WHO TAKE THE SWORD
Thou shalt not kill. Exod. 20 13.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO a few young men in a plane dropped a bomb that blasted about fifty thousand Japanese to death. Afterward they came home, somewhat embarrassed to find themselves temporarily famous. They were wined and dined, they were asked questions about their emotions and pursued with flash bulb and camera. Eventually one of those ladies whom the press calls "leading Washington hostesses" gave them a reception, whose most notable feature was an elaborately iced cake in the shape of an atomic explosion.
It was news, that cake; or at least it was a novelty, which for many of our newspapers comes to the same thing. The picture went all over the nation-the Air Force man looking uncomfortable with a cake knife, the hostess smirking, the sugar and flour monstrosity bursting into a mushroom cloud. Thereupon the conscience of America, already uneasily sparking and fizzing, reached critical mass and produced a very pretty little explosion of its own.
No matter what we were-pacifist or militarist, civilian or soldier, Red or Red baiter - we all hated that cake. It was one of the few things the public opinion of this diverse and diffuse country has ever been able to agree on completely. For whatever our personal beliefs may be, we are still by inheritance part of Christendom. And to Christendom, to the world that accepts or once did accept the Sermon on the Mount as its law, that cake was an obscenity. Christians differ as to whether or not they may in some circumstances kill; they do not differ about whether they may gloat over a fallen enemy. To this day the world has not been able to reach agreement on whether the bombing of Hiroshima was necessary. But one thing we'll all agree to: necessary or not, it wasn't funny.
That public explosion of horror was the law speaking through us-the Commandment that told us long ago that we must not murder. Heartening that it spoke so loudly, good to know that a secularist age has kept so much of Christian decency! Yet perhaps there was a touch of the Pharisee in our indignation. Perhaps we were hoping to excuse the beam of mass murder in the national eye by yammering over the mote of bad taste in the eye of one silly woman. Perhaps, indeed, we were trying to buy easy consciences dirt cheap. For though we condemned the cake, we did not abandon the bomb.
And we have not succeeded in easing our consciences. Every time we read of a new improvement in atomic destruction, we feel worse, no matter whether the improvement is ours or our rival's. At this moment we hold the bomb poised ready to throw, paralysed in mid-action by-what? Fear; fear of retaliation, fear of smashing the world, fear of the condemnation of mankind, and, let us hope, fear of God.
Forget the bomb. It is used here merely as a symbol; this most spectacular of human murder methods, and the spectacular hysteria it provokes in so many, may serve to illustrate our terrifying inner confusion over the Sixth Commandment. We have a million other methods of killing, and we are confused about them all. May we kill men at all, and if we may, when and why? When is killing murder? And can a man commit murder, morally speaking, by an act of omission-by selling inflammable sweaters, for instance, or deathtrap cars, or useless medicines, or even by passing by on the other side of the road while thieves are butchering someone? And what of those who never do physical harm, but who spend their lives twisting and bullying wives or children or employees out of all human shapewhat of the killers of the soul?
We have laws to answer some of these questions; but laws seem achingly inadequate in a world of fire and blood and the breaking of nations. We have civilized scruples too; the articulate among us, jurists and teachers and writers, often treat violence as a bad word, a thing shocking and unnatural, to be hidden from innocent children and discussed only in sick whispers-very much, in fact, as the Victorians treated sex. No previous age has ever equalled our horror of killing, but then, no previous age ever killed so much.
Originally, of course, the Sixth Commandment meant only to forbid murder-the private and unjustified erasure of your enemies. Our standard versions of the Bible mistranslate it, for scholars will tell us that both Hebrew and Greek, both Old Testament and New, actually use the word for "murder" in this context and not the word for "kill." Too obvious, too limited a prohibition, perhaps, for our own time, with its increased awareness of the sanctity of human life-and its morbid fear of death. But imagine what the dawn ages must have been like. Imagine man as a dangerous animal, to whom killing came as naturally as breathing; a creature that clawed and bit and clubbed automatically to get what he wanted, or to remove an annoyance, or even because he liked the way it made him feel.
