Thou shalt not kill!

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Tashfeen Malik is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the FBI, December 4, 2015. U.S.-born husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his spouse, Tashfeen Malik, 29, a native of Pakistan who lived in Saudi Arabia for more than 20 years, died in a shootout with police hours after Wednesday's attack on a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center social services agency in San Bernardino, about 60 miles (100 km) east of Los Angeles. REUTERS/FBI/Handout via Reuters  ATTENTION EDITORS -  FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

Tashfeen Malik is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the FBI, December 4, 2015. U.S.-born husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his spouse, Tashfeen Malik, 29, a native of Pakistan who lived in Saudi Arabia for more than 20 years, died in a shootout with police hours after Wednesday's attack on a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center social services agency in San Bernardino, about 60 miles (100 km) east of Los Angeles. REUTERS/FBI/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

Tashfeen Malik is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the FBI, December 4, 2015. U.S.-born husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his spouse, Tashfeen Malik, 29, a native of Pakistan who lived in Saudi Arabia for more than 20 years, died in a shootout with police hours after Wednesday's attack on a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center social services agency in San Bernardino, about 60 miles (100 km) east of Los Angeles. REUTERS/FBI/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

Tashfeen Malik is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the FBI, December 4, 2015. U.S.-born husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his spouse, Tashfeen Malik, 29, a native of Pakistan who lived in Saudi Arabia for more than 20 years, died in a shootout with police hours after Wednesday’s attack on a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center social services agency in San Bernardino, about 60 miles (100 km) east of Los Angeles. REUTERS/FBI/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS – FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

The most basic human moral responsibility is to train people not to murder each other. It appears that we are increasingly failing at this task in the United States, as our almost weekly mass murders attest.

As an ethicist, one of the things I study is how communities understand the nature and basis of moral obligation — the understanding of what is right and wrong, good and bad, obligatory and forbidden, and why.

One of the most widely shared moral norms in human history is a ban on murder; that is, unjust killing. Across millennia and cultures one generation has trained the next to restrain itself from the shedding of innocent blood. Murder usually has been treated as the single gravest offense and has been met by the most serious punishments. These efforts have been successful enough to enable human communities to survive.

In historic Christian civilizations, the ban on murder was grounded in biblical commands and therefore in the will of God. “Thou shalt not kill” is written into the Ten Commandments and repeated all over the Hebrew Bible, which became part of Christian Scripture as well.

The addressee of this command was understood to be not just Israel or the Church but every human being. The speaker was understood to be God. The punishment for murder was death. The eternal punishment for murder was worse — eternal death; that is, going to hell where one suffered divine wrath forever.

Of course Christian faith offered more positive reasons as to why one must not murder. All clustered around the idea of the divinely given worth of human life.

The Bible and later Christian tradition are filled with increasingly expansive claims concerning the sacred worth of each person. These claims intend to place a zone of protection around humans simply because they are the unique, immeasurably valuable creatures they are. Because God looks at people this way, we must act accordingly. At a minimum, this means restraining our hand from shedding innocent blood. (Legitimate defensive war has been an exception; more below.)

So there were at least three fundamental ways at least one civilization tried to train people not to kill each other: a) by threatening eternal divine punishment; b) by enacting earthly execution; c) by elevating the value of human life as such.

Of course, one did not have to be a moral giant to be able to adduce other reasons not to kill. A bit of empathy helped — if I kill this man, he will suffer and his family will grieve deeply. A minimal sense of the common good helped — if everyone murdered when they were angry society would collapse. Maybe just a bit of Golden Rule — I will not kill this man because I would not want to be killed. And some chivalry when it came to women and children once resonated — a real man doesn’t kill women and children, ever.

I am not attempting to whitewash the many, many occasions in which Christians failed to live up to their own code. But I am saying there was a code, and it was widely understood. And I am wondering whether it has collapsed, or is being threatened by a very different code.

Robert Dear, suspect in Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs

Robert Dear, suspect in Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs

Collapsed: Think of the garden-variety aggrieved white American guy who shoots up a movie theater because he is depressed or angry or mentally ill. Such a person, at least in that moment, appears to fear neither God nor man, shows utter disrespect for human life as such, and cares nothing for the suffering he causes and the injustice he does. We need to figure out how people get to such a place, and prevent it.

