28th April 2013

The Ten Commandments (6) “Manslaughter or murder?”

(Exodus 20:13).

It is sometimes said that the Bible is a gory book, full of violence and killing. And there does seem to be a lot of truth in that claim. As we have already heard, one of the very earliest stories – that of Cain and Abel – is about jealousy which leads to murder. And it is by no means unique: Moses kills an Egyptian man, Jael kills Sisera, Samson kills a multitude of Philistines, David kills Goliath, Absalom kills Amnon ... if this was a play, there would be dead bodies lying all over the stage! And we haven’t finished yet, because the Bible’s climax is reached in the judicial and cruel killing of an apparently innocent man.

Yet, early on in this book and buried in the midst of the legal code we know as the Ten Commandments, comes a statement which appears to fly in the face of all that I’ve just said: one of the shortest of all the Commandments and traditionally translated, “Thou shalt not kill”. What does this mean? How does it fit into the story? Was it almost completely misunderstood? And what message might it have for us today? These are questions I shall try to answer this morning.

Well, I have to begin by saying that the traditional translation is not entirely helpful: a far better one would be “You must not murder”. Immediately we read it this way we are seeing it in terms of civil law, of a total ban on killing as a way of solving disputes between neighbours. This is distinct from killing in combat (which I’ll come back to later on); in fact the Old Testament never uses the word translated as “murder” in this commandment in any description of warfare or battle. God clearly wants to create is a society in which people will use civilised ways of resolving their differences, rather than succumbing to primitive bloodlust and revenge.

Nevertheless we could ask a number of very live questions about the precise extent of this commandment. For instance, does it prevent Christians from joining the army and taking place in organised warfare, which will clearly involve killing? Does it have anything to say about inciting death at the very beginning or end of human life, by which I mean abortion and assisted dying? And does it endorse the State using the death penalty for judicial purposes? Clearly these are huge questions which we can only touch upon this morning; yet I think it is worth looking briefly at them, if only to get us thinking.

When we start considering military action, one thing immediately becomes very clear: that God, who gave this strong commandment not to kill, seems to have had no compunction about repeatedly calling the Jews to massacre their enemies during the occupation of Canaan – enemies who had done nothing wrong except to be living in the wrong place at the right time and quite legitimately seeking to defend their territory against invasion. We often talk blithely about “the Israelites entering the Promised Land” as if all they had to do was walk in and set up their nation. But this was actually a military conquest which flew in the face of any notion of justice and fairness; I find it one of the most morally repugnant stories in the entire Bible!

Putting all this aside, one thing I’ve already mentioned becomes very clear: Jewish law clearly made a distinction between bloodshed in warfare and murder in civil society. Indeed, the Bible often praises the exploits of soldiers: for instance Abishai is lauded for killing three hundred men and David himself is portrayed as a heroic warrior who slew his thousands. That distinction between military and civil life continues to this day. I don’t know how many of you watched the television series “Foyle’s War”; it was interesting because it showed a detective carrying out criminal investigations even during the dark days of wartime. Was that kind of work necessary, when so many people were dying anyway – a question asked repeatedly during the episodes? A civilised view of humanity would say, “Yes, it was”.

So what line should Christians take? Historically we have not always agreed on whether it is right to take up arms for our nation; as you know, my own position is basically one of Pacifism which says that we should not kill people who have been created by God. But I think we can all agree that it is wrong for any country to pursue an aggressive expansionist policy based on force; that any such force is far more legitimately used in defence rather than in attack; and that combat should always be kept to the minimum and used only when all other attempts at peaceful resolution have failed. (The use of unmanned drones adds yet another element to the mix). There is certainly no place for the sabre-rattling propensities of some right-wing Evangelical Americans; I wonder if the best position for a country to take in an imperfect world is one of armed neutrality. (And, just as an aside, this all leaves one more question for some Christians to resolve: should they work in arms-related trades, knowing that they are helping to create machines of death? It is easy to say, “Of course not”; but I wouldn’t like to peddle that line in a place like Barrow-in-Furness where military work is almost the only employment on offer).

Well, I’ve spent a long time on this issue, because it is important. But, as I have said, it is not the only one we need to consider. What about abortion, assisted dying (sometimes known as “mercy killing”) and the death penalty? The first two of these are hardly mentioned in the Bible and so we have to apply the broadest of Christian principles to them. Of course it is wrong to kill unwanted babies as a matter of course; abortion can never be regarded as a normative means of birth control. It is also self-evidently wrong that we lightly accept the death of the elderly and frail. Let’s go a little further: I know that some advocates of abortion would argue that a baby should not be born if the mother’s mental or physical health is likely to be adversely affected by the birth; equally, the advocates of intervention at the end of life talk about failing qualities of life and increasing levels of pain.

