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The Living Commandments by John Shelby Spong


John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This book was published by Seabury Press, New York, in 1977.


Chapter 9: The Sacredness of Life


"Thou shall not kill" is the sixth Commandment. It is crisp and clear, blunt and straightforward, unequivocal. Its meaning is not hidden, but as we begin to probe that meaning, even this Commandment opens up to a new and deeper understanding of life. Behind it lies an attitude toward life, a concept of creation, and a biblical insight into human nature.

Keep in mind that the Ten Commandments were originally given as part of God’s word to the people of the Covenant— the people of Israel have been chosen as the redeemed. The people of Israel are the recipients of the grace of God and now the responsibilities of being the Covenant people are being spelled out. The Commandments are a part of God’s call to live out the meaning of grace. Like great tolling bells they reverberate to every corner and crevice of life. They are not just rules but a call to rise above the natural instincts of our humanity, to achieve a level of nobility that befits the people of the Covenant. This is the context in which the Commandments must be heard and understood.

Human beings, contrary to our own propaganda, are not peaceful, nonviolent animals. We have evolved along with all of nature into our present existence. If Charles Darwin was correct, the evolutionary process was an intense struggle from which only the fittest survived. Survival was not by anything less than tooth and claw. The basic issues in that struggle were economic—that is, the basic struggle of human life was originally the economic struggle for food. Food was taken from the animal world first in the hunt (kill or be killed); then as civilization progressed, mankind got its food from domesticated herds. In the plant world food was chosen first from wild edible grains and fruits of nature, and then was systematically planted, cultivated, and harvested. In both methods, however, there was an intense competition. If their sources failed, groups of people would have to seize their food by force from other groups of human beings or else risk starving to death. To kill for food was a natural and normal part of life—even if it meant killing other human beings. Competition was the very essence of existence, and since the prize of competition was no less than life itself, the competition was often to the bitter end. The vanquished was the victim—and the emotions produced in this struggle for survival constitute a very basic aspect in what might be called human nature, although they are deeply submerged in our inner being.

We don’t like to look this deeply into ourselves. We prefer to paper over the raw emotions that boil beneath the surface of our thin layer of civilization. We like to perfume the cesspools of violence that lurk beneath our conscious minds. We have adopted the saccharine attitudes required to get along in a complicated world, but none of this changes the fact that we human beings are prone to violence; we are jealous, competitive, and capable of hatred and killing. If this were not so the television screens would not be so filled with violence and death. Through television shows we live vicariously. We drain our emotions nightly before the tube. We portray our violence realistically via the evening news, or in fantasy through westerns, detective stories, and police chronicles. These things would not entertain us unless they made contact with something deep within our psyche—something civilization alone will never abrogate.

I do not believe it an accident that one of the earliest stories in the biblical narrative has to do with the act of killing. The murder occurs not between strangers but between brothers, whose names are Cain and Abel. The biblical mind very brilliantly probes human life, for brothers are consumed with a murderous hate. Once again we have to sink between the sentimentality that adorns the surface of life and face the deeper realities. In our sentimentalized civilization we love to talk about brotherly love. We even set aside a week each year to celebrate brotherhood. Note it is one week out of fifty-two. One of our favorite phrases is "the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God." But look at life: how many of you have a brother and how well did you and your brother get along when you were growing up? Is brotherly love a reality or a civilized facade to cover an intense rivalry, jealousy, hostility?

Of course I loved my younger brother when I was a boy. I was constantly told I was supposed to, and so I said I did. But an awful lot of accidents happened to him whenever he was alone with me.

We were see-sawing once when we were quite young. I weighed more than he so I could keep his end high. I kept him there for so long on one occasion that he decided to jump off. It certainly wasn’t my fault that he broke his arm. Little kids ought not to jump from high places.

I recall another occasion when we were having some repairs made on our home. A few pieces of sawed lumber were lying around on the ground. I picked up a piece that had been cut to a sharp angle and threw it up into the sky as high as I could throw it. Could I help it if my little brother just happened to run exactly into the spot where it came down? He has a lovely scar in the top of his head today as a memento of his carelessness. Little kids ought to watch where they are going.