Threatened: The religiously inspired terrorist-murderer represents a different, more ancient kind of moral and indeed theological problem. Today they are primarily emerging from radical Islamist groups, but don’t overlook radicalized Christians, Jews, and others.

These persons believe they are warriors in a holy cause, thus their violence is not murder but legitimate war against God’s enemies. They kill not in the teeth of anticipated divine punishment but with a twisted sense of divine blessing. They do not fear execution or death because they believe such death to be martyrdom and they anticipate eternal reward. They do not respect human life as such but only those human lives that conform to their version of their religion. And they suppress empathy, justice, common good, chivalry, Golden Rule, or other moral restraints in pursuit of their holy (e.g., desperately unholy) cause.

Any society that discovers it is being afflicted by attacks from either of these types of murderers must protect itself by all prudent and lawful means. That is primarily a government responsibility. Certainly it includes keeping military arsenals out of the hands of potential murderers.

But the broader problem is moral and religious. All of us bear responsibility for (re)creating a moral world in which murder, not to mention mass murder, becomes morally unthinkable, however it might be motivated. Religious communities that find they are consistently producing murderers must recognize the internal crisis they face, and act to redress it immediately.

  • Larry

    Pretty much from the time Roman soldiers and Barbarian tribes started to adopt Christianity to present , Christians have sought and found theological loopholes to allow for killing in the name of their faith. Christianity has never really taken such directives seriously. Those who claim “the text doesn’t support mass murder” are ignorant of the history of their own faith and how the Bible was interpreted.

    The number of purely pacifistic sects, those who take the words of “shall not commit murder” and “turning the other cheek” in the presence of one’s enemies seriously are few and far between. All of them were persecuted by the more mainstream sects of Christianity.

  • Eric

    David, I’m wondering what you made of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s comments about carrying concealed weapons? Maybe you’ve already written about it and I missed it, but I’d be curious to know if you see his words and attitude as part of the collapse you describe here. I know I do.

  • David Gushee

    I thought they were disastrous in every way.

  • Scott Shaver

    How did the subject of the post turn so quickly from the case study of a renegade jihadist (pictured) to the sub-category (“garden variety”) of “aggrieved white American guys” ?

    Do volumes, numbers or frequencies of mass-murders factor into the author’s perspective?

  • Andrew Bruno

    David- really enjoyed your piece and really enjoyed reading your different takes on the threatened v. collapsed issue regarding reasoning behind the mass killings. Personally, I feel that the majority of the bigger attacks revolve around feeling threatened. The desire to be seen as a “martyr” to your community or cult is what drives these attacks and will continue to do so until we are able to rid these religious radicals. The last line of your essay is the absolute truth.

  • Caroline M.

    Are you asking why he’s talking about white men, since radical islamic terrorists seem to be more of a threat? I think it was very important that he brought up the issue of the “aggrieved white American” man, since I think it’s so often dismissed. When a muslim shoots up a place, some of us immediately call it terrorism before knowing the motives. However, when a white man shoots up a place, we say he must be mentally ill or deranged, and some of us are weary of calling it terrrorism. But what is the difference? What if religion motivated the man who stormed into planned parenthood? How do we know the constant attacks on PP from extremist Christian groups lying about their selling of baby parts and saying they’re evil did not encourage this shooter? I think it would have been irresponsible to not point out the major issues we have with white domestic terrorism as well. All sorts of radical religion, not just islam, can be harmful.

  • alison

    It’s not so much teaching people not to murder, it’s teaching people to respect life. Unfortunately that has failed in the 40+ years since the legalization of abortion. We live in a country filled with rage. Teaching people not to murder will not solve that problem. And yes, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s comments were disastrous in every way.

  • Larry

    Well you certainly aren’t going to teach people to respect life by:
    -Demonizing doctors and patients undergoing legal medical procedures
    -Attacking the legal right to make choices concerning one’s family planning
    -Spreading defamatory attacks on others in service of your beliefs
    -Engaging in rhetoric that people exercising legal choices should be executed or murdered.
    -Engaging in s1utshaming of women who make choices concerning family planning.

    The Anti-abortion crowd already had blood on its hands this month, in case you forgot. So whatever lessons you thought you could be teaching others on the subject of murder, forget it. People should look elsewhere.