The problem is that these measurements are extremely subjective and personal; it is very difficult indeed to construct any basis for action which is morally, let alone legally, acceptable. And yet we have all met mothers who have had to face the agonising dilemma of whether to permit a baby to be born knowing that it is irreparably damaged in some way and that its life may well be short and full of pain; we have all met older people who are well aware that their life is ebbing towards its natural close and simply want their suffering to end. It seems that modern medicine, for all its wonderful achievements, has left us on the horns of a paradox: we can allow babies to be born and to survive who would have never have reached that stage in the past; equally, we can keep an ill person physically alive when they would formerly have been permitted to die.

These are not easy issues to resolve; but it does seem to me that the doctor who aborts a deformed foetus or withdraws treatment from an accident victim whose heart is only being kept going by mechanical means is not “killing” or “committing murder” in any meaningful way. Indeed, it can be argued that, by sustaining some kind of life, they have fallen into the different sin of “playing God”. In my opinion – and it can never be more than that – both doctors and relatives have to make tough decisions about when it is right to fight for life with all their means and when they should let nature take its course. They will rarely be absolutely sure that their choice is the right one.

We have been looking at some tough issues. And, before I close, there is one more we must mention: the right of the State to take life as part of the judicial process. And this has been very much in the news as the media have been discussing the ultimate fate of the Boston bomber: the United States still allows for the death penalty and some states still enact it; however Massachusetts is not one of them. Should Dzokhar Tsarnaev be found guilty, there will have to be an interesting debate between the advocates of Federal and State law.

Of course in Britain the remit of the death penalty was reduced over many years; capital punishment for murder was abolished in 1965 although it theoretically lingered on for certain other offences such as treason, piracy, espionage and causing a fire in a naval dockyard. In fact the gallows at Wandsworth Prison continued to be tested on a regular basis until 1992! Parliament repeatedly voted on whether to reintroduce the death penalty but any possibility of doing so was finally extinguished in 2004 when Britain became bound by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Now it is true that the Old Testament law does allow for capital punishment in cases of wilful murder. It is also true that most modern societies see it as a barbaric and obsolete anachronism, although some folk who generally oppose it feel it is justified in cases of terrorism or war crimes and atrocities. The arguments against the death penalty are well known: the possibility of an innocent man being mistakenly executed, the lack of it being any proven deterrent to other criminals, and the effect on the executioner’s mental health. Christians may want to add the thought that a dead man has no time to consider his crimes and repent of them. This seems to me to be a strong argument against employing it, for surely we – of all people – not only believe in justice but also mercy and restoration.

There are so many issues we could discuss. For instance, is a drunk or habitually dangerous driver who causes death committing murder (I am not thinking here of good drivers who make momentary mistakes)? Then there are drug dealers and those who work in the tobacco industry: they know that their products kill people, so are they complicit in their deaths? How about bullying bosses who make their employees’ lives so miserable that they jump in front of a train: surely they bear some responsibility for what has happened? We heaad this week of the man who made millions of pounds selling phoney bomb-detectors to Iraq; organisations trusted his so-called invention and many people died as a direct result. Is he morally guilty of murder? And what about a factory owner who knowingly exposes his employees and neighbours to potentially lethal risks or deadly pollution? Is he guilty? Are the shoddy builders and corrupt officials who allowed the factory to be built? And what of ourselves and our desire for cheap goods? All these scenarios should make us realise that there may be more to this Commandment than we first imagined.

I have one final thought. Murder is all about the deliberate extinction of life; but I would have thought that Christians stand for exactly the opposite, life’s preservation and enrichment. After all, Jesus came so that we might “live life to the full”. Furthermore, murder is about losing all sense of self-control and killing out of anger or in vengeance; yet we follow a man who showed exceptional self-restraint in the most extreme of circumstances, dying on the Cross. We might even be cautioned by the later Jewish insistence that “character assassination” is a form of murder, as shaming someone in public is akin to “killing” their character. This seems entirely consistent with Jesus’ own comment that anger, insults and slander make one worthy of the flames of hell. Both Twitterati and those who chat slander over each others’ fences should take note!

You may not have agreed with everything I have said this morning. That’s fine because, as I said, Christians do have different opinions on these weighty matters. There are many Bible passages which touch on them and we have to come to a judgement and make a balance between them. But may I at least plead that you do think through these questions anew; come to your own reasoned conclusion about them. Please also recognise that a Christian approach to murder, death and justice may not perhaps be in agreement with the more strident commentators of the popular press!

And finally never, ever forget that Jesus himself always advocated principles of reconciliation, forgiveness and sheer utter humanity. Let us therefore be ready to turn this commandment on its head and, instead of saying “You must not kill”, rephrase it as “You must do everything you possibly can that promotes human living in all its wonderful richness”. For surely that is what Jesus did in his own life and even his death; we should aim to do nothing less.