Four Short Words: Thou Shalt Not Kill

March 25, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

We began this series on the Ten Commandments back in the fall, and as I looked over all of them and planned sermons, I had a little private joke going about this one. I thought, "Thou shalt not kill." Well, that' s easy. I' ll just get up on that Sunday morning and say, "Yes, please don' t," and sit back down again. We' ll sing a hymn, pronounce the benediction and have an extra-long coffee hour.

Even the other day, I was still joking around about it. I didn' t want to deal with it. I sent Karen Pritchard an e-mail in the office saying that the sermon title was "Thou Shalt Not Kill… Anyone Today." She called me and said, "Vicki, that' s not the real title of the sermon, right?"

It' s that time of year where she had to check. Everyone' s a little cabin-feverish right about now more squirrelly and short-tempered than usual. Happens every year, you can set your clock by it. Thou Shalt Not Kill… Anyone Today, Please.

It' s been a sad week, a very end-of-Lent kind of week. I agreed to sing with my group Sweet the Sound at a worship service at St. Paul' s Cathedral in Boston yesterday and I assumed it was part of the Interfaith Walk for Climate Change, which had several big events scheduled. As it turns out, it wasn' t a worship service about climate change at all but about ending the war in Iraq. I guess the climate change event was across town at Trinity Episcopal. There are so many issues I can' t keep the events straight. But I didn' t go in after all. I was with the Dube family-- in the hospital with Anna on Friday and at their home on Saturday. Death took another beautiful, beloved person who wanted so much to be alive. Our hearts hurt thinking about it. We don' t want it to be true.

We don' t want it to be true that life is so fragile, and all the love and will in the world can' t make it last as long as we wish it could.

Part of what we' re doing here in worship together every week is trying to savor life better, trying not to let it fly by unexamined, trying to be honest about the great work confronting us, which is to live more deeply with more honesty, integrity, and truth. "To stretch our souls beyond their littleness," as A. Powell Davies said. It' s not always fun work. It can be scary and overwhelming to squarely face the vast divide between what we are and what we feel most deeply called to be.

I could never do this work alone. I' m glad you feel the same way and that you come together again and again – in celebration and anxiety and sorrow and hope and everything we are– to dive again and again into the waters of the soul. You invited me exactly five years ago to do this with you, and I say to you unequivocally that they have been by far the happiest and most fulfilling of my professional life. I love you and I thank you. You are your minister' s delight.

Thou Shalt Not Kill. Way back a few months ago, this was going to be a sermon about Saddam Hussein' s execution, and I was going to argue against the pointlessness of capital punishment. I was going to say that it' s not an effective deterrent, and it' s really not an ethically-appropriate symbolic act for a civilized people to make. The symbolic act being, of course, "We have the power to kill you if we think you' re bad enough." Everyone knows the powerful can kill. It' s not very hard to kill someone. It' s not even that shocking a spectacle any more, so I' m not sure it has much symbolic power left.

Thou shalt not kill. I was also considering making this a sermon about killing the spirit – how we are stewards of one another' s spirits and must not destroy them. But that will have to wait for another Sunday morning. I am going to try to deal today with the commandment as it is, which doesn' t say "Thou Shalt Not Kill The Spirit." It says, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," which many scholars translate as Thou Shalt Not Murder, but that' s open for debate.

When you think about it, isn' t it a little bit sad that God would have to specify that we' re not supposed to kill? Don' t you think we should sort of just know that? In an ideal world you could picture Moses rolling his eyes, stubbing his toe in the dirt as he reads that Commandment off, like "Duh, God, we KNOW that." But we' re not living in an ideal world but a real one, and Moses himself had killed a man, so he had no cause to be rolling his eyes, this we know.

Did you know that Moses was a murderer? Yes, he was. You will notice again and again in the Bible that some pretty big scoundrels, losers and nobodies get picked to bring about great spiritual revolutions. There' s a message in that. Remember that. When you don' t think you' ve got the stuff to transform your heart and soul better in accordance with who you deeply want to be, remember that Moses killed a man and hid his body in the sands of the Egyptian desert. There' s none among us here so bad that a holy purpose can' t be made known through us.

Remember that. Tell your children.

We' re worthy and able to be whole and good, but there' s also a reality that we' re a violent species and always have been. You can' t help but notice that the oldest family story of the Western world begins with disobedience and murder. That' s very instructive, isn' t it. First you get Mother Eve eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge when she' s told not to, and then she and her also-disobedient husband get kicked out of Paradise, and then she has two boys, Cain and Abel, and then one of her children kills the other. Cain slew Abel.

If you' ve raised children of any gender you' re not that shocked by this story. If you' ve ever had a sibling, you probably aren' t that shocked by this story. It' s a wonder we don' t kill each other more often in that hotbed environment we call the family.

As our earlier reading makes frighteningly evident, murdering a sibling isn' t that hard to do. Just one too many tight squeezes. God, we have so much power, and the human body is actually so fragile.

