Part of a series on the Ten Commandments.
At face value the prohibition against murder is perhaps the easiest one to keep. As a moral law that is written on our hearts and that can be arrived at by reason, human beings know that the unlawful killing of another human being without justification, especially when malice is involved, is wrong (sociopaths notwithstanding). Existence is a fundamental good and the most basic duty we owe one another is the duty not to kill.
However, the specific prohibition against killing in the law of Moses is given within the context of the covenant between God and Israel, what Thomas Joseph White calls, “a kind of spiritual marriage.” As such, the commandments are not just general prohibitions but rather invitations meant to shape the life of this particular community, engendering love of God and neighbor, whatever broader implications they may have.
Moreover, Jesus famously elevates the prohibition against murder by exhorting his followers to quickly resolve their anger towards one another lest they be liable to the same judgment that befalls actual murderers.
In this spirit I want to suggest that Christians are obliged to understand the prohibition against murder in a broader sense. Lawful or not, it is always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. To give but one example, in what is surely a hallmark of Western decadence there are now circumstances in which killing is considered not only morally permissible but in fact morally desirable; as a response to human pain and suffering, for example. Yet this ought to give Christians serious pause.
In what follows I want to suggest that the ubiquity of killing, and our creativity in doing so, ultimately fails to conceal the fundamental disorder of the act. A disorder that the prohibition in the law of Moses lays bare. At a minimum, therefore, Christians ought to refrain from killing their neighbors. Failing this, I want to suggest that even our creativity with respect to killing is ultimately subject to the wisdom and providence of God, who in his mercy opens up a form of “killing” that is not only permissible for Christians but is in fact our duty—dying to sin in order to become a “living sacrifice,” unto God (Romans 12:1).
As we have noted, the prohibition against murder is given within the context of a covenant at the heart of which is an encounter with the living God, he who wills our life, our good, our flourishing, and our fruitfulness. According to Aquinas this is what it means to say that God is love. Therefore, the prohibition against killing reveals something central about God’s own inner life. God wills (eternally!) the good of the other.
Human beings are because God wills us to be and so being wills nothing but our good, which is to know God and enjoy him forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism). Killing is immoral because it contradicts the dignity of human life, our being made by God and for God, a dignity that properly belongs to each and every human being from conception through to natural death. Simply put, every human life has been willed by God for its own sake. That makes humans stewards rather than owners of the life that God has given.
Not only does killing contradict the inherent dignity of human life but it also stifles the divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). Consider God’s covenant with Noah. Blood is life says the Lord, therefore, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it,” (Gen 9:6–7). Notice how the prohibition against killing is explicitly linked to the command to be fruitful and multiply. Killing is fruitless, barren, an arid desert quite the opposite of the garden. Killing is anti-fruit, anti-life, anti-God.
None of this is to suggest, however, that the preservation of human life is the highest good. The blood of the martyrs bears witness to this. Life is a gift from God that may under certain circumstances require one’s life to be freely offered. Moreover, in Genesis 9:6-7 God himself states that the consequence for shedding the blood of a human is to be put to death oneself. This leads William Cavanaugh to suggest that if killing is ever to be moral it can only be because God wills it. We’ll return to this momentarily. For now, let us reaffirm the prohibition against murder this way: it is always wrong to intentionally take an innocent human life because it “radically contradicts” the good of one made in God’s image.
Yet just here the light of the gospel is shining. For what else is the message of the cross but the proclamation that even our proclivity for killing is finally subject to the wisdom and mercy of God. Jesus Christ who is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), the truly innocent one (Heb 4:15), unjustly executed. From this angle, the prohibition against killing can be understood to mean, “You shall not kill the Son of God” (White, 177). But we did. The cross is the greatest moral failure that human beings have ever perpetrated and yet somehow God has used just this to overcome every evil.
Abel’s blood exposed the violence of his brother Cain and cried out for justice (Gen 4:10). The blood of the new Abel, Jesus Christ, exposes the violence of every human heart and will. His blood cries out from the cross and delivers justice by ransoming us from the power of sin and death so that with our faith and hope set on God we might be raised up with him (1 Pet. 1:19–21). Just so, the Passion of our Lord is offered as a response to human killing and hatred.
We can make one further point. Because Christ suffered and died unjustly there is not a single unjust death buried somewhere in the pages of human history that is unknown to our Lord. He knows and identifies with each one. Each one is immeasurably precious in his sight.
Thus far we have concentrated most of our energy on the verb (to kill) in the prohibition against killing. But now I would like to turn our attention to the subject: You shall not kill. That is to say God’s covenant people shall not kill. However, returning to Cavanaugh’s point above, if killing is ever to be justified it can only be because God wills it. This is so because as the generator and giver of life God has complete ownership over it. Life is no more ours to take than it is to give. Authority over life and death belongs to God, absolutely.
As such, killing belongs with God. Only he can be trusted with it. “See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand,” (Deut. 32:39). And again, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up,” (1 Sam. 2:6). Only God can be trusted with killing because only God kills in order to make alive.
Humans kill for the sake of subtraction (an enemy, the suffering of a loved one, a pregnancy that we cannot afford to bear), but God kills for the sake of addition. In human hands death is a tool used to quench the image of God in others, but in God’s hands death is how he perfects his image in us. Only for God can killing be rooted in love.
What the commandment thus establishes is an absolute distinction between God and human beings with respect to killing. Christians must refrain from killing because killing belongs to God. Life and death are his. We are invited, rather, to know that life is ours neither to give nor to take but to receive. We are invited to affirm life by yielding control of our life and our death to our heavenly Father as Jesus himself did.
Christians must refuse to kill their neighbors because life and death belong to God. Indeed, one of the great paradoxes of the Christian life is that it begins with our being slain by God: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). It is therefore only in light of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection that a certain form of killing becomes morally permissible for Christians — we could even call it a duty: self-offering. As Saint Paul boldly proclaims: “I die every day!” (1 Cor. 15:31).
It is the distinct privilege of every Christian to learn to die early through self-denial. To daily pick up one’s cross and follow Christ. To say “no” to sin and to take up the virtues that the prohibition against murder enjoins upon us: suffering one another’s burdens with care and patience; patience in our own suffering; the defense of innocent human life; to live in charity with all; forgiving one another and curbing unjust anger not only in our actions but in our speech and thoughts as well. In short, to offer oneself to God the Father and one another in and with and through Christ. This is the shape of Christian love. It is the fulfillment of the law and the only thing strong enough to overcome and heal our proclivity for killing one another.
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is rector of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst, in the Canadian Diocese of Toronto.