“Thou shalt not kill.” Exodus 20:13 (KJV)
“You shall not murder.” Exodus 20:13 (NRSV)
The sixth of the Ten Commandments commands us not to kill another human. That is, if you are reading the King James Version of the Bible. However, if you happen to be reading the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, you will read that we are not to murder another human. So which is it: do not kill, or do not murder?
At yesterday’s adult study on the Ten Commandments, the group had a lively conversation about the difference between killing and murdering another human:
· Is it considered murder if you kill another human in self-defense, or in defense of your family?
· Is it considered murder if the killer does not understand that killing is wrong?
· Is capital punishment contrary to the sixth commandment?
· How about killing an enemy in a war?
The conversation moved to the challenges and sorrow of the American Civil War, where, in the literal sense, neighbor fought against neighbor and brother fought against brother. This reminded me of a movie I saw ages ago, in which a family was divided by members fighting on the side of the North, and those fighting on the side of the South. I remembered the lead character of this movie being tall, dark, and handsome. Gregory Peck came to mind. But when I later did a Google search, I came upon a web page devoted to this movie, “Friendly Persuasion”, with the tall, dark, and handsome Gary Cooper in the lead. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is about a Quaker family (Quakers were pacifists) living in Indiana during the American Civil War, and of the challenges this tight-knit family faced over both the idea of war and killing (against the Sixth Commandment) and if one chose to fight, which side to fight on.
The acknowledgment that each of us is capable of ending another person’s life is unnerving and unsettling. Unless we are in a vocation that includes the possibility of taking another person’s life—law enforcement or the armed forces, for example—our thoughts do not even want to go to that dark place. And for those who killed another human as part of their vocation, the emotional scars that they carry can kill their souls.
Jewish tradition, as reflected in the Ten Commandments, prohibits taking the life of another human in most circumstances; we humans have been made in God’s image—the Imago Dei—and when a human life is taken, it hurts God, the Creator of all.
The sixth commandment offers more questions than answers to the topic of killing another human. Add to that the differences in versions of the Bible, and what, if any, are the differences between killing and murder. There is no easy answer to this conundrum! But let’s see what Jesus says about killing, for he likes to take the scripture and moral codes of his Jewish tradition and expand on it to offer new, deeper, and even more challenging ways of understanding:
"You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.
“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.
“Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.
Matthew 5: 21-26
It may be easy for us to vow never to kill another person, but not so easy to vow to never kill another person through words!
My prayer is that you and I may take time to reflect on the sixth commandment, and how Jesus offers us a new way of understanding the notion of ‘killing’ another person emotionally and spiritually with hurtful words. And my prayer is that you and I rely on Jesus’ voice to stop us before we use words to hurt another human—who was made in the image of God!