Session 5: “Forgive them for they know not what they do” - Capital Punishment

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:38-39.)

Aim: Though capital punishment has been around for centuries, it is clear that punishment by murder is simply another murder and incompatible with the Gospel. Again, we must get beyond the heated debate and realize the reality of the situation: people have been hurt and are seeking revenge. But revenge is an empty solution that cannot really end the pain. This session seeks to counsel teens to see the need for forgiveness as part of the healing process. Hopefully teens will encounter their own feelings of anger and come to forgive those that have hurt them through introspective activities.

Christ remains the image and model for us with regards to forgiveness and punishment. How ironic it is that our very Savior was condemned to capital punishment on the Cross. He forgave the repentant thief who on that very day was with the Lord. Now, as Orthodox Christians, we remember that thief and aspire to be like him when we say, "Remember me O Lord in Thy kingdom." When we hear Christ say to the Father, "Forgive them for they know not what they do," and we take into account that Christ is God, sharing the will of the Father and the Holy Spirit, then we are led to a stunning conclusion about God's love and His ability to forgive: the very men who placed Christ upon the Cross were forgiven the very day of the Crucifixion. Amazing! How can we be so unforgiving as to condemn our brothers and sisters, if the Father Himself forgave those who killed His only-begotten Son? This should show once and for all that God does not desire the death of the sinner. How often we forget, and acting on our desire for revenge, act to bring death to the sinner. What fate do bring upon ourselves in doing so?

Objectives: By the end of this session students should be able to . . .

1. Identify the Gospel message of forgiveness and relate it to Capital Punishment.

2. Discuss the role of vengeance and forgiveness in the way we handle conflicts.

3. Identify how the Church emphasizes repentance in Her prayer and liturgical life.

Useful Texts:

Matt 6:9-13 Our Father

Matt 5:1-12 The Beatitudes

John 8:2-11

Luke 23:33-43

Fr. Thomas Mueller. “Capital Punishment and the Gospel.” Resource Handbook. Vol. II: Family Life.


Materials for constructing 1'-2' Crosses, preferably wood and nails.

Paint or other supplies for decorating crosses.

Small Rocks or Stones

Bags or pouches to carry the stones home with


I. Opening Prayer

II. Check-In and Review

III. Activity #1: The Compassionate Christ

IV. Activity #2: The Gospel Message

V. Activity #3: A Look at Forgiveness in Church Prayer

VI. Activity #4: Take the Forgiveness Challenge!

VII. Conclusions

VIII. Closing Prayer

I. Opening Prayer

II. Check-In: Today we are talking about Capital Punishment. As we check in, share an experience of “condemnation,” a time when you felt condemned yourself or condemned another. How did that experience affect you?


1. What are some of the reasons people are led to believe that abortion is their best, if not only, option?

2. What can we do to help someone contemplating having an abortion?

III. Activity #1: The Compassionate Christ

Time: 15-20 minutes.

God Himself was a victim of capital punishment. Perhaps the most wicked deed in human history was an act of legalized punishment. This in itself should seem significant enough to end support of Capital Punishment in so-called Christian countries. Yet often it has not. This activity is a chance for participants to experience the questions regarding this subject through a direct encounter with the life of Christ as told in the Gospel of Luke. If time permits, you can also bring in more Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion. We will especially look at Christ's forgiving nature and the person of the penitent thief.

Who is the most famous person ever executed under the death penalty? [They may or may not know any historical criminals who were executed, but the answer actually is Jesus Christ!]

In the early days of Christianity, St, Paul said (1 Cor. 1:23) the Crucifixion of Christ was “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks (Pagans) foolishness.” Why do you think the Crucifixion was so scandalous? [God could not be killed like a common criminal, this is was unthinkable. The Jews expected a worldly leader and the Pagan philosophers did not believe God could be so humble, loving, and physical.]

Orthodox Christians are reminded at every liturgy of the Crucifixion. We are also reminded of the martyrs who were put to death for their beliefs not only in the first centuries of the Church, but in this time as well under the Communist persecutions. Capital punishment has a special place in our history, and in a sense, our salvation came through an act of capital punishment. This can make talking about capital punishment a little confusing.

How should we as Christians think and feel about capital punishment? Why?

