Thou Shalt Not Kill


TEXT: Exodus 20:13

Back in the late 1980's, I had an argument with a good friend. Veronica is a complete pacifist. For her no war is justifiable for any reason at any time no matter what. You just don’t go to war, period. I didn’t agree with her, and she found my position very calloused toward life. But then the discussion turned toward capital punishment, which I oppose. She does not agree with me on that, and I found her position very calloused toward life.

After debating for awhile, we discovered something. She opposed all war because she thought it was wrong to kill people, even our enemies. I opposed capital punishment because I thought it was wrong to kill people, even our enemies. But she supported capital punishment, claiming that certain circumstances made that killing acceptable, and I supported some war for the same reasons.

That night was very important for both of us, because we both realized that even though on the surface we were arguing about two different things...war and capital the core of it, the issue was the same: Is it ever OK to take a human life? Once we realized that we were dealing with the same question on both issues, we could see that we were inconsistent. When we first went into those arguments, we each saw ourselves as protecting the sanctity of human life and the other person as violating it. But when we saw the bigger picture, we realized that we both thought there were times when taking human life was justifiable...we just differed as to when those times were and what the circumstances should be. We still have fodder for debate, but both of us softened considerably toward the opposing position.

One of my main goals for this morning is to help you see what we saw that night...not only about capital punishment and war...but that a host of hotly debated issues in our culture are really all debates over the same issue: Is it ever OK to take a human life? That’s the question behind suicide, euthanasia, capital punishment, war, and abortion. If you listen to some people, you would think that the Bible was quite clear about all of those issues. But if you read the Bible through you will discover that you can find verses that will support whatever position you decide to take. In seminary we called it “proof-texting” where you take a passage of Scripture without regard for its context and without the balance of other parts of the Bible and use it as proof for your position. With that approach, you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say. None of those issues are cut and dried and there are good Christian people on both sides of every one of them.

Some have said to me that they want to keep politics out of the church. Well, the sad news is that to keep politics out of the church, you would have to keep the Bible out of the church. The Bible is an extremely political document. The Kingdom of God and the nation of Israel are both political entities. From the formation of Israel as a nation at Mt. Sinai, the political entity called the nation of Israel looked to the voice of God for political guidance...for guidance on how they should behave, not just as individuals but as a nation. The Ten Commandments are the culmination of God’s first major foray into politics. First God interferes in Egyptian government, destroying it’s economic system by freeing the Hebrew slaves. Then God moves in on the Hebrews and creates legislation for them to live by: the Ten Commandments. If that’s not political stuff, I don’t know what is.

The people of God have been called to engage political life from the very beginning, and this second half of the Ten Commandments move from what goes on inside our hearts to how we behave in community with others. Politics and faith not only should go together, they must go together. What Jesus taught us, however, was that a Christian should venture into political waters with humility. Our convictions are not guaranteed to be error-free just because they are strongly held. Moreover, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. That’s what softened up the argument I had with Veronica. We each finally got off of our self-righteous horses and realized that the sanctity of human life was a much more complicated issue than we had once supposed, and neither of us respected it in all instances.

So if you are looking for me to take this sixth commandment and use it to argue for particular social policies, you’re going to be disappointed. I have opinions on all those things...I’ve just told you two of them...but I recognize that these issues are complicated and that the Bible has texts that can be used on all sides. It is my job to raise the Biblical texts and to make suggestions about how they might intersect with our lives. It is your job to sort through what I present and, in prayerful conversation with God, the Bible, and the witness of other Christians, decide what your own position will be.

So, with that said, what do we do with the sixth commandment? How can we deal with something as blatant as “Don’t kill” and not end up condemning those who allow for it in certain situations? I think we do that by backing up and looking at the message of the Bible as a whole. I think the primary theme of all of Scripture is love. Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself. Rabbis dealing strictly with the Hebrew Scriptures say that sums it up. Christians dealing with the New Testament say that sums it up. And Jesus, himself, said that sums it up. I agree with that.

I believe the general message of Scripture is that the rightness or wrongness of our God’s eyes...depends on the attitude of our hearts. People sometimes do wrong things for good reasons and people often do good things for some very bad reasons. I think the witness of Scripture is that God approves only those actions that spring from love. Society looks at the action and makes decisions and judgments accordingly. God looks on the heart. An exercise we used to do on lay renewal weekends asked people to choose three words to go on their tombstone. My pastor at the time said he wanted the phrase, “He meant well.” That’s what I’m talking about here. God is concerned with the attitude more than the action itself. The action is not insignificant, but it is secondary to the motive.

That is why Jesus takes this commandment and fleshes it out more. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not kill,” and “anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says “You fool” will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Pretty strong stuff. But Jesus is trying to show that the heart of the commandment is about attitude...that certain attitudes like anger and contempt lead to killing...that killing is first in the heart before it is ever carried out.

