It’s a simple-sounding proposition: “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). And some people, such as pacifists, are absolutists in understanding it to mean that all killing forbidden. But, in fact, that is not what the commandment means. In Hebrew, the Fifth Commandment forbids the taking of innocent human life. Both war and the death penalty have always been permissible (under certain circumstances) throughout Jewish and Christian history. So the command is more accurately rendered, “You shall not murder.”
That small clarification made, it may nonetheless be asked whether the proposition “Murder is bad” really required all the smoke and thunder of Sinai. Everybody knows murder is wrong. So why command something that everybody already knows and accepts?
Because we only know it sporadically, and the same faculty we use for making legitimate distinctions (as in the first paragraph above) can, under the influence of sin, also be used to make excuses for ignoring this basic principle of natural law. Situations arise in which we have to be reminded that what we know to be true and right in happy moments continues to be true and right even when the temptation to murder can be very strong indeed.
Our culture is chockablock with examples of this. We modern westerners wonder how it could be possible the Germans were capable of exterminating 11 million people in their mad zeal for racial hygiene. But the reality is that they gave exactly the same rationales we give for our extermination of four times as many people since 1973 in the US alone: by re-defining the victim so as to exempt ourselves from guilt for violating the commandment. Jews, Poles and Gypsies were re-classified as untermenschen or even “bacteria” (it was all very scientifically worded) and their deaths were treated like the death of cattle—“no innocent human beings were harmed in the making of this Holocaust”. We do the same trick: reclassifying babies as “fetal material” (another tidy scientific-sounding euphemism).
Why do we do labor to justify murder? For the same reason the Nazis did it: because we regard it as a matter of us vs. them self-preservation. They believed anything was justified to preserve the Volk from their own delusional fears of racial impurity. A culture of death is a culture of fear and the Germans whipped themselves into a frenzy of fearful hatred of six million innocent men, women, and children and killed them as enemies of the state and the Volk. We have whipped ourselves into a frenzy of fear of responsibility for our choices and believe anything is justified to preserve ourselves from the burden of raising a “parasite” (as the pro-choice rhetoric so delicately puts it). Ends justify means: the usual excuses.
Another trick we often use to justify the taking of innocent human life is the Minimum Daily Adult Requirement approach to Catholic moral teaching. This involves that notion that the Ten Commandments describe the uppermost limits of human achievement. So, for instance, when a nation is in the grip of war fever (as ours was in 2003), Just War requirements (which are intended to make it extremely difficult to go to war), get treated as a sort of imprimatur and blessing on war instead of that they are: a set of hard-to-satisfy requirements that aim to fill us with very grave doubts about the wisdom of ever taking this horrible step. Rather than seeing Just War requirement as a massive restraint intended to remind us of the gravity of war, we labor to jerry-rig arguments (often very specious ones) to show that Just War requirements are “satisfied” and then, once we have skated past these, we go to war with alacrity and eat popcorn while boasting about the cool “shock and awe” visual effects on the nightly news. Those who are eager to go war are fairly easy to spot: they tend to be itching to fudge the definitions, to claim that Special Circumstances make it okay to ignore this or that particular criterion, and to be quick to make much the same sort of appeals about the need to bring Just War doctrine “up to date” as abortionists do when they talk about “updating” our definitions of “innocent”, “human” and “life.”
In all this, we see a basic itch to find some way to minimize the Fifth Commandment, just this once, because our particular end is so good and noble, or so desperate and urgent, that surely we can cut a few corners and get on with pulling the trigger. The wheedling voice says, “Look. We’ve jumped through (or given serious thought to jumping through, or convinced ourselves that, in our special case we don’t need to jump through) all the hoops Just War doctrine requires. Now can we start killing?”
Put that baldly, we begin to see the truth about the Ten Commandments, and most especially this commandment: they are given in order to reinforce minimal moral requirements in the face of temporary assaults on reason. They show us, not the height of sanctity, but the bottom-most limits of morality and virtue: if you can’t love your neighbor, at least don’t beat his head in with a baseball bat. It’s important to remember that these bottom limits are merely the bottom, not the heights, of what we are called to in Christ. Merely not killing somebody is not exactly a glittering example of the splendor and holiness of Christ’s love, so boasting that we are “good enough” simply because we observe minimal morality is insufficient. We still need a Savior. Indeed, the Savior himself warns us that the commandment against murder is not satisfied merely because we haven’t actually shot the guy who cut us off on the freeway. As Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount, if you hate somebody from the heart, you are already guilty of murder, because the heart is where murder is born.
So God is, as George MacDonald says, easy to please, but hard to satisfy. On the one hand, we cannot pat ourselves on the back as saints merely because we keep a tight lid on our hatred and don’t actually throttle our neighbor to death when he has the loud party. On the other hand, under the power of grace, minimal morality is a starting place in those desperate moments when we are really tempted to murder that jerk at work who has abused us for years. And since God is pleased with our faltering efforts as much as with the great deeds of giants like St. Paul, he can turn the widow’s mite of our struggles with anger into a great spiritual fortune for his glory. The main thing for us to remember is that commandments like the one against murder give us a sure floor to stand on and a limit below which we must not go. But to fulfill our destiny in Christ, we must reach for the heavens and beatitude, through the imitation of Christ and not merely by living up to Minimum Daily Adult Requirement morality.