As far as the Orthodox are concerned, the most fundamental reality of society is that people are made in the image of God. This has a bearing on how we see public policy, including matters of crime and punishment.
My wife Megan and I have been talking quite a lot about the George Zimmerman verdict in light of this thought. Regardless of your take on whether he was justified in taking the life of Trayvon Martin, the fact is that he took the teen’s life, and this is a profoundly awful fact. If man is made in the image of God, then taking a man’s life is a serious issue in all cases.
The canons of Basil the Great recognize the gravity here. According to canon 8, the use of a deadly weapon, however it’s deployed, automatically implies an intentionally man-killing act because the weapon itself is designed to kill. Such a killing is so serious it can bar a person from the sacraments.
Canon 55, for instance, says that a layperson who takes the life of a suspected robber is barred from communion. And a priest or deacon who does so is to be defrocked. This goes for accidental death as well. According to canon 57, “He who has killed someone unintentionally shall not partake of the sacraments for ten years.”
Even soldiers acting in war, though they “fight in defense of temperance and religion,” are advised because of “unclean hands” to “abstain from communion alone for three years” (canon 13). One is reminded that David was barred from building the temple because he was a “man of war and ha[d] shed blood” (1 Chron 28.3).
As with all the canons, these restrictions are meant to be applied pastorally, and a bishop or priest can soften the sacramental restrictions as warranted, even completely remitting them (see, e.g., canons 54, 74, 84). But the point — however the canons are applied — is to recognize that a human life is of inestimable worth, and taking that life is a matter of the profoundest gravity.
Megan mentioned to me a friend whose neighbor actually set off fireworks upon news of the Zimmerman verdict. If you have ever lost a son, you could never be so flip. And if you haven’t lost a son, you are still called with all of us to mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12.15). Undoubtedly that includes the Martin family.
If he hasn’t already, Zimmerman will have to face this in time. While we are busy brandishing our various opinions on Facebook, Twitter, and our blogs, so must we.