Can “Executioner” Be a Calling?

As a vocational psychologist and author interested in people who pursue their work with passion and purpose, and especially who think of their work as a calling, I’ve collected many accounts of people talking about the work they love.  Paragons of meaningful work typically feel that that their jobs suit them extremely well, and provide a chance to use their gifts to contribute to society and make a difference in the world.  Ryan Duffy and I highlighted many such stories in our book Make Your Job a Calling, including a road construction flagger who feels grateful for the chance to keep people safe, a police officer who responded to a “Moses-in-the-desert” experience and became a pastor, and a hospital janitor who passionately views her work as a means of helping the hospital provide high-quality health care.  I love stories like this, especially when they show up in unexpected places.  One of the criteria of living a calling is pursuing one’s work in ways that connect it to a broader, pro-social purpose.  In theory, any legitimate job can be pursued as a calling, if it offers a chance for someone to use her or his gifts in ways that advance the greater good.  But does this criterion apply to the occupation “Chief Executioner”?

The question became relevant for me after a friend forwarded a link to an interview with Egypt’s  executioner.  Hajj Abd Al-Nabi,  the chief warrant officer in Egypt’s police and prison authority, almost gleefully describes how he has “placed [the noose] around some 800 heads – tough people, big people, young people…All the despicable crimes—killing, adultery, premeditated murder, and so on.”

At times, the way Al-Nabi describes his job sounds very familiar. “In all honesty, I love my work. I just love it! I never say, ‘No’ when they need me at work. This is my work and my livelihood….I love my job very much, and I can’t give it up.  Even when I retire, I will report for duty in emergencies. I will leave this job only when I am dead.”  I’ve heard similar statements made by everyone from accountants to zookeepers.  Still: An executioner?

Often, when people sense that they have a calling, they link what they do to a broader purpose. People of faith especially take an integrative approach to their work, linking it to their view of God’s broader purpose for creation and culture.  I was reminded of this when Al-Nabi said: “I love people, and people love me, but when I am doing my job, I am carrying out the will of Allah.”  Still: An executioner?

It is common for people to think back on their childhood and recall interests and activities that they feel prepared them for success and satisfaction in their current lines of work.  Al-Nabi is no exception, although his discussion of it made me shudder: “When I was young, about 13 or 14 years old…my hobby was to catch a cat, to place a rope around its neck, strangle it, and throw it into the water. I would get a hold of an animal—even dogs. I would strangle these animals and throw them into the water…Strangulation was my hobby….It is a gift.” Animal cruelty in childhood is actually one of the diagnostic criteria for Conduct Disorder, itself a prerequisite for Antisocial Personality Disorder (not a happy diagnosis). Yet there appears to have been a method to the madness; elsewhere in the interview Al-Nabi notes that the animals he strangled had committed an offense, such as biting him or another child. “I became an enemy of all things harmful to mankind,” he said.

Can executioner be a calling?  The answer requires reflection on other questions related to personal and cultural values.  For example, does the death sentence help advance the greater good?  Does carrying it out align with God’s will?  The answers to such questions are “yes” for many in Egypt—oh yeah, and for many in the United States, too.  A more fundamental question is whether the job of executioner can be carried out in love, or can advance the orienting ideal of shalom–making things “the way they are supposed to be,” promoting a rich sense of peace, wholeness and flourishing.  For my part, even if in principle the death sentence is morally justifiable in certain circumstances, the troubled logistics of carrying it out justly and the long list of mistakes that have been made in such cases prompt me to oppose the practice.  I suppose that means I’m not sure that executioner can be a calling to the extent that the job may not be “morally legitimate”—although from a scientific point of view, what really matters is whether Al-Nabi considers it one.

Al-Nabi was not asked this in the interview, of course, but he did speak to the role that the heart plays in his job; his response hints at how he might approach the question:  “The truth is that my heart is dead, because executing comes from the heart…Only if you have a heart of stone can you be content in this line of work.”  However as much he loves his job, I’m willing to wager that having a dead heart, or a heart of stone, is not what most job-seekers have in mind when they say they are searching for their calling.

The takeaway?  There is almost limitless potential for people to craft nearly any job into something that fosters a sense of satisfaction and commitment—but in some lines of work, doing so comes at a significant cost.

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  • Rufus

    Judgements being thrown out due to procedural or human mistakes does not mean that the innocent are being executed, it means that the system has been set up to keep every conceivable option to minimize the use of the death penalty. The real judgement of utility of the death penalty is how many murders of innocent people have been deterred. I was against the death penalty until I found out the Hillside Strangler agreed to cooperate with police because he was afraid he’d get the gas chamber.

    Consider the recent news, Anders Behring Breivik is complaining about the video games he is allowed in jail – this is the guy who murdered 77 people in Norway to get attention for his anti-immigrant message.

    • Bryan

      Thanks for the comment, Rufus. I’m sensitive to the deterrent argument, but although it may have been in play for the Hillside strangler, the evidence as I read it suggests that there is no meaningful deterrent effect for the death penalty. For example, the murder rate has not gone down in states without the death penalty after they have implemented it, and the murder rate has not gone up in states that have abolished the penalty. Most likely this is because the vast majority of murders are committed by people who are driven by emotion and not thinking through consequences of their actions as a result. There are other arguments in support of the death penalty that are reasonable, but it is difficult to support the deterrent argument with evidence, other than anecdotal evidence.

  • zach

    Just curious – would you consider someone like “chief drone operator” who finds militants and drops bombs on them in places like Yemen or Pakistan to be in the same category as this guy, or is it a different category?

    • Bryan

      Hey Zach, I do think “chief drone operator” would be in a different category, because it involves warfare. There are, to be sure, extremely morally complex questions about the use of drones (involving civilian lives, just war theory, etc.), but they are different questions than the ones in play with the death penalty.