Reverence for Life

Ten Commandments -6

Reverence for Life

The Requirement of the Sixth Commandment

(Exodus 20:13)

With some thirty civil wars currently occurring, and a burgeoning of violent crime, there is an appalling cheapening of human life throughout the world today. In this address, given at St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 25 October 1998, Rob Yule shows the humanitarian importance of the sixth commandment. He makes a fascinating case for Christian pacifism, for the role of the military in civil defence and international peacekeeping, and for the legal protection of the unborn child.

The Scope of the Commandment

The sixth commandment, ‘You shall not kill’ (Exodus 20:3, Deuteronomy 5:17) isn’t as straightforward to translate into English as it may first seem. Some scholars claim that the Hebrew verb rasah has a more restrictive meaning than the English verb ‘to kill’; that it refers only to the deliberate or intentional taking of human life. Those who take this view, like the translators of the New Revised Standard Version, render the commandment, ‘You shall not murder.’ Likewise the author of the article on the Ten Commandments in a recent multivolume Bible dictionary says, ‘The commandment forbids the illegal and wilful killing of the innocent, but does not ban capital punishment nor forbid the killing of Israel’s enemies during war.’ (Raymond F. Collins, ‘Ten Commandments’, in David N. Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary [New York & London, Doubleday, 1992], Vol VI, p. 386).

The appeal of this translation is that it allows for capital punishment and the taking of life in self-defence, as when a country is attacked in war. But there is a basic difficulty with it. The verb also occurs in the Old Testament in contexts where unintentional killing is clearly being referred to (Deuteronomy 4:41-42, Joshua 20:3). Both Moses and Joshua provided for the establishment of cities of refuge, where a person who had killed someone by accident could flee for protection from reprisal until a proper court case could be held to settle the issue fairly. In the light of these passages a leading Old Testament scholar, Brevard Childs, observes that ‘the basic distinction between murder and killing, namely the factor of intentionality, cannot be sustained for the verb rasah.’ (Exodus [London, SCM Press, 1974], p. 420). The sixth commandment refers to all forms of killing, and means, quite simply, ‘You shall not kill’. It challenges us to preserve the basic sanctity of human life.

The Morality of Killing

Life was cheap in ancient societies. For many primitive tribes killing was wrong only if it was within your own clan and against your own flesh and blood. Beyond your own clan slaughter and genocide was viewed as permissible, and blood feuds were common, as they still are in the smouldering conflicts of the Balkans. We see echoes of this in the book of Genesis. Cain’s wickedness was not just in killing, but in killing his own brother (Genesis 4:8-16). Lamech boasted of revenge, far beyond what was required by simple retribution (Genesis 4:23-24):

‘You wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’

In societies where unrestrained violence was common, the famous lex talionis introduced a sense of fairness by limiting revenge to what was proportionate to the offence: ‘You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe’ (Exodus 21:24-25). Instead of wholesale slaughter, out of all proportion to the crime, retribution was to be limited to punishing the assailant in the same way the assailant had dealt to the victim. This was justice, not revenge, and it came from the same moral law that God gave to Moses at Mt Sinai. It was divine revelation that brought home to the world for the first time that killing was morally wrong. ‘You shall not kill.’

Building on this, other passages in the Old Testament, even while they sometimes describe horrible episodes of violence and killing, speak with abhorrence about the deliberate taking of the life of another human being, especially the life of the weak and defenceless. An example is Psalm 94, which calls on God to bring to justice those who ‘kill the widow and the stranger’ and ‘murder the orphan’, who behave in arrogant disregard of God’s law and claim that ‘the Lord does not see’ their evil deeds.

The Old Testament goes so far as to protect people from accidental or unintentional killing. The owner of an ox is responsible if he hasn’t warned people of the danger and it then gores someone to death (Exodus 21:29-32). If someone strikes a person, and that person later dies from the injury, the killer could flee to a place of refuge until the issue was properly judged. But if it was shown that the injury was deliberate and premeditated, then the killer was to be taken from the place of refuge and executed (Exodus 21:12-14). Modern application of this principle would involve us taking responsibility to care for the safety of our workers, to make construction sites safe, to drive carefully, and to child proof our homes. These are things for which we must take due care and for which we are responsible.

The Dilemma of War

There is one widespread form of killing which could involve us all, and that is war. Each one of us has to settle this issue personally for ourselves: can a Christian be involved in war?

