In about 1997/8, in my early 20s, the Film, Seven Years in Tibet came out. It recounts the adventures of Heinrich Harrer a German mountain-climber who in the 1930s found himself lost in Tibet after a climbing expedition in the Himalayas went wrong.
Having got lost in the foothills of the Himalayas, Heinrich Harrer found himself rescued by a group of Tibetans and taken to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet where he had the privilege of forming a friendship with a young Dalai Lama. (This was before the invasion of China.)
In total he spent seven years in Tibet, and during that time Heinrich Harrer discovered a culture that was mostly unknown in the West at the time having largely been untouched by the West. The movie portrays how Harrer’s encounter with the Dalai Lama and with Tibetan culture had a softening effect on his hard and arrogant personality. Although clearly not without its own problems and intrigues, on the whole, he encountered a much gentler and more compassionate culture than the Nazi dominated culture of Germany that he had left behind.
It was one scene in particular that stood out for me in the movie, that remains with me to this day. In the movie, the Dalai Lama had commissioned a new building project near to his residence. I forget what the building was going to be used for. But what became clear as they were digging the foundations was that those who were engaged in the building project were doing their best to make sure they didn’t kill or harm the earthworms and other insects and creatures in the process.
It really made an impact on me and in a South Africa that was being ravaged by political violence left wondering that if we could foster and nurture a culture where even earth worms and insects could be treated with value and respect, maybe we could nurture a world where less violence would place between human beings.
Today, we come to reflect on the 6th Commandment. In many catechisms in different denominations, the 6th Commandment reads: You shall not kill. If the 6th Commandment tells us we shouldn’t kill, it might seem quite puzzling that the Old Testament is in fact full of killing.
But the original commandment was not in fact a prohibition against killing; it was a prohibition against murder. The word that some would translate as kill I understand might be more accurately translated as murder. And so the truth is that in Israelite tradition, killing was “acceptable” under certain circumstances, as we have indeed already seen in this series on the 10 Commandments. Killing another human being was considered “acceptable” if for example they had caused the accidental death of another, for example if they kept a dangerous ox that caused the death of another. Killing another human being was also considered acceptable as a punishment for murder, for insulting one’s parents, for incest, for adultery, for blasphemy and for breaking the Sabbath. In fact this covers half of the 10 commandments. As we have also noted, the kind of killing advocated was particularly brutal for most of these: death by stoning, something that almost all of us today would regard as reprehensible and even as evil. One wonders why if they felt killing was necessary, a more human way of killing was not used? Why stoning of all other possible options?
In addition, some argue that within in the Old Testament, the injunction not to murder appears to have largely been interpreted to be a tribal one. It was not acceptable to murder someone from one’s own tribe or nation, but the same did not always seem to apply when dealing with people from another tribe or nation. Indeed, Moses was a murderer of an Egyptian soldier, but apart from having to escape being punished by the Egyptian authorities there is no indication of God confronting him for what he had done.
In other instances in the Old Testament, slaughtering all of the adults and children of every city the Israelites attacked, apart from the virgin women who they could keep for themselves, also did not seem to be covered by this commandment (Deut 2:31-34, Num 31:12-18). In addition, Michael Nugent points out the irony of the passage that when Moses comes down the Mountain the first time with the freshly chiseled set of commandments and finds the Israelite people bowing down and worshipping a golden calf, his first reaction in to call the Levites to himself and to order them to kill three thousand of their brothers, friends and neighbours.
Some like Michael Nugent would suggest that there is a strange inconsistency in the Old Testament surrounding this commandment not to murder.
But the Old Testament distinction between murder and killing is in fact one that most of Western society continues to operate on. The very fact that war is sanctioned and regarded as legitimate under certain circumstances means that we as Westerners have also operated on the understanding that some killing is, dare I say, ‘acceptable’ but other killing is regarded as unacceptable.
The distinction between killing and murder is an interesting one. The first question one might ask is what is the dividing line between killing and murder? Under what circumstances can killing someone not be regarded as murder?
For the most part Western nations and cultures have regarded killing as acceptable only under circumstances of self-defence, when one’s own life, or when one’s family, tribe or nation is threatened by another. It was St Augustine who in the 300s made the first Christian argument for what he called a ‘just war’. He argued that under certain circumstances it was right and just for Christians to go to war.
But this had not always been Christian understanding of war.
Many of the earliest Christian writers in the first three centuries of Christianity could probably be described as pacifists. Hippolytus of Rome who died in the year 235 AD for example believed that a soldier could only be baptised as a Christian if he refused to kill other human beings. If he remained willing to kill, he would be rejected for baptism.
Tertullian who was a contemporary of Hippolytus believed that when Christ disarmed Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, he had symbolically called all Christians to lay down their arms.
There are some historians who believe that serving in the military only became common practice amongst Christians after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. When Christianity became married with political power it was inevitable that it would have to begin justifying killing under some circumstances.
These are difficult and complex ethical questions and debates that have echoed down the centuries. Even today, Quakers and Mennonites amongst others would adopt a pacifist approach suggesting that all conflict, no matter how intense needs to be resolved by non-violent means and never by killing or war.
But Jesus raises even deeper questions about the command not to murder. In Matthew’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus suggests it is not just the literal murdering of other people that we need to be careful of. Jesus cautions us against harbouring angry, seething, murderous and even contemptuous thoughts in our hearts for others for indeed, in most instances, murder is something that takes place within the human heart and the human mind a long time before it is played out in reality.
But there are other more subtle ways in which murder plays out in our world today. When manufacturers of cladding fail to disclose that it is in fact flammable and combustible, and yet allow it to be put on residential buildings all over the UK and probably other parts of the world, is that not in some way also an act of murder or culpable homicide, lining one’s own pockets with very little concern for the lives of others? What about those companies that continue to make money from polluting and destroying the planet and thus endangering the health of human beings all over the country? It is wonderful to see that there are investment companies and pensions that are beginning to offer ethical ways of investing one’s money in companies that do not engage in unjust and what some call ecocidal policies that are beginning to endanger not just human life but all of life on the planet.
In closing, an online legal dictionary defines murder as “...the unlawful killing of another human being without justification or excuse…”. It is becoming clear that this is an inadequate definition of murder, because it is possible to murder other human beings by destroying the air that they breathe or the water that they drink or the climate that they live in, all in the name of profit, and all quite legally at present.
If murder is the unlawful killing of life, then the opposite of murder is surely the nurturing and protecting of life… and the nurturing of life is ultimately a work of love. Paul reminds us that Love is the fulfilling of the law. If we are to fulfil this commandment not to murder with all the grey areas that it contains, is the antidote to murder, not the nurturing of love, doing everything in our power to love, protect and nurture the lives of others? And perhaps by extension, to do everything in our power to love, protect and nurture the life of our planet?