“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
-Jesus, in the 5th chapter of Matthew
In the Ten Commandments, we read that we aren’t supposed to murder people. Sorry to break it to you, Friends: if going on a murdering spree was how you planned to relax on this lovely Sunday afternoon, you’ll just have to change your plans. Murdering is off the table.
Hopefully, that didn’t need to be said. I just like to cover my bases.
There’s a problem here for pacifists, though, isn’t there? I mean, don’t get me wrong, not murdering people is great. It would be nice, though, if the commandment were a little more clear cut.
Like English, the Hebrew language has two main words for ending the life of a human being. They make roughly the same distinction as our own: there’s the basic word for killing someone, and then there’s the specific word –ratsach– which is best translated as murdering someone. That’s the word used in the commandment. We are prohibited from killing someone without proper permission.
That’s it, though. You go to the killing authorities and get your permission forms properly notarized, advertise in the paper for a few weeks like any other public notice, make sure that your permits are up to date on the weapon of your choice, and you’re good to go!
On the face of it, there’s not much for a pacifist to work with. If you’re convinced that taking a human life is wrong under any circumstances, then this may not, on the face of it, seem like the commandment for you.
If we compare this commandment and the way that it is threshed out in the Law to our own understanding of murder, though, we do gain quite a bit. See, we tend to define murder pretty narrowly- you pick up the candlestick, walk into the library, and it’s curtains for Mr. Black. The Torah, however, takes a much broader view.
For instance, if you see that your neighbor’s life is in danger, you’re obligated by the Torah to step in. If it is in your power to save a life, you must do so. If you allow someone to die unnecessarily, the law treats you just like any other criminal. That’s murder.
So. If my neighbor’s life is in danger, I’m obligated to step in. This necessarily leads to the question: who is my neighbor? When Jesus was asked that question, he told a parable in which a member of a hated ethnic group became the hero of the story by being neighborly.
So, then. Flip the question around. Is there anyone toward whom you are not called to respond with neighborly love?
No, right? So, if your best friend’s life is in danger, you’re obligated to step in. And, if an innocent boy in Palestine is in danger, you’re equally obligated to step in. And women walking home late wearing the “wrong” sorts of clothing (whatever that means), and people on death row who have been falsely accused- the list will keep growing. To just let someone die is just as much murder as wielding the candlestick yourself.
That’s starts to sound pretty pacifist, actually.
Here’s another example: the roof fence. Our roofs are built with a significant pitch, so that the snow slides off. Roofs in Biblical times, however, were flat on top and set up as workspaces. You could dry your grains up there, or sleep up there if it got really hot inside.
So, picture a bunch of people working, playing and sleeping on a roof. They’re preserving food, and hanging laundry, and enjoying the sunset, and telling stories in the dark. Keep that up long enough, and what will happen? Someone will fall off, right? An unattended child, perhaps, or someone carrying too large a basket of plums to dry, or perhaps a sleepwalker. Someone is going headfirst off that roof.
That’s why the Old Testament law requires you to build a little fence around your roof. That fence isn’t a courtesy. It’s a requirement. If you don’t build the fence, and someone falls off your roof, you’ve committed a murder. You have the blood of that clumsy oaf on your hands.
Now, you probably don’t throw a whole bunch of parties on your roof, at least not in February, and building a little fence around it would probably just make the snow and ice build up. So, don’t take this literally- don’t go build a little fence.
Imagine a world, though, in which we seriously believed that creating unsafe circumstances for another person was tantamount to murder.
Imagine what the coal factories would look like, if they were designed with the goal of eliminating unsafe circumstances. Imagine what our roads would look like, if texting while driving was considered a form of murder. Imagine a world in which we said that it’s unsafe not to receive preventative medical care, and therefore mandated that it be available to everyone.
This is going well beyond what we generally think of as pacifism, even. This is the kingdom of God. This is shalom.
So, when we’re commanded not to murder, it’s actually a good deal broader than just Colonel Mustard taking the rope to the conservatory. Throughout the entire Law, we are told to truly value the lives of other people. Sure, exceptions are made for the death penalty, in certain cases, and for waging war, and those exceptions might leave us squeamish. On the whole, though, the Law emphasizes our absolute responsibility to look out for each other.
See, people are created in the image of God. All of us- you, me, the folks across the road, the cashier who scans your groceries at Kroger, the cop who gives you the speeding ticket, the screaming baby on the plane, the undocumented immigrant fixing your roof, the man asking for money down by Wall St, that jerk who bullied you in the seventh grade, those darn politicians who are ruining our country – all of us are little pictures of God.
