Capital Punishment and Killing


Capital Punishment and Killing

(1906 – xxx)

   The blood, which the Russian government is spilling, the murders which it is committing, cannot be adduced as under the juridical institution of capital punishment. This criminal institution long since already has been acknowledged as inexpedient by the science of criminal law, long since already the moral conscience of mankind has been revolted by it. But the horror, which occurs at present, cannot be adjudged from a juridical point of view as somehow an out of place argument against the death sentence, and indeed this question is too elementary. A counter-revolution of black death has descended upon Russia, it has adopted a terroristic tactic, before which pale all the revolutionary terrors of the world, and killing has become its chief, its almost sole weapon. All the black and beastly forces of the land are taking revenge, because the godless kingdom has set them loose and because, certainly, they have been called forth by history in response to its age-old misdeeds. The counter-revolutionary terror, knowing no limits, a beastly viciousness, the organised murdering of the defenseless — here is what they call these days amongst us capital punishment. Committing these misdeeds is a state power, passing itself off as Christian.

It has been said: “Those taking up the sword, will perish by the sword”. This was said for the state, since the state not only was the first to have taken up the sword, having been begotten in bloody killings, but it also elevated the killing into law, it admitted death as one of the laws of life. It is known, that capital punishment developed historically out of the blood feud, that the state out of concern took upon itself the task to organise retribution, having transformed it into something impersonal. The elements of revenge in the blood feud — are irrational, in it is stirred up a primordial chaos, but this chaos is infinitely more noble and holier, than the organised, mindfully deliberate, consciously-bestial retribution of the state, than its monstrous impersonalism. Death is something terrible and killing something reprehensible, but what can be said about death, elevated into a law of life, about killing, organised consciously by the masters of life in the name of upholding an illusory order of affairs within it. There is in the world an higher truth, than with this blood revenge, and to this revenge it summons us not, but the state is not mindful about this truth, it is not given for the state to have to answer for the horror of killing. For a man it has been said: “Do not kill”, but the state, the people of the state, the people in power have regarded this as not applying to them, they have attributed the commandment as applying only to their subjects and uphold their existence by a beastly law, nowise heedful about God.

Death — is the most extreme, the most terrible expression of worldly evil, of the world’s falling away from God, and the goal of religion has always been the victory over death, the affirming of life eternal. If Christ’s death on the Cross was a victory over death, then together with this it was also a most powerful condemnation of killing. Capital punishment, true Christians have declared, is tied in with the deed of the torturing of Christ, it is a murdering not only of man, but also of God.

The revolutionaries, in committing political murders, — in response to which the government pleads in justification of its own misdeeds, — were not the first to have taken up the sword, they do not “coldly” kill, they do not kill the “unarmed”. But these killings are terrible, and we thirst to get out of the bloody circle, into which the government has gotten, but not everyone makes bold to condemn them, not everyone has this right and least of all, certainly, those government powers reddened with the blood of innocents. In the political murders, made by individual heroic sorts, in duels, in defense of a man’s personal honour one puts at stake one’s own life, one is oneself responsible, but the state is always irresponsible in its impersonality. The killing, begotten of “chaos”, is less contemnable and more noble, for our conscience indeed more bearable, than the beastly cold-blooded, vengefully calculated killing in accord with “the law”. A free accord would surmount both the chaotic death and the law-begotten death, but we believe, that facing the judgement by God will be called to answer first of all the killers by law, those impeding the surmounting of death, and the eternal terror will open up before them with the vivid awareness, of being the catch, of the one they have served.

Nikolai  Berdyaev


©  2002  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1906 -xxx- en)

KAZN’  I  UBIISTVO.  First publication of article was in the 1906 anthology, “Protiv smertnoi kazni” (“Against the Death Penalty”), Moscow; 2nd edition Moscow 1909. Republished 1989 in “Smertnaya kazn’: za i protiv” (“The Death Penalty: For and Against”), Iuridicheskaya literatura, Moscow.