Our best guide in tackling tough social and moral decisions is always Christ. How did he respond to those who supported capital punishment? Let us read an account of the Crucifixion from the Gospel according to St. Luke. (Luke 23:33-43)

How does Christ respond to His executors? [He forgives them.]

How does Christ respond to the criminals who are dying next to him? [He gives to the one that asks from Him. He rewards repentance.]

What does the repentant criminal say about his own death? [He says he deserves it.]

What do you think this Gospel teaches us about capital punishment? [It might be taken either for or against. Since Christ forgives them, what they are doing is wrong to begin with.]

This was not the first time Christ dealt with the issue of capital punishment. Look now at the Gospel of John (John 8:2-11).

How does Christ respond to those who stone the woman to death? [He calls them to pay attention to their own conscience.]

How does Christ respond to the woman who had been condemned? [He does not condemn but exhorts her not to sin at the same time.]

What do you think this Gospel teaches about capital punishment? [We do not have the moral position as fallen human beings to make this kind of decision. It is God’s prerogative.]

Christ teaches us to be compassionate and not to condemn each other, this is clear. He does not say we should let each other sin and hurt ourselves and others indiscriminately either. But to go so far as to execute one of God’s children as punishment is not our prerogative or place.

From the previous sessions, what are some biblical reasons for not supporting capital punishment? [The body is the temple of the living God, we are made in the image and likeness of God, God is forgiving, etc.]

What are some scriptures which support the death penalty? [Exodus 21 lists several crimes for which death is the penalty, including the famous “eye for an eye” formula. However, Christ directly transformed the Law in Matthew 5.]

What is sinful about capital punishment? [It can be prideful in that we think we have a moral high ground to kill another. It can be wrathful in that it is giving in to one’s anger. It is playing God.]

Why do people find capital punishment helpful or useful? [To prevent further crime, to bring revenge or “justice,” to bring closure to the families of victims, to satisfy public demand for punishment.]

Does capital punishment hurt more people than the convict in the long run? Who? [Not only does it kill the criminal but it involves the executors, their bosses, and those who are calling for the death by supporting the idea that death is a solution and forgiveness is impractical or impossible.]

What role should the Church take in dealing with capital punishment? Why? [Publicly support or denounce, act to help convicts repent, support healing and forgiveness in families and friends of victims.]

Our Church, while concerned with social justice, does not see this world or this life as an end unto itself. She does not seek first power in this world to save us from pain in this life, but to make our suffering a good and meaningful sacrifice. The Church reveals her approach by focusing on what is most important for the people involved: forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Here is part of a prayer for those condemned to death by the state:

We entreat You, Most gracious Master: with Your compassion look also on this Your servant, who has been condemned to death by the judgement of men. Forgive his or her mortal transgressions; inspire in his or her heart true repentance, that he or she may, if even in this hour before death, also confess You, his or her God and Savior, as once did the wise thief, and be granted mercy from You. Yea, O Long-suffering Lord of many mercies, condemn not by Your just judgement this condemned sinner, pardon him or her by this penalty of death, from the eternal death prepared for unrepentant sinners, that he or she may glorify You with all the sinners who have repented and been justified through You, for You alone are sinless and to You are due all glory, honor and worship, together with your Most Holy and Life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

IV. Activity #2: The Prodigals

Time: 20-30 minutes

One great reason for avoiding capital punishment is that an ends a life before its time. In the time that is lost, great miracles can happen. Some of our most beloved saints began as hardened criminals and unrepentant sinners but through hard work and the Holy Spirit they turned from their ways and came to glorify God in their lives.

What kind of person can become a saint? [A holy person, a very religious, humble, prayerful, kind, charitable person. Actually, any person has the potential to become a saint.]

Can you think of any saints who were not always prayerful and humble that ended their lives as saints? Who were they? [St. Paul, St. Moses of Ethiopia, St. David of Egypt (Sept. 6), St. Mary of Egypt, Prophet King David.]

Split into groups and have each group study one of the above prodigal saints from the worksheets at the end of this session. Ask each group member to take a turn reading a portion of the stories of let them pick one reader. Each person should have a copy of their saint’s life, which they can keep in their journal.

Discuss using the questions below.

What did these saints do before repentance? [Cheated, robbed, killed, persecuted.]

What did they do to repent? [Left their former lives, sought a confessor and prayed for repentance, began a new life in Christ.]

