You shall not murder.
And then, the same verse from the Jerusalem Bible:
You shall not kill.
There’s a difference of opinion among recent translators of the Hebrew Scriptures as to the best translation of today’s key text. The text is rendered either “You shall not kill”, or else “You shall not murder” (or “You shall not commit murder”.) Various translations render this commandment in either way.
The relevant Hebrew verb found in this commandment can be translated in either way. At some places in the Hebrew scriptures, this word refers to premeditated murder; to the sort of rare, carefully planned murder that happens more in the pages of mystery novels than it does in real life.
However, elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, the word found in this commandment also refers to killing without the intent to do so, even to completely accidental killing. The word also then speaks of killing in contexts other than the premeditated murder that taxes the brain of Miss Marple, Monsieur Poirot, and other literary sleuths.
As a result, I find I prefer the broader usage here, and prefer the more traditional translation of this commandment as “You shall not kill.” The more limited, “You shall not murder”, even if preferred by many recent translations, does not do justice to the way this word is used in scripture.
What does this tell us ethically?
Does this commandment call all people of faith to be absolute pacifists?
Does this commandment call all people of faith to be absolute right-to-lifers?
For that matter, if we broaden the definition of our neighbour from humanity to all creatures, does this commandment call all people of faith to be absolute vegetarians?
In practice, I’m personally committed to saying that I don’t think so. I’m personally not a vegetarian. I’m personally pro-choice. While I believe most of the wars in the period following the Second World War could have been avoided (and should have been avoided), I also believe that I would have borne arms had I been living at the time of the Second World War and been confronted by the threat of Nazism. As a result, while I may be a practical pacifist, I’m not an absolute pacifist.
This commandment presents us all with a range of difficult ethical choices. As this commandment is part of the spiritual and cultural inheritance of three great faith communities, these choices are presented to people of faith in many different cultures.
The choices are not only relevant to the handful of people who are tempted to engage in acts of violence themselves personally, whether they do so for financial gain, to make some sort of political point, or even just to express one’s own personal alienation. These choices are addressed not only to the unhinged perpetrators of personal violence, but they are addressed to all of us and to the communities in which we live.
We live in a community that seems to believe that the only acceptable response to violence is further violence. Many people in our community have bought this message, including many influential people.
· Many talk-back radio hosts speak with great nostalgia of the hangman’s noose or the headmaster’s cane.
· The underlying message of many films and television programmes is that violence is an acceptable way to solve your problems.
The message of this commandment is that violence is never an acceptable way to solve a problem, not for an individual, not for a community. Violence always creates new and worse problems. Violence usually invites further violence, worse violence. And so the cycle of violence upon violence, retribution upon retribution continues.
· The retributions taken by the Allies upon Germany after the First World War created the social conditions that led to the rise of the Nazis and the start of the Second World War.
· Many of the long-standing ethnic-based and religious-based conflicts in our lifetimes had been simmering for centuries: in the Middle East, in the former Yugoslavia, in South Africa, and in Northern Ireland. (And the people caught up in most of these conflicts were not so fortunate as to find both a Mandela and a DeKlerk in place at the same time.)
It is difficult to break this cycle of violence upon violence, of retribution upon retribution. When Jesus prayed for forgiveness for those who were executing him, he set a high standard for us all, a standard that is difficult for us to achieve all the time, but one that we are called to at least attempt.
This commandment is an invitation for our whole community to break the cycle of violence and to establish a culture of peace. Whether we speak of
· bullying in schools or workplaces;
· abuse within families;
· punch-ups on the football field;
· thugs wandering the streets in gangs looking for someone to bash, preferably someone black, or someone Asian, or someone gay, or someone Jewish, or someone Muslim;
· or any of the other intolerable acts of violence that our society somehow tolerates;
we are invited, as people of faith, to challenge our society to reject the way of violence and to establish a culture of peace. This is not only something that a rare person such as a Martin Luther King is called to do, but it’s a challenge for each person of faith.
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; ...
You shall not kill.
This commandment is about far more than the sort of planned, premeditated murder found in a mystery novel. We are challenged, as well, to examine the violence in the community around us and in the depths of our being. Both socially and personally, we are challenged to break the cycle of violence and to establish a culture of peace.