Our God thinks that all of his selfies are worth saving.
Ok, so here we have Jesus, preaching on this Old Testament text. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, [he says] ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” He knows that the prohibition against murder is more than just not personally killing innocent people, but he wants to broaden it further.
So, if you’re angry with someone and you don’t clear the matter up, now you’re a murderer. Raca is an Aramaic insult, meaning worthless or empty. Tell someone that they are worthless, and boom: you’re a murderer now. Call someone a fool, and you too, my F/friend, are a murderer.
See, before murder is a matter of candlesticks and ropes and poisons, it’s a matter of the heart. To murder someone is to say: you are not worthy of grace, and you never will be.
We say that all the time, in all kinds of ways, without noticing the blood on our hands.
James puts it like this: With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers [and sisters], this should not be.
Or, more colloquially, are you going to sing a hymn with that mouth?
Here’s where a pacifist can get excited, in a sense. Sure, the Old Testament law doesn’t prohibit killing people under very specific circumstances. But, have you ever seen someone advocate killing without anger, or without calling the chosen person worthless or foolish?
Think of the kinds of things we have to say to one another, in order to prepare for a war. Think, if it helps to be particular, about the kinds of things we said to one another in preparation for our current endless war. We said terrible, untrue things about Middle Eastern Muslims. We rehearsed the reasons why their culture was worthless, why you’d have to be stupid to take the Koran seriously. We stoked the fires of anger, rather than seeking reconciliation.
I’m not saying that you did that, yourself. That dehumanizing process, though, is a necessary part of going to war. We aren’t created to kill each other, so we have to sort of get in the zone for it. So, we practice treating people as less than human long before anyone ever picks up a gun.
What if we pacifists changed tack? What if we said, you know what, if we need to go to war, then so be it, but insisted that war be conducted with love for the enemy? No using hatred to motivate enlisted troops. No justifying a war to the public by belittling the intended victims. We have to celebrate the humanity of every single person that we kill.
I’m not a gambler, but I’d be willing to bet that the war wouldn’t get off the ground.
In Ohio, if I understand correctly, a woman seeking an abortion has to get an ultrasound and be given the opportunity to view live images of the fetus. Set aside, for a moment, whether or not you think that’s a good idea. The justification for ultrasound laws, generally speaking, is that they give the pregnant woman the opportunity to see the new life inside her, to recognize that this mass of tissue is human.
Imagine a world, then, in which before a drone operator can fire on a house that potentially contains a suspect, he or she has to read a dossier on the family inside. Imagine a world in which the drone operator (or a president, for that matter) looks at hand-sewn baby booties, children’s report cards, copies of stained recipe cards, tax documents from a small business, pictures of a cat drinking milk on the back step. Imagine a world in which the humanity of that family is seen and celebrated, and then the trigger is pulled.
Again, I’m not a gambler, but I’d be willing to bet that we’d have a lot more conscientious objectors. Cultivating hatred and rejection is an essential part of the warmaking process.
Look, though, that’s an easy conclusion. I mean, it’s not easy to implement, obviously, but it’s easy in this context. I’m telling you what you already know. War is bad. Don’t murder people. Did you really need to show up this morning in order to hear that?
How about this, instead: if someone has something against you, and you know it, and you don’t act to fix it, then don’t go feeling superior to the warmongers. On a smaller scale, you’re one of them.
That’s harsh, right? Jesus thinks that reconciliation is more important than showing up for church, though. He says if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you then get your butt out of church and over to your friend’s house and fix the problem.
When we dismiss people, when we reject people, when we treat people with contempt for any reason, even those people who totally deserve it, we are drilling with weapons of war. In the end, the NRA bumper sticker is right: guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Blaming guns for homicides by firearm is like blaming the inclined plane for stab wounds.
People kill people, and we inevitably start down that path the same way: by practicing hatred. We, in Christ, are called to so much more than that. Our citizenship is in a kingdom where no one is ever turned away.
So. Lent starts on February 18th. I know we don’t really do Lent, here, but it’s pretty traditional to pick some sort of fast, to give something up for Lent, be it chocolate or alcohol or meat or whatever.
Here’s a wild idea, though: what if you gave up any speech that diminished another human being?
Just until Easter, obviously. There’s an election coming up, so you’ll need that snarkiness back.
How might your life change, though, if for one season you only spoke words of life? If you were mindful about avoiding the temptation to put-down or shame other people, if you actively sought out opportunities instead to build your brothers and sisters up, to delight in the various ways in which they bear witness as the image of God, how might your life change?