There were lots of other experiences. I remember when I was twelve and he was nine: I decided it was his big brother’s duty to teach him the manly art of self-defense. It was, of course, for his own good, I told him. We put on boxing gloves and under the guise of a socially acceptable sport I gave him a broken nose and a deviated septum. Of course I would not do that today for we are both adults and not only do I respect and admire him but also he is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 210 pounds.

Brotherly love? I doubt if that will ever bring peace to the world—and somehow the Hebrews understood this. Long before Freud, they delved deeply into the human psyche and though they did not call it by this name they understood sibling rivalry. They wrote about it, even showing it leading to murder.

Every child who is born displaces the one immediately before him or her. No one likes to be displaced at any age. Hostility flows when displacement occurs. Jealousy exists when displacement is achieved. Rivalry is intense. These are the forces that create sibling rivalry—and here the urge to kill is born.

How does the first child feel when the second child is born? The first child has no way of anticipating the arrival of the second. He never expected to share his center of attention. Then a "bundle of joy" arrives, taking mom away to the hospital for a few days and then making her much less attentive when she does return. Child number one feels exactly as a husband would feel if he arrived home after work one day and his wife greeted him by saying, "Come on into the bedroom dear, I want you to meet my second husband who’s come to live with us! You must be sweet and love him and share everything with him." He is grabbed in the pit of his stomach by the knowledge that he can be replaced by the threat of non-being, and anger, envy, and hostility flow quickly, and the urge to kill is easy to understand.

Sibling rivalry exists all through life. It changes targets, but it never disappears. It is no wonder that civil wars are the bloodiest wars, for wars fought within the family always are.

Cain finally rises up and slays his brother Abel—expressing elemental human emotions. The emotions that caused that murder are in us, hidden deeply away but bubbling forth in explosions of temper, fits of passion, acts of prejudice, feelings of jealousy, desires to vindicate, needs to insult, to put down—ambition for power or status.

Civilization has repressed the murderous raw emotions of human life, but they are still present in every one of us, for they are part of our humanity. They are natural to the deeper recesses of our souls.

The Commandment "You shall not kill" speaks to this level of life. Its somber note reverberates into our innermost depths. The Commandment is not just a curb of civilization or one more means of repression. It is a call to a new creation, a new humanity. Remember that the Law according to the Book of Exodus is given to the people of the Covenant. It is to be the response of those who have been chosen, "redeemed," freed. It is a law given to those who are the elect—the loved ones.

The Hebrew verb "to kill" used in this verse of the Book of Exodus is spelled rsh. It appears in the Old Testament forty-six times. It is not easy to define. In some sense to render it "do not murder" rather than "do not kill" is more accurate, for it does not seem, originally at least, to have ruled out killing in a war or execution by the proper authorities for some serious crime against the community. Originally it probably forbade taking the law into one’s own hands and prohibited an illegal killing which threatened the sanctity and the security of the community. It was limited to the tribe. It protected against violence so that the tribe could survive and a sense of tribe could be engendered. Yet no sooner is this aspect stated than its meaning begins to expand. In the Book of Numbers the same verb that appears in this Commandment is used to describe a legal execution. Thus all killing begins to be questioned.

Israel is never happy with any form of killing, legal or illegal. This people saw life as the gift of God. Very quickly the tradition of this people began to temper the Law. Cities of refuge were set up to protect one who had killed unintentionally. Here he could wait until his case could be heard, though he was still technically called a murderer. Before the eighth century B.C. other changes once more tempered this verb. At that time the injunction against killing was limited only to those acts of violence that arose from personal feelings of hatred and malice. The scope of the freedom to kill legally was being narrowed.