By the time the Hebrews got as far as writing down their law, they were fairly civilized, and they had centuries of other men's civilizations and legal codes behind them. The traditional history recorded in the Old Testament, nevertheless, indicates that killing was still one of the ordinary pleasures of life. How the ancient Jews did slaughter l They killed in hot blood and in cold; they killed for loot, for God, and for fun. To spare prisoners of war and their women and children was considered almost blasphemy. "Go and utterly destroy the sinners!" says the Lord to Saul, and when the warrior king tries to spare Agag, the priest and prophet Samuel defends religion by chopping the helpless captive to bits. "Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon," commands Joshua, lest the killing might have to stop. Nor was war the only form of the pastime. The tribes killed by trickery and riotous massacre, as in The Book of Esther; by wholesale legal extermination, as when Joshua finished off Achan and his sons and daughters; by political assassination, as when Ehud stabbed King Eglon in his fat belly; by violation of hospitality, as when Jael knocked her tenpenny nail through the sleeping Sisera's brain; by treachery in love, as when Judith first seduced Holofernes and then sliced off his head. All these horror stories, naturally, were never meant to be taken as moral lessons, though misguided Christians have occasionally used them as an evil precedent. They were set down as tribal legends of the bad old days before the law, when the Jews were not people of the Book but marauding nomads rather like the Sioux who finished off Custer at the Little Big Horn. And their value to us is largely as a grim picture of what all people are like before God speaks in the thunder on Sinai-or after they have forgotten what he said.
The definition of murder took shape slowly. For primitive tribes, killing was murder only within your own clan. The stranger was fair game-you were normally at war with all strangers; it was peace that had to be declared, and seldom was ! Cain's offence was not so much killing as killing his brother. And we still have some sense of the ancient holiness of blood kinship, for we feel an extra horror of murder within the family, though it must be admitted that the relatives who get themselves murdered have usually done rather more to deserve their end than the strangers who are murdered for profit. Yet in some ways our view is the very antithesis of the tribesman's. We may sometimes extenuate the killing of an unspeakable parent; we can never sympathise with the slaughter of one's own helpless child. To our kinsmen three thousand years back, on the other hand, even accidental parricide was the supreme abomination, whereas killing one's own child was not a crime at all.
Thus we cannot understand the full effect of the Sixth Commandment without going behind it to the sort of law it superseded : such law as Hammurabi's of Babylon.
"If a man strike a gentleman's daughter that she dies, his own daughter is to be put to death; if a poor man's, the slayer pays one half mina."
For Hammurabi and his times, the individual and individual guilt were nothing, the loss in value to the clan or family the sole consideration. The lex talionis - "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth"-is barbarous enough; yet in its day it was an advance over the indiscriminate slaughter of the offender and all his household in vengeance for a single injury, intentional or not. The lex talionis does not so much prescribe punishment as limit revenge. And it is the usual law of the Old Testament; still, with the Sixth Commandment, it is at least partly replaced by something better. For the first time, murder is conceived not as a natural privilege, to be paid for in blood money if necessary, but as a moral transgression. And for the first time it dawns upon man that one ought to consider not only the harm done but also the harm intended; that killing a man by accident when the head flies off your axe is not the same thing as killing him in order to steal his wife. What though the Pentateuch definition of murder is narrow? The important thing is to get murder defined at all; to convince men that they mustn't stab one another for no better reason than whim or appetite. Nowadays we are given to thinking that all killing is bad, and it may seem shockingly inadequate for the Sixth Commandment to tell us that not all killing is good. But for the noble savage it was quite a new and strange idea.
Savage they were, those ancient Hebrews, but for the most part healthy and brave and sane; men who liked to fight, who accepted struggle as the very meaning of life, who thought of safety as something fit only for women and eunuchs. "Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward," they said, and shrugged, and enjoyed themselves. Their appetite for slaughter needed restraining exactly like a child's appetite for lollipops.
By the time of the Captivity they were greatly changed. They were a beaten people, their Temple ruined, their clans disorganized, their families scattered; they were so dispirited that they seem almost modem. When Nehemiah wanted them to rebuild Jerusalem's defences, he reassured them about their enemies
"Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses....
"In what place therefore ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us : our God shall fight for us."
But they were beaten again and again after that. Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Syrian trampled them; the glorious explosion of the Maccabees was their last real triumph; their best weapons and their best courage were no more than pitiful straws against the iron legions and law of Rome. There was no longer any sane hope of independence, but perhaps defeated men can never be quite sane, and these had defeat festering in their minds like unreconstructed Southerners or Germans after the Versailles Treaty. They dreamed of revenge, of a Messiah, a prince of war, who would smash the enemies they could not smash for themselves. Blind with hatred, they rejected the good of the Pax Romana along with the evil; and even their law, once a meaningful relation with God, had become corrupted into point- , less rituals and taboos, cherished mainly as a reassurance that they were indeed different from other people, a true super-race.