And it goes on from there, the Bible does. From the beginning with Cain and Abel, the Bible is just one great big crazy, violent soap opera with what I think are the best and most honest stories of all time about human nature. It' s worth considering, too, that the creation myths of many civilizations include sacred stories of gods and goddesses murdering each other and their children, sometimes their lovers, birthing the cosmos out of great bloodlust and violence. Pay attention to world literature and religions throughout all of recorded history and you could just hoot with laughter at the mere suggestion that the God of any civilization lays down the law, Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Of all the commandments, that is the one that we are, as a species, most far distant from taking seriously. Of all the commandments, Thou Shalt Not Kill seems for me to sitting out there all alone like four birds on a tree in the winter, stark, still, impossible not to see, a bit ominous from that vantage point up on high, looking over the rest of us.

Thou shalt not kill. Hey God, are you sure you aren' t being way too ambitious and unrealistic with that one? Since the beginning of recorded history, five thousand, six-hundred years of it, there have been fourteen thousand, six hundred wars recorded. Two or three wars for each year of recorded history, and those are just the ones we know about. (from James Hillman, A Terrible Love Of War) Plenty of those wars were initiated and fought by self-proclaimed Bible-respecting people. What to make of this? Thou Shalt not Kill… unless you really feel like it? Unless somebody else really ticks you off? Unless you decide for yourself that some other entire population of people are bad news and should be offed? Unless someone threatens your loved ones?

I wish I had better news here, but I have to ask it: who' s living by this commandment, anyway? I' m not exempt myself. I know that in a second, if anyone threatened the life of a loved one and I had a gun in my hand, I am pretty sure that I would use that gun as accurately as I know how, and I know how. My Dad taught me. Also: am I supposed to feel virtuous if I myself have not personally killed anybody, if I pay taxes and my loyalty and allegiance to a nation that does? An Israeli man named Steven Tolz wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe the other day in favor of the war in Iraq. He said to protesters of the war in Iraq: "Enough is enough. Terrorists want to kill you in the United States. Terrorists want to kill me in Israel. They want to kill people in Europe, Africa, Australia and wherever the torch of freedom is burning."

Mr. Tolz of Jerusalem has it all worked out for himself: it' s okay to kill people who are connected in any way, however tenuous, with terrorists who might or might not eventually kill people on four different continents. I have a lot of questions about the morality of this position, although I certainly understand its emotional appeal. Boy, do I. I also understand the emotional appeal of hanging Saddam Hussein and other hateful and villainous characters by their neck until they' re good and dead. I just have the feeling that this commandment is four short words for a reason: in this moral code, this particular law isn' t supposed to be open to a lot of interpretation. Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Not a lot of wiggle room there.

It would help a lot if "Thou Shalt Not Kill" had some archaic, easily dismissable aspect to it, like so many of the other laws set out in the Bible. We could say, "Oh, this was written by an ancient people who had no scientific understanding and whose lives were almost unrecognizably different from ours. Let' s chuck this commandment, it' s clearly meant for a world that no longer exists, like one of those laws in Leviticus that forbids the eating of shellfish."

But still it sits there, that Commandment, like four birds on a winter branch, just as inviting and ignored and ominous today as it was five or six thousand years ago. Human nature hasn' t changed much. We just know a lot more, that' s all. None of us in any culture or society has any idea what the world would look like if this commandment was obeyed. And I' ve noticed this: people don' t seem to use "thou shalt not kill" as a tool for discernment so much as they use it as a cudgel against other people whose moral positions they disagree with. I' ve certainly done it.

You' ve probably heard a few of these in your day:
Thou shalt not kill! You' re eating meat and wearing leather!
Thou shalt not kill! How could you support a woman' s right to terminate a pregnancy?
Thou shalt not kill! Bring our troops home!
Thou shalt not kill! They killed us first and they deserve to die!
Thou shalt not kill! That means convicted serial killers, too!
Thou shalt not kill! Save the spotted owl! Save the whales!
Thou shalt not kill! Don' t squash that spider with your shoe, bring it out of the house in a Dixie cup!

How to craft a consistent ethic of life? Our own faith tradition expects a few things of us when considering this or any other commandment. It expects of us, first of all, that we be as reasonable, fair and thoughtful about moral teachings as we are capable of being. We do not blindly charge ahead responding to emotion or blatant self-interest, mob mentality, politics or tribalistic loyalties when discerning what is right and fair.

Second, our faith tradition insists that all human beings are morally improvable animals. If we kill one for any reason, therefore, we are voting the opposite position: that this soul is permanently dangerous, incapable of authentic repentance and emotional and spiritual growth. That goes against every teaching of our tradition.

Finally, we are all connected. Life taken from one for any reason is life taken from all, for every obvious reason.

In the book of Deutoronomy (30:19), the last of the five books of Moses, God says, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live."

You and I live in a world where "you and your descendants" has always meant, "you and your family and people you know and care about." What we have never tried – either in the Western world or anywhere else – is considering everyone in the human family, past, present and future "our descendants."

I leave you with these words by Alice Walker.

Love is not concerned
with whom you pray…
love is concerned
that the beating of your heart
should kill no one.
L' chaim. To life.