger, moreover, is “an expression of caring” and a “passion that can cause us to act for reasons having nothing to do selfish or mean calculation.” In that anger we beat our swords into plowshares. We channel that caring anger toward a more peaceful world–beginning in our own hearts and communities. And that peaceful anger is indeed “the stuff from which heroes are made.” Unless you want to argue with me that there was nothing at all heroic about Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, or Oscar Romero.
The problem is not with us. The problem is with what the broader culture deems heroic.
All the words of those like Walter Berns do is incite an angry guy like me to wage more peace.
*This essay was originally published in For Capital Punishment: Crime and the Morality of the Death Penalty (New York: Basic Books, 1979). I have sourced it from Capital Punishment: A Reader, ed. Glen H. Stassen,14-22, The Pilgrim Library of Ethics (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1998).