On the other end of the spectrum, by the time of the Priestly writer in the Book of Leviticus in the fifth century B.C., the injunction against murder had been expanded to include hating another in one’s heart, even if one did not actually kill. Obviously, it is not a big step from there to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard it said: You shall not kill. But I say do not hate—do not threaten, do not insult—for if you do, you have already murdered." The literalness of the Commandment thus fuzzes in both directions. It is not nearly so crisp as we imagine. You shall not kill is an abstract ideal but life and circumstances qualify it as happens to every Commandment.

In these tempering ways the Hebrew people began to act out an attitude toward life that was a direct result of their understanding of God. These things happened to this Commandment because of the Hebrew sense of God and worship.

God was the ultimate source of life. God was holy, therefore life itself had to be holy, all life, not just human life. The whole creation had to be responded to with reverence. God created this world. He looked upon it, he pronounced it good. Human life was created to preside over this world, to tend it, to love it, to enhance it as a good steward. To use the things of this world properly was an act of worship; to exploit the creation, to destroy the environment was an act of denying God.

The Hebrew creation legend proclaimed that life had come not just out of the soil but also from the animating, vitalizing breath of God. God breathed his Nepbesb into Adam. Only because of this was Adam "a living soul" (Soul is the King James word—"being" would be a better translation of the Hebrew.)

So were all the children of Adam, whether good or bad, male or female, in bondage or free, members of the clan or aliens. The seeds of universalism are in the Hebrew attitude toward life, and this attitude is expressed in the sixth Commandment, "You shall not kill."

The Hebrews thus were quick to act against practices in the ancient world that were common to other people but which violated the principle of the sacredness of life. Infanticide was prohibited in the Old Testament. The abandonment of babies, especially female babies, was certainly not unusual even among the Romans. To the Roman writer Tacitus the Jewish prohibition against infanticide was a reason for anti-Semiticism.

On the other end of life’s spectrum the Jews, because they held to the sacredness of life, refused to dispatch their elderly to a certain death.

This theme is crucial to the biblical story and central, I believe, to the increasing complexities of the twentieth century. Because life was holy to the Hebrews, killing in any form was increasingly questioned. Hence the emotions that fed their anger that led to the act of murder came to be covered by this Commandment. So again the scope of the Commandment expanded.

The Commandment was interpreted to forbid suicide. Suicide is an expression of self-hatred so intense that it chops away at the holiness of life. The Hebrews did not understand the psychological dimensions of this as we do, but they did understand that it was a serious distortion of God’s plan for each person, for that plan calls for the fullness of life. Situations will temper this too, so let us not be moralistic even about suicide. There are some circumstances where suicide seems to me to be an affirmation of life, not a denial. Listen to two episodes and decide. I know a man who committed suicide after he developed a particularly painful malignancy. All hope of cure was gone. To tolerate the pain would have required the addictive use of mind-altering drugs. He chose to die by his own hand while still in control of his faculties. Is that decision a denial of life or an enhancement of it?

In another instance a man overextended himself financially and was on the brink of financial ruin. The only thing that could save the security and the college education of his almost-grown children was an immediate infusion of capital. The banks refused to lend him any more money. He had only one other asset. He carried an immense amount of life insurance, so he "liquidated his final asset." He saved his family’s financial security by committing suicide. Argue the pros and cons of that one someday. Was it a denial of life or not?

Neither is capital punishment a clear and simple issue. The Bible certainly decrees legal executions. One cannot use the Bible to support the abolition of capital punishment without twisting it badly. Before you leap with a kind of bloodthirsty glee and rush to reinstate the death penalty, however, read the Bible carefully. Death is prescribed as the punishment for a host of crimes including murder, treason, kidnapping, idolatry, blasphemy, false prophecy, witchcraft, breaking the Sabbath, rape, adultery, incest, perversion, uttering a curse, striking a parent, bearing false witness in a death penalty trial. Yet as soon as the decree was handed down, the Hebrew sense of the sacredness of life began to humanize the punishment, making the death penalty harder and harder to exact, just as we have done today.

If the accused confessed, death was forbidden. Death could not be exacted on circumstantial evidence alone; two witnesses had to agree that a murder was deliberate, that hatred was premeditated, that the killer was warned but did not heed the warning. Finally the witnesses had to be willing to carry out the execution personally.