Based on their stories, what does it mean to repent? [A Change of heart, a transformation of the self, turning away from sin, praising God, realigning ourselves to God, etc.]

What do you think God expects us, considering the dramatic stories of these prodigal saints? [God expects only the best that we can do, even if that is not much at the time. But in time, He helps us to make it even more.]

How can we use these stories to help people faced with capital punishment, in whatever role they may find themselves? [Give to inmates as an example for them, use them as evidence to protest capital punishment, pray to these Saints, show them to victims as reasons to forgive, etc.]

Several of the stories we have chosen are not really that simple. In choosing martyrdom, it seems at first like the saints are giving a thumbs up to capital punishment. St. Moses says those who live by the sword die by the sword. St. Longinus is given the opportunity to escape death but refuses it. St. David of Egypt, though he is not executed, seems to be only half-hearted in his repentance at times. These stories should challenge us. They are irrational in many ways. They do not match our expectations of how people should act.

The saints reveal to us an entirely different understanding of the value of life. They have entirely different priorities. While many people debate either for or against the death penalty and argue ethics and justice, the saints direct our attention above the fray to the heavenly kingdom. What matters above all is the spiritual life— our relationship to our God.

V. Activity #3: A Look at Forgiveness in Church Prayers

Time: 15 minutes

Forgiveness between brothers and sisters does not begin on death row, at the 11th hour. Rather, it begins at home and in the parish, wherever God's children meet and find themselves struggling against the Enemy of Life itself. The Church provides us with the prayers and the means to attain the Holy Spirit and live in brotherly love. This activity takes a look at our Orthodox prayer life, exemplified in the service of Forgiveness Vespers, and calls them to ask from each other forgiveness.

What is the most well known Christian prayer in the world? [”Our Father”]

Who first spoke this prayer? [Jesus Christ]

Why do you think this prayer is so important? [Forgiveness is crucial to us.]

Christ told us why we should pray this way: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do no forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Forgiveness is the foundation of our spiritual life.

Who should we forgive? [Those who have done wrong to us. Those who have been condemned by men. Ideally, all those who suffer from sin, because sin hurts the whole world.]

Who should we ask forgiveness from? [From those we have hurt or offended. From each other.]

We spoke of repentance, but we can only understand repentance correctly when we connect it with forgiveness.

What does repentance mean? [To repent means to ask forgiveness, to realign ourselves with God, to turn away from sin, it means letting go of our hurtful ways and asking God for help.]

What is the difference between saying “I’m sorry” and “Please forgive me?” [”I’m sorry” is a statement about your self, and does not say if you want to change or not. It keeps a person in the “I” realm and not the “you” realm. Asking for forgiveness brings a person out of themselves to depend on another and trust in God.]

When we ask forgiveness we take a step beyond being sorry to making a difference. We can often find people who have the habit of apologizing for everything, even when there is no reason. This may be a sign of low self-esteem. They need forgiveness too, not only from us but from themselves.

Why would we ask forgiveness from someone if they weren’t our enemies or we hadn’t done anything to hurt them that we know of? [We do not know how our sins affect the world. Most importantly, we do not recognize each other as children of God through our indifference, selfishness, and lack of humility.]

How would we really act if we treated each other as children of God?[We would constantly ask for forgiveness from each other, honoring and respecting each other and humbling ourselves.]

The Church is the body of Christ, yet we often do not treat each other like member’s of Christ’s body. Just as we ask Christ for forgiveness, we should always be asking each other for forgiveness and prayers. We are called to be one body, supporting and nourishing each other.

The Church does provide us with the way of forgiveness. When are some times or events in the Church when we focus on forgiveness? [Confession, Certain points in the Liturgy, every time we say “Our Father,” Forgiveness Vespers, etc.]

What happens on the Sunday evening of the very beginning of Great Lent? What do we do at the end of this service? [Forgiveness Sunday Vespers, where we all ask for forgiveness from each other.]

VI. Activity #4: Take the Forgiveness challenge!

Time: 10 minutes

This a exercise designed to take forgiveness out of the class and the Church and put it into the daily lives of participants. You will need a quantity of stones and enough sacks for each person to take some home with them. If possible, you might ask the group during the previous session to come to this session with a bunch of rocks representing judgements they have made of others. If you don’t have stones, this activity can easily be done without. The stones just add a physical immediacy to the need to forgive and be forgiven. You might also want to provide fancy stones or stones with surfaces that participants can paint or write on. In any case, pool the stones in the middle of the whole group.