On the one hand it is argued that the most precious things in life, and life itself, have to be defended. It is argued that a person cannot stand idly by and see evil rampant and unchecked. At the time of the Second World War, faced with the expansionist designs of Nazi Germany, this was a very powerful argument. Few people would say that a war of aggression is ever justified, but there are many who have argued that there are occasions when a war of defence is justified - a so-called ‘just war’ - and that it is our duty to defend our fellow-countrymen when unjustly attacked. On the other hand there are those today who would say that with modern weapons, especially nuclear weapons, there can be no such thing as a just war anymore, because not only combatants but innocent civilians as well are bound to be caught up in the destruction.

This is something which each of you has to decide for yourself. But it is my conviction that a Christian cannot take life, and therefore should be a pacifist in time of war. I first developed this view back in 1970 while I was studying in Edinburgh, and I had the privilege of sharing it and defending before the senior boys at Fettis College, one of Scotland’s most prestigious schools. Here are my reasons for this view:

  1. The sixth commandment, part of the moral law divinely revealed by God himself on Sinai, forbids the taking of life.
  2. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, so that we may be children of our Father in heaven, who makes his sun rise indiscriminately on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48).
  3. The apostle Paul taught us not to repay evil for evil, but, so far as possible, live at peace with all people. We are not to avenge ourselves, for vengeance is God’s prerogative. If our enemies are hungry we are to feed them, and so heap burning coals of shame upon their heads (Romans 12:14:21).
  4. The apostle Peter urged us to count it all joy when we suffer various trials (1 Peter 1:6-9), and taught us that it was praiseworthy to suffer for doing right, following the very example of Jesus himself (1 Peter 2:19-24).
  5. For three centuries the early Christians were pacifists - through the persecutions, right up till the fourth century, when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, and became compromised by its alliance with political power. The church historian Roland Bainton, in his great book Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1961, p. 66), says, ‘The age of persecution down to the time of Constantine was the age of pacifism to the degree that during this period no Christian author to our knowledge approved of Christian participation in battle.’ The early Christians would rather be killed than to kill. Some were prepared to serve in the Roman armies in a policing or peace-keeping role, but not in active warfare.
  6. I have never supported the abolition of compulsory military training in New Zealand. My reason is that I believe our military should pursue even more vigorously than it has in recent years an international peace-keeping role. The military could be much more to the forefront in civil defence in New Zealand, and in delivering emergency relief aid around the world. There would be many benefits from such a policy. Training for these roles would benefit all New Zealanders. If the New Zealand military pursued such roles our nation would gain tremendous international prestige, which would in turn benefit our trade, tourism, and ability to attract students from other nations to our educational facilities.

The Protection of the Defenceless

Finally, there’s one other matter I must comment on regarding to our obligation to preserve life rather than destroy it. This is the matter of abortion. It is a tragic and appalling fact that statistically the most dangerous place for a New Zealander to be is in their mother’s womb. In 1997, 15,208 abortions were reported in New Zealand, representing one in every five known pregnancies. 30% of these were to women who had had abortions before.

Jenny Street, national president of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, says that this is

Tragedy for the innocent lives that have been aborted, tragedy for the devastating effect abortion will have on their mothers, and tragedy for the harmful flow-on effect to our country in many ways.

Far more New Zealanders have died through abortion than on the nation’s roads, or in all the wars in which New Zealanders have fought overseas. Since the passing of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act in 1977 there have been more than 187,000 notified abortions in this country. That distorts our nation’s demographic profile, is a huge chunk out of our national economy, and is the single most important factor affecting the present unsustainability of retirement incomes in this country.

Historically, the law has functioned to protect the weak and defenceless against the powerful and unscrupulous. Today in New Zealand, it is the unborn child, the weakest and most defenceless form of human life, who needs recognition and protection in law. Professor Scott Davidson, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Canterbury, says,

The legal recognition of the unborn child as a human being is a necessary and vital step towards securing the rights of these children in New Zealand. Without such legal recognition and the protection of the law which ensues the silent holocaust in this country will continue unabated.

The sixth commandment forbids us to take life, and by implication lays on us the obligation to protect it - especially the life of the innocent and vulnerable. For this reason I want to call on you today to support the current petition organised by Christians for Life, requesting Parliament ‘to give statutory recognition to the unborn child as a human being endowed with an inalienable right to life.’ As Thomas Jefferson, architect of the American Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States once said,

The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.

Rob Yule
25 October 1998

© 1998, St Albans Presbyterian Church,
Palmerston North, New Zealand