In these ways the spirit of the Bible overcame the letter of the Law.

Let me state, for what it is worth, my firm conviction that the death penalty should not be revived for any reason in our nation today. A civilized society must deter criminal elements, but it does not need to seek revenge. Revenge does nothing except vent self-destructive hostility. There is no evidence that the death penalty deters capital crimes. If there is no evidence, then angry revenge must be recognized as the only motive for the death penalty, and that is beneath the behavior of a just and humane society.

The death penalty brutalizes life. It fails to recognize society’s corporate responsibility for the distortions that appear in any one of society’s children. The death penalty historically falls heaviest on the poor and the illiterate, both of whom have limited resources and limited access to legal representation. Sometimes the penalty has been exacted upon those who were later discovered to be innocent. Finally it violates the sacredness of life, for if life is holy, if our right to it is inalienable, then the most miserable specimen of human life shares this holiness even if he does not honor it.

I was once a prison chaplain to an inmate on death row who was later executed. Nothing about that experience was anything but brutal, life denying, vengeful, and dehumanizing. It was life at its very worst. It repels me even today to recall it. "You shall not kill" for me must apply here also.

Let no one misunderstand this. I retain my passion for a just and safe society. Surely we must be concerned for the victims of crime as well as for the criminals. We cannot have a just society made up only of what conservatives call "fuzzyminded liberals with bleeding hearts," who express compassion only for the criminal and forget the victim. Somehow that description appears frequently in political oratory and seems to elicit an affirmative response. Our lower nature, our base motives for revenge, can be and are expressed by the simplistic candidates who constantly campaign on a platform using the code words "law and order." We applaud no matter how incongruous.

I attended the annual Brotherhood Awards dinner of the National Conference of Christians and Jews some years ago only to discover that the governor of Virginia used this forum for an exercise in cheap political oratory. He called on us to get the criminal element and give them what they deserved, and the dinner guests applauded just before presenting awards to those who had contributed most to the ideal of brotherhood in that community that year. No one else seemed to think that this was incongruous. I sat in silence and ached for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Hebrews, I am convinced, would have felt the incongruity of that moment, for the Commandment not to kill is not just a law to curb our own jealousy and hatred, though that is important; it is also a call to a new humanity. It is the code of the Covenant people. It is for those who have been touched with grace, called to a new being, chosen, elected, redeemed. Those who were no people—slaves in Egypt—but who now have been made into a special people, embraced by love, they are to live out a new humanity that is not ruled by envy, jealousy, or hostility.

"You shall not kill" finally fades into a positive command. You shall give life even at the cost of your own—for this is the highest form of humanity. This is the ultimate expression of the new creation. This is God’s call that accompanies the demands of the Covenant.

On this level we can look anew at the Christian Lord Jesus. He was so alive to the reality of God, so transparent to the love of God, so at one with the life of God that we Christians assert that God was his very meaning. All the human bitterness, the rivalry, jealousy, envy, and human hostility is transformed in him into a life-giving power that accepts abuse, endures pain, allows death, and gives only love in return. This is what Jesus lived out. He was the new humanity, the new being, the full response to the Covenant, and as such the human face of the invisible God. In his life the final and deepest meaning of the sixth Commandment is seen, for you cannot give life by killing. But look at the victim dead upon the cross who, nonetheless, is strangely alive and life giving, and then observe the victors who gaze upon his lifeless body and do not seem to recognize that they are the ones who are dead. Here we discover the depths of biblical truth, namely that it is not enough to obey the letter of the law but to feel the spirit of the law’s intention. For that spirit finally calls us to live life and then to share life, without stopping to count the cost.

There are many other areas of life we could look at: abortion, euthanasia, war, segregation, saturation bombing, atomic weapons. Each needs to be examined in the light of the biblical insight into the sacredness of life. Each is tempered by a thousand circumstances. Each finally for Christians must be examined in the light of the cross.

"You shall not kill." It is not as simple as it sounds.

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