Lesson 5: The Fifth Commandment

Thou Shalt Not KillExodus and Deuteronomy: “Do not murder.” Martin Luther’s explanation: “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every need.” Jesus’ comment: “You have heard that 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.”

Let’s acknowledge right off that this commandment gives us a lot of trouble. When I was young most of us thought this was the one that we had no trouble obeying. It made common sense to practice the art of the exception. None of us as individuals were to kill another person. That was murder. However, because this is not the Kingdom of God where everyone loves one another, we gave our communities the right to kill in war or the execution of criminals who threatened us.

The power of modern technology has pretty much destroyed common sense and with it practicing the art of the exception. Because a single individual with automatic weapons and bombs can kill large numbers of people, we hear Christian spokespeople approving of individuals carrying guns and murdering those who threaten them. Because governments with weapons of massive destruction and drones assume noncombatants are fair game, we hear Christians advocating assassination and genocide, things which not that long ago were regarded as murder. On the other hand, because the capabilities offered by modern technology are overwhelming and down right confusing, we hear Christians labeling abortion, contraception, some scientific experiments trying to alleviate suffering, and any number of legal practices as murder.

Without any shared common sense, we are reduced to shouting that those who oppose us are murderers. We are embarrassed that those who supposedly advocate family values denounce contraception and abortion as killing while calling for capital punishment and high defense budgets in order to wage constant warfare. We find using traditional ethical concepts with governments who can practice a Holocaust or a Hiroshima is to end up talking about efficient ways to murder.

That is why a recent Roman Catholic conference called for developing a new Christian teaching on war and peace after acknowledging the Just War theory no longer works. That is why some theologians advocate a new teaching of nonviolence after observing our society has descended into what the Bible describes as barbarism when it accepts the commonplace “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” For that matter, that is why Pope Francis calls for remembering the meaning and purpose of classic capitalism after observing our current economy kills.

One way to bring some order to this chaos is to begin with common sense and then discuss the exceptions in this context. If we make Jesus’ teachings our common sense by accepting his insight that the root of murder is broken relationships that are signified by our anger against our brothers and sisters, then love is the common sense way to end broken relationships and to make our enemies our friends. If we begin acknowledging obeying the commandment means you “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”(Matthew 5), then common sense is to refuse to murder.

Of course, that demands a change of heart and it is that kind of heart that is able rationally and compassionately to discuss the exceptions. We shall still have great difficulty coming to specifics, but we shall better be prepared to engage in the conversation. And we shall overcome the present situation in which mean-spirited Christians call one another murderers on our public streets. Let’s face it, people are not leaving the Church because Christians have to struggle like everyone else to come up with sensible positions. They find no reason to remain, because too many of us begin with a spirit of arrogant hatred rather than gentle love.

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