It was the moment for a miracle, a new revelation. The Prince of Peace was born.
What did he tell them, those bitter brooding men? Not certainly, what they most wanted to hear-that God would give them their revenge and tread down their enemies like grapes in a winepress. Fear of reprisals kept them from doing much actual killing, but they had one comfort : they could nurse bloody thoughts of what they'd like to do to the Romans. They could dream of chopping taxgatherers into little bits, or ravaging the white new Greek cities that shone so impudently on the shores of Galilee. Then along came a man from Nazareth who told them that they must forgive their enemies!
Not enough, he said, to stop short of murder. A man must not use the machinery of law for his revenges, must not even take vengeance with a slanderous tongue. Not enough to refrain from open injuries; a man must not cherish a secret anger. Not enough, perhaps, even to forgive, if forgiveness be no more than a cold and passive toleration of the wrong. A man who wants to enter the Kingdom must love his enemies and do them good.
A parenthesis may be needed here. Many moderns interpret the saying of our Lord as counsels of pacifism, forbidding us ever to kill at all. Take such remarks as "Turn the other cheek!" out of context, and they can easily be made over into the Eastem doctrine of nonresistance so appealing to tired men. Yet remember that Jesus said, "Thou shalt not murder," and not, "Thou shalt not kill." Elsewhere too he spoke as if the use of force could be lawful; he came not to bring peace but a sword, he praised the Roman centurion whose sword brought order, and he scourged the money-changers out of the Temple. What he forbade, then, was not violence, but self-seeking violence; not anger, but being angry without cause. He laid upon us the duty of protecting the weak, and it is obviously impossible to do that without sometimes having to fight the strong. Perhaps Jesus is admired as pacifist chiefly by those who have ceased to believe in him as God.
For we others - we who accept the resurrection and its victory over death-know that death of the body is not the supreme evil; damnation of the soul is that. We do not imagine that Christ's mission on earth was to prevent our natural bodies from getting knocked to bits-since in any case that which we sow is not quickened unless it die. It follows that killing a man is not the worst thing you can do to him or yourself; indeed, killing a man may often not be an evil at all.
Beware, though, of the figurative approach that declares that various cruelties and spites and subtle persecutions are "really" murder much more than shooting a man through the head in a fit of temper. These things may well be worse than murder, but they are not murder, and to call them so metaphorically can result only in making the word useless for any practical purpose.
And heaven knows the subject is confused enough already. Christendom, following its Master, has long tried to distinguish between killings intentional and accidental, justified and unjustified; in consequence we have been forced to multiply laws, to elaborate definitions, to make wild and presumptuous guesses about what goes on in a human mind when it decides to kill. We have never quite known what to do about murderers by wilful negligence or omission-hit-and-run drivers, say, or company directors who save money on safeguards and send miners to agonizing death. Such big fish may often get away while we deal with the sprats, and people remark cynically that justice is blind.
Nor are our unwarranted killings confined to actual lawbreaking. Anyone who studies our poisonous drugs, our denatured food, our deathtrap cars and houses, our lung-rotting cities, must conclude that we accept a good deal of murder as inevitable simply because it is done to make or save money.
For the present outburst of destruction, no doubt, secularism may be partly to blame. A man cannot obey a law he has never learned, and the failure of our education to give adequate moral and spiritual training is too well known to need discussion here. Lacking belief in the promises and commandments of God, one must fall back on a "man-centred" philosophy-something called humanism or materialism, which accepts this life and its immediate desires as the basis of all conduct. But you can't get a moral law out of materialism. There is no logical reason why a materialist shouldn't poison his nagging wife, if he can get away with it.
The essential amorality of all atheist doctrines is often hidden from us by an irrelevant personal argument. We see that many articulate secularists are well-meaning and law-abiding men; we see them go into righteous indignation over injustice and often devote their lives to good works. So we conclude that "he can't be wrong whose life is in the right"-that their philosophies are just as good guides to action as Christianity. What we don't see is that they are not acting on their philosophies. They are acting, out of habit or sentiment, on an inherited Christian ethic which they still take for granted though they have rejected the creed from which it sprang. Their children will inherit somewhat less of it.