All of that means to me that the only way taking of human life is justifiable in the eyes of God is when it can be done in for everybody concerned. If you have to execute a criminal, there has to be love for the criminal as well as love for the victim. In Florida, I lived within 30 miles of the Starke prison and the electric chair they named “Old Sparky.” The news was frequently filled with accounts of prisoners executed by the state. It might have been necessary to execute Ted Bundy, but it was not love that prompted the carnival atmosphere outside Starke that day. It was not love that scrawled “Fry, Bundy, Fry” on a placard. It is understandable, but it is not loving.

When we execute, I believe there should be tears for one of God’s children gone wrong, sadness that a life meant to be used for God was so terribly wasted, as well as grief for the losses suffered by victims and their families. An execution should be complete tragedy without a shred of triumph. So also with abortion...and war...and all the others. I have a hard time with victory parades. People made in God’s image die in war. That is not a cause for parades. The thing that identifies us as Christians is not whether we stand for or against certain issues, but whether we respond to all situations with love. Remember that old camp song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?”

Remember that the Ten Commandments are tools for evangelism. God says, live this way and you will faithfully proclaim my nature to the world that knows me not. Thou shalt not kill is not so much a social policy as a statement about who God is. God is the one to whom all life is sacred, the one who knows us in our mother’s womb as Psalm 139 tells us and who has all the hairs of our heads numbered (Matthew and Luke). God is the giver of life, the one who breathes the breath of life into each new soul. Where God is there is life; where God is not, life vanishes. That is why someone in relationship to God cannot truly die. Our bodies can give out, but we cannot know death so long as we know God. It is an impossibility.

When we live in a way that reverences life, we are making a statement about God. I can’t tell you that there is any one right side to the complex issues that face us today. It may be there are causes for which we must go to war, crimes that must be punished by death, plugs that need to be pulled, or births that need to be prevented. There is no one Christian side, and I think when we take an issue like that and baptize it as “Christian” we have broken the second commandment. But I can tell you that the taking of human life should never, ever, ever be done lightly, gladly, or with hate. On that point the Bible is clear and consistent.

If there is capital punishment, it needs to be done for the love of justice, not hatred of the criminal. If there is abortion, it must be based in love for mother and infant, never for convenience. If there is war, it must be to liberate from oppression and not for material gain. Many people get upset by the bloodshed in the Old Testament, but if you really read the Old Testament through, you will see that God does not delight in death. God will not let King David build the temple because David had too much blood on his hands. When God sends another nation to punish Israel in war, they too are punished if they look on Israel and gloat, if they make sport of it, if they are cruel.

What the Bible message says to me is that all life is sacred to God. Sometimes because of the hardness of our hearts and the sin that surrounds us, we will have to take a life. But when we do so, it should never be a reason to celebrate, it should never be cruel, it should always be mourned, and we should work together so that there is less of it. For heaven’s sake, both sides on the abortion debate should be able to agree that we all want fewer abortions. We all want fewer wars. We all wish that no crime deserving of capital punishment would be committed in the first place and that no one should suffer so much that they wish to end their own lives. That should be a point of common ground for all Christians, even if we come to disagree on how those values should be represented in public policy.

We are completely surrounded by death and violence in our culture. How do we respond? Have you ever cheered the death of the villain in a movie? I have. Have you ever watched TV and been unmoved by dead bodies and scenes of war? I have. We are at a point now where we have even made actual wars a media event. We can tune in and watch the bombing of Iraq. Were you fascinated? I was glued to the TV. I’m here to tell you that those reactions are not good. They take us away from a reverence for life, and as our children watch our reactions or lack of reaction, they learn that killing and death is no big deal...or that we should be glad and rejoice at the destruction of our enemies. Scary.

The problems of violence in our society are problems we have created. The monsters that roam the streets are monsters that we have made. It’s not just the fault of parents who can’t control or raise their children. It’s not just the fault of welfare systems or public education or any other enemy outside of ourselves. If you can look at a dead body on television unmoved--whether it be an Iraqi soldier on the news or a crook on a police drama--you have some work to do at home. I know I do.

Unfortunately, it also needs to be said plainly that you should never just haul off and kill people. You would think that would be a given in a church, but just yesterday 7 people were gunned down in a Wisconsin church by one of their own upstanding members, and the alleged BTK serial killer was chair of his Lutheran church council. Members of churches have both fired on people openly and murdered them on the sly. I can’t believe they never heard the message, but...just for the record...don’t kill people.

Thou shalt not kill. That is what God asks of us if we want to faithfully proclaim God to the world. If we want to be in covenant relationship with God, that is how we are to live--with reverence for life...all of it. That is the nature of God. God cares about what happens to us. Even if we are criminals, even if we don’t care what happens to ourselves. God cries over war, mourns when a life goes so bad that the state executes someone, and grieves over lives that never see the light of day. God looks with a sad tenderness at the lifeless body of a sparrow, brought to the ground because someone wanted to see if they could hit one with a rock or BB gun.

Life is precious and God is love. Can anybody tell from looking at us? Amen.

Sermon ©2005 Anne Robertson

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