In your journals, make a list of people from whom you would like to ask forgiveness. Maybe you have no intention now of asking for their forgiveness. Maybe you even think that you don’t need to. Maybe you think they wouldn’t forgive you anyway. Try to include as many people as you can without judging the “usefulness” of forgiveness.

What happens to us when we ask for forgiveness — what does it mean to ask for this? [Forgiveness means giving your shame up to God and letting go of guilt and yet taking responsibility. Asking for forgiveness means trusting in God and his compassionate mercy.]

For every person on your list, take one stone. The stone represents the hurt we have caused others. Christ said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone . . . first.” and “Judge not, lest you be judged.” By taking a stone, we are taking back whatever stones we might have cast and whatever judgements we might have made.

Next, make a list of people that you need to forgive. You may not want to forgive them. You may see no good reason to forgive. They may not even be the slightest bit sorry. They may continue to “trespass” against you.

Why would we want to forgive someone even if they are not sorry or don’t intend to stop their hurtful ways? [Forgiving does not mean putting up with it, or saying that it is okay. Forgiveness means giving your hurt up to God to take care of and letting him do the judging. Forgiveness means trusting in God and praying for your enemies, not against them.]

For every person on your second list, take one stone. These stones also represent hurt, in this case, the hurt we have felt. They also represent the judgements that we might have made in retaliation of the hurt which we have not forgiven. By taking these stones, we take back our need for vengeance and make a step towards forgiving.

Keep these stones with you in a backpack, purse, or pouch. Notice the weight you have to carry when hurts are unforgiven.

Challenge yourself over the next few weeks to approach privately as many people as possible that are on your two lists (that are safe to approach!) Ask for forgiveness from them, even if you think they should be asking you!

Why would we ever want to ask forgiveness from someone who should be asking us? [The best way of showing someone you forgive them is by turning around and humbling yourself before them, not demanding an apology or holding out forgiveness like a reward for boosting your bruised ego. And if they should be moved to ask forgiveness from us, we should not hesitate to speak as if at a Forgiveness Vespers: “God Forgives and I forgive.”]

Every time you ask for forgiveness, place one of your stones behind on the ground and walk away. (If the stones are decorated or fancy, offer them to the person as a gift — “Here is the stone with which I judged you. Please accept it know in peace as a sign of my asking your forgiveness”) Continue until you have finished your list and the bag is empty. Then, whenever you noticed that your heart has picked up a stone, put a new one in your bag until you can get rid of it through forgiveness.

This is what Forgiveness Vespers is all about, and it is good to live this way at all times. If you take this challenge, write down in your journals how you felt before and after and what happened.

Did anything change inside you?

Did your relationship change?

How did different people react?

VII. Session Conclusion

Make a Beatitude Cross

As a follow-up project and conclusion to this session, design a series of “Beatitudes Crosses.” Paint and decorate a group of small Orthodox crosses for indoors or outdoors with the verses of Matthew 5:3-12, the Beatitudes. Then keep them home as a tool for prayer or display them around the church. The Beatitudes speak to all facets of the issue of forgiveness, judgement and punishment, both to victims and to perpetrators. These are our ultimate guidelines.


What is the most important concern we should have when faced with a capital punishment situation? [Forgiveness of sins, healing of hearts, and the salvation of all those involved.]

What can we do to help prevent death penalty situations from arising? [Practiced forgiveness.]

Forgiveness in our daily lives is the beginning of the solution to the problems of crime and punishment. It may not seem like much but it does not have to be. Throughout the history of Christianity, the death penalty has been a mark of persecution and heresy, of self-righteousness and a loss of faith in God. Killing someone is not a solution to a problem. It cannot truly relieve pain, and it certainly cannot erase the effects of violent crimes.

We are left to ask ourselves, when tragedy strikes, what kind of people do we want to become as a result. Do we want to accept evil and make it our own way, or do we wish to rise above it by following the commandments given to us by our Lord? Should we, as Christians, make hypocrites out of ourselves when we pray “Our Father?” These kinds of decision are some of the hardest we could ever be forced to make. But they are made easier when we make consistent decisions on the everyday level to choose what is best for our life in Christ.

VIII. Closing Prayer: Our Father in addition to closing prayers is recommended.