VI. You shall not murder.
This is probably the very best known of all the commandments. Whenever a comedic news anchor wants to do a story about the Ten Commandments and polls the population at large, if they can name no other mandate from God – they know we are not supposed to kill anyone. At least, that’s what the King James’ Version said. Frankly, there are lots of directions we can go with this one, but we are going to start with my favorite path first: history.
Why did God choose this one as the commandment right after the most intimate of our relationships between a parent and child? Well, let’s think back to Genesis for a minute. Back in the very beginning, after God created our primordial parents, after they chose to choose themselves in God’s place and were promptly kicked out of paradise, our first parents had two children: Cain and Abel. They became part of God’s own creative process and were given the opportunity to raise children in love, just as God had wanted to do with them. And yet, the next story that we find, as we all know, is about how Cain kills Abel with malice in his heart. He murders him. And Abel’s blood calls to God out of the very dust from which we humans were drawn.
Love comes first. Its counterpart comes next: life itself. For though we are meant to be reared in love, we are meant to learn from the very beginning that life is sacred. It is God’s gift to us. To take it is not our choice.
There are some obvious places this has come up. One is about capital punishment. Interestingly, in Jewish society, in the Levitical laws, though there are countless reasons one might be killed, there are also countless ways that the justice system tries to avoid using the death penalty. There were even rabbis throughout history who went so far to say that they wish they could go without it altogether.
Oddly enough, Rome did not like to kill its own citizens (slaves didn’t count, nor anyone who did not have that citizenship – hence, all the crucifixions). But they actually preferred to avoid the death penalty for crimes when it involved those who were a part of their society. It was actually Great Britain who helped bring it back into vogue in the past centuries.
And this is one I will not specifically say one way or the other, but I will offer this important question: if the point of punishment in Christian practice, as most scholars would suggest, is always to reform, to transform, to provide an opportunity for change to the person who has committed a crime, even the very worst ones (even if it should take the remainder of their earthly life), will the death penalty actually aid in the purpose of punishment?
Another question that the conversation about this commandment brings up is about war. Fighting in battle. Serving in the military. My commentaries provided centuries upon centuries of wisdom about the theories of just war. And I personally believe it is certainly justified at times. As did the people who first held this commandment close to heart. What I always hold up in my own mind is this. Jesus said, close to when he died that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Meaning, in my mind, that war must always be a last resort, not a first choice. And if there is no other way to protect those you love, we all pray that God will give us guidance in our understanding correctly.
But speaking of Jesus, we need to look at what he said about this commandment. Because, like so many other things in his time, the sixth commandment had been part and parceled out into a strict code of dos and don’ts. And Jesus came into the picture and said, ah ah ah. It is not just what you actually do. It is also your intentions. It is also what is in your heart. It is what is in your soul. For God knows it all. And to me, well, we can get bogged down in arguments about all the ways we can physically murder or kill. But quite honestly, the biggest place we write murder is in our hearts.
For some reason, a lot of stories have been coming to me all at once recently. From a variety of friends, all over the place in this country – since I have lived a lot of places at this point. But they all bear one thing in common. Let us see if you can find it.
When I took my Baton Rouge youth group to Texas for a mission trip several years ago now, it was the very first night that the other pastors, all men, realized what I did for a living. And they would not speak to me. Not one word. For the remainder of the week. Because I was a woman who would dare to follow Christ’s mandate as a woman to preach.
A friend of mine was told that her child was an abomination because of who she loved. In a bible study. In a different part of the country.
In another part of the country a friend heard a teenage child called a racial slur just within the last couple of weeks because of the child’s ethnicity.
And the stories just get worse from there. Did you catch the commonality? Hate.
As the wise green sage once said, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Jesus told us that if we look on our neighbor with anger, malice, hatred in our heart – we have murdered them. I guess being the Word made flesh had its advantages, because the Hebrew word for “murder” also means to break or to dash to pieces. And how often have we managed that without laying a single hand on a person?
Yes, we have written murder into this world in so many fearsome ways. May God forgive us. Yet, we hold within us, by God’s grace, the love that can bring new life to this world. When we are brave enough to live it.
One of my all-time favorite movies has to be Remember the Titans. And I may have used this before, but I will retell my favorite scene again and again, because it will always preach. The two team captains, one black, one white, start off completely butting heads. Unable to stand each other. Can’t even be in the same room, and they’re forced to be roommates at camp. But somehow, someway, they start to see each other through the fog of all the hate the world had told them to feel.
When Gary, the white captain is paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident toward the end of the movie, Julius, his fellow captain goes to see him in the hospital. The nurse sees him enter and tells him only kin is allowed. But Gary quickly quips, “can’t you see the family resemblance? That’s my brother.” When the whole world told that team they should fight and buck and bother, that team became a family that stood strong together. Even as all the other teams, all the other schools, all the other crowds – all of them entirely white – snarled hatred in their face. They chose love over hate. Life over death.
Because, my friends, that is the honest truth about what we are called to do. The commandment not to murder, for most of us, at least, has far less to do with not killing (pretty sure most of us have that down already), and far more to do with living lives that courageously make life a priority. God’s life. Life that is filled with God’s justice for the last and the least, the lost and the forgotten, the hated and the feared. Life that is filled with a love that is untamable, unfathomable, and unending. Life that is a gift. One we are meant to cherish and protect. To foster and empower. Not only in ourselves. In our families. In our neighbors who look like us. But also in every other person on this planet – because they are children of God, too.
Yes, we humans may have written murder into the story of earth’s history. But God’s story is far from finished. And just as love will always have the last word, so will life. So let’s get to work, seeing Christ’s legacy of new life here in this world fulfilled.