12 November 2020, The Tablet

Atonement through butchery

Atonement through butchery

Crime and Forgiveness: Christianizing Execution in Medieval Europe
translated by Jeremy Carden
Tablet bookshop price £26.05 • tel 020 7799 4064

Last year, according to Amnesty International, the death penalty was imposed in 657 cases reported worldwide. The true figure is a great deal higher, perhaps by several thousand. But the world’s most zealous executioner, the People’s Republic of China, keeps capital punishment a state secret. Not the least chilling reflection of Adriano Prosperi’s thoroughly chilling study is that, throughout human history, secrecy in the imposition of state-sponsored death is a phenomenon reserved for the more paranoid and unstable of regimes. Generally, from ancient times through to the present day, execution of the condemned has been attended not by secrecy but by very public ritual.

Prosperi begins with an undeniable paradox. Christianity is a religion founded upon mercy and forgiveness, with Christ’s sufferings on the Cross central to its message of salvation. Yet for nearly 2,000 years, the Christian Church has not only tolerated but actively supported the death penalties that secular authorities impose. It has done so, in the words of the Catholic catechism, even as late as 1997, believing that execution might be the “only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor”.

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