Killing may be necessary, but murder is always wrong

Chapter 6  MURDERING  the life of another

The sixth commandment in the law of Moses was "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13). In some older translations this was given as "Thou shalt not kill." But this cannot have been the intent because in the next chapter of Exodus there was capital punishment for certain crimes, and the Jews have never held back from defending themselves in war. Nor was the killing of animals for food prohibited among Jews as it was in Jainism and certain forms of non-violent Hinduism.

It is generally agreed that the prohibition of murder is necessary for the survival of any tribe or nation. Mahatma Gandhi used non-violence (ahimsa means not harming) as a very effective method of forcing the British out of India (1947). But it is interesting that when the Chinese began an invasion over the Himalayan mountain range there was apparently not a single voice that suggested India should face them by non-violent means.

All countries agree that severe consequences must be assigned for murder by individuals or an attack by another nations. But there will always be controversy concerning the exact consequence to be assigned. Should the person lose his life by hanging or lethal injection, or lose it by being locked up for life in a prison cell? When one nation attacks another (as when Hitler invaded Poland, or Saddam Hussain attacked Kuwait) should we intervene? If we are attacked as a nation, do we use all means to defend ourselves, or do we quietly let the enemy take over our country?

As opposed to killing in war or police action, murder includes any killing of another for personal reasons. These might include hatred, greed, revenge, armed robbery, road rage, or just for fun. Allowing a person to die of neglect is another form of murder.

In the current discussion of abortion even extreme advocates of abortion on demand would call it murder if a woman had her eight-month old baby cut out and decapitated. At the other extreme are those who argue that any kind of birth control is wrong, and an overnight pill is murder. When does a human life begin? If we engage in this thorny question, we should begin by agreeing with:

6  Killing may be necessary, but murder is always wrong

As we have seen, we are given no content to this universal moral category, which means that we are forced to engage in discussion as to what exactly it means in every particular situation.

Except in societies that live by taking revenge, all nations make a distinction between murder and accidental killing (manslaughter). Among the Jews there was a provision for six cities of refuge "so that any one who kills a person without intent may flee there" (Numbers 35:13-15). And there is a further distinction between unpremeditated accidental killing, and killing where the person is at fault by carelessness, drunkenness, or lack of due care. An interesting Old Testament rule was that if someone was gored by a bull, the animal was to be killed. But if the bull had previously been dangerous, the owner was guilty of murder, and should be put to death (Exodus 21:28-31). But in some cases there was a provision for a money payment to the family. We assume that such questions can be settled fairly by a judge or impartial jury.

Among nations the wrongness of murder by an individual is extended to genocide. Genocide is the deliberate intent to wipe out another nation in a merciless war (or the killing of its children as in Exodus 1:16). Recent examples are Hitler's plan to wipe out the Jews, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the genocide of Tutsis in Ruanda.

For our purposes in this chapter we have used the awkward term "Murdering the life of another." This is because Jesus listed three ways of murdering another without actually taking the person's life. "It was said to those of ancient times , 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell (gehenna) of fire" (Matthew 5:21-22).

In the attempt to avoid a sexist meaning to "his brother" the translators have managed to suggest that this kind murder without killing applies only to brothers and sisters in the sense of family members. Obviously the term here refers to anyone in one's community. And Jesus speaks metaphorically of three levels of criminal justice. There is judgment by a magistrate, then the kind of punishment the sanhedrin (Jewish parliament) can assign, and most serious of all is the horror of being thrown over the wall of Jerusalem into the burning rubbish dump in the valley of Hinnom below.

These gradations suggest that murderous anger is bad enough. It involves an attitude of "You are just vermin. I hate you so much I would kill you if I got half a chance." Worse than that is expressed by the word raca (wrongly translated "insults") which means writing the person off as a non-person and refusing ever to talk to him or her again. But the worst experience is being treated as a retarded, ignorant person whose opinions are not even worth hearing. We can see the three levels of murder without actually killing in any school yard. "I will kill you if I get half a chance. You are just dirt; I will never talk to you again. Pointing the finger and saying Mary is retarded, Mary is retarded.