The feeble unreality of materialism has never been better shown than in its failure to cope with killing. Christian doctrine is tough and realistic; it admits the fallen nature of man and his powerful animal impulses, and sets to work to teach him control and direction. But the humanist, the man worshipper, can only play ostrich. To him, man is intrinsically good : or, as he would say, constructive. Therefore, if people turn out to have destructive impulses, these must be the result of faulty education, or of slum conditions, or of diseased economic systems, or even of comic books. Well-intentioned materialists will actually argue that all murderers are, ipso facto, insane. And they will urge us to prevent our children from ever learning about violence by censoring their reading, emasculating their fairy tales. In the latest version, the wolf no longer eats Ridinghood's grandmother; the records croon to us of the "Three Kind Mice" who
"All ran after the farmer's wife,
Who cut them some cheese with a carving knife."
Did you ever hear such a tale in your life?
Make no mistake about it; violence is here to stay. All we can accomplish with a blanket condemnation is to widen the gulf between the wild and the tame humans-between the lawless materialists who kill when they should not and the nice little humanists who can't kill when they should. Squeamishness about physical force is not virtue; our Lord implied as much when he classed spiritual nastiness-spite and contention and vindictiveness-along with murder. We do not make a better world by training the fight out of our little boys; we only make a more cowardly one-a world of murderees inviting the murderer. And the result of arguing that all violence is horrid, as always with all-or-nothing doctrines, is to produce a hysterical alternation of all and nothing : thus the Hindu either renounces mating entirely or breeds like the rabbits of Australia, either spares the life of his body lice or throws the neighouring Mohammedan's children down a well. And thus our Western world, faced today with an overpopulation it cannot or will not control, alternates between frenzied massacre and a blind insistence on prolonging all human lives as much as possible, no matter how they hurt.
Here we come upon the chief cause of modern killing and modern guilt. It would be dishonest and shallow to lay the whole blame on materialism, though it is true that materialism can inspire men with an indecent love of their own lives and an indecent indifference to the lives of others. It is true that men cannot obey a law they have not learned; as St. Paul pointed out, however, neither can they succeed in obeying a law they have learned. After all, the devout Christian ages murdered in private and massacred wholesale in war, just as we do. Whatever their creed, men are tempted to kill when several of them want the same thing.
Today there are too many people and not enough food. Never mind why; never mind what science and common sense may conceivably be able to do about it some day. At present the problem exists. The haves, like ourselves, are forced to defend their dinner tables against the have-nots. And "Thou shalt not kill" raises a dreadful political question. Unwarlike nations, trying more or less to live by the Decalogue, find themselves compelled to kill those who live by no law except force.
We do on occasion kill them-with atom bomb or tommygun, what difference ? -but we do not feel easy about it, and it is well that we do not. It is well that we should look for a peaceful way out of the mess, trying patience and reasonableness and sharing the food we have and teaching the backward nations to produce their own. Nevertheless we cannot help recognizing, in the "Peace at Any Price ! " slogan, an effort of our enemies to turn us into the perfect murderee. Surrender, we know, would solve nothing, would only abandon the world to the horrors and massacres of a peace as bad as any war. We know that, in the end, we may have to fight.
And our consciences are troubled about it, because our consciences are not clear. We are aware that things are amiss with us, that we often do things for mammon's sake and pretend we're doing them for God, that as a nation we are perhaps too rich to get into the Kingdom of Heaven easily. The better Christians we are, the more we have learned to recognize the wickedness of our own hearts, and the less we can take it for granted that our killing in war would be justifiable killing and not a cleverly disguised murder. We distrust the nobility of our own desire to protect Korea against an invader, when we catch ourselves grudging the money for a traffic light to protect the local school children. Only a virtuous nation can wage war with clean hands, and we know ourselves to be something less than perfectly virtuous.
Few of us would actually murder our neighbour. But can we acquit ourselves of those other offences which our Lord compared to murder? Are we free in act and intention of spite and slander, vindictiveness and prejudice and subtle cruelty, profiting by others' pain and passing by on the other side of the road? Are we fit men to purify the world, or would our war be only another massacre, and our conquest another disaster?
Until we have cleaned house at home, nobody will trust us to clean houses abroad-we shall not even trust ourselves. The remedy is in each man's hands; in individual repentance, prayer and rebirth. What the Sixth Commandment means and does not mean was perhaps never better summed up than in Chesterton's great battle hymn
"O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry;
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide;
Take not Thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
"From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen;
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men;
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword;
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord!"
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