Similarly for a woman her husband's murderous anger is bad enough. The total silent treatment is much worse. But being treated as a stupid, ignorant person whose opinions are nonsensical is unbearably hurtful. And in our day putting away a healthy intelligent person for life in a mental asylum should rightly be named murder. That person continues to exist but any kind of worthwhile life is cruelly ended.

But Jesus went much further than pointing out the extreme seriousness of heart murder. To answer a question about the most important commandment in the torah (law of Moses) he said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, 'you shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these" (Mark 12:29-31).

This means that in the list of ten commandments of the moral law he summed up the opposite of each of the first five negatives as love for God. And the opposite of murdering, adultery, stealing, false witness, and coveting is a genuine love for the person (Matthew 19:18-19, as in Romans 13:9-10). Medical diagnosis can be listed in terms of "You should not have flu, anaemia, high blood pressure, a cancer shadow on your lung, etc." but it can also be stated positively as "your body should be functioning without pain, and you should feel well, energetic, and have a healthy appetite."

But what does love for a neighbor mean? In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus illustrated the fact that a neighbor was not just a person living next door, or in one's neighborhood, but it could be anyone, even a person usually viewed as an enemy (Luke 10:29-37). But what is the content of genuine love? A good definition might be "love is caring for the freedom of the other." This fits the positive attitude which is the diametric opposite of murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and coveting. If you care about the other's freedom, there is no question of murdering him.

It also fits Jesus' agenda of freeing others. "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32) and "If the Son makes your free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). The words ransom, ransoming, redemption, redeeming all refer to freeing others from bondage or slavery. A servant is someone who frees another to be and do what he or she longs for. "Among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus wanted people to know that a loving God is not in the business of enslaving us, and making our life a misery. He genuinely cares for our freedom. And his love is willing to do what it takes to make us free at very great cost. By contrast atheists have to live in a world where matter, energy, chance, or whatever, has no interest in our freedom. They must assume that love is a human invention, which has nothing to do with the heart and purpose of our world.

The New Testament also distinguishes any longings we may have to love and be loving from the fact that we cannot create love by working it up from within ourselves. Our basic human instincts and early childhood experiences (what Paul calls the flesh) have no natural desire to love and free others. "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do . . . For I delight in the law of God (the moral law of the ten commandments) in my inmost self, but I see another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:15-25).

An essential part of Christian faith is that the Holy Spirit of God can create in us the love for others that we cannot produce by our own efforts (Romans 8:1-8, Galatians 5:16-17). Paul describes the works of the flesh, all of which we can engage in by our own efforts : "fornication (sex without love and commitment), impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness" (Galatians 5:19). We can choose to engage in these any time at will. By contrast the fruit of the Spirit, beginning with love, can only emerge from the life of the Spirit within us (Galatians 5:22-23).

This means that if we find murderous thoughts arising in our heart, we can ask the Holy Spirit to give us love for the person who has wronged us. And to our astonishment the result will be that we find ourselves caring about his or her freedom.

This is not to suggest that we will never have murderous anger feelings arising in our heart. But Paul says we should not sleep on them. "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Ephesians 4:26). As soon as possible we bring the anger to the Spirit who alone can transform that anger into genuine love.

Nor does love for others mean that we allow ourselves to be walked over. When we love our children we assign loving but firm consequences for unacceptable behavior. When a plumber ruins our bathroom and overcharges us, we still love the person but we do not recommend his work to others. If our home is attacked to rape and kill our children, we protect them, and call the police. If our country is attacked we defend ourselves with force if necessary.

But there is an interesting provision in the Geneva convention that all civilized countries profess to live by. In a battle soldiers can shoot and kill. But the moment some of the enemy run up a white flag, or come out with their hands above their heads, the firing must stop. The prisoners are then given the best possible medical treatment, fed and housed, and given access by mail to their families. In the last great war many prisoners were astonished at the treatment they received.

But shooting an enemy who has surrendered is certainly murder.

Chapter 7   ADULTERATING the sacredness of sex