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Thou Shalt Not Kill’ or ‘Shalt Thou’?

We’re often told that the Bible is open to interpretation. Well, I guess fundamentalists would say it wasn’t. For them the Bible is the literal word of God. So, no argument, no discussion. Well, let’s put the fundamentalist view to one side for a moment and concentrate on the ‘open to interpretation’ side of the debate. This is much more interesting, to the casual observer like me, than the blinkered, all-non-believers-will-burn-in-hell version, and at least allows some scope for discussion.

So let’s discuss…

There are so many contradictions in the Bible it’s enough to make your head spin. Here are a few:

JOH 10:30 I and my Father are one.
JOH 14:28 Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.

EXO 15:3 The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.
ROM 15:33 Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.

PSA 145:9 The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.
JER 13:14 And I will dash them one against another, even the fathers and the sons together, saith the Lord: I will not pity, nor spare, nor have mercy, but destroy them.

Anyone who is a believer must surely struggle with working out how to reconcile it all.

But I’m interested in one declaration that is often given a great deal of weight. A very simple one and one which, I would argue, cannot be misinterpreted.

As we all know Moses came down from the mountain top, with the Ten Commandments. Amongst that ten was the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill’. That’s clear enough, eh? Thou shalt not kill…

So my question is: how can anyone claiming to be a Christian ever go to war, sanction war or believe in war? I repeat, the commandment says: ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Yet there have been Christians down the ages who have murdered each other and non-believers by the millions. For example, George Bush and Tony Blair – self-confessed Christians both – are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. What happened? Their god tells them not to kill, yet off they go on a bloody crusade (and yes, in Bush’s case actually calling it a ‘crusade’) at the expense of thousands of innocent lives.

Oh, I’ve heard the ‘just war’ argument, you know… it’s okay to zap someone if they are evil, etc. Well, it doesn’t wash. I mean, there’s no sub clause in ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No small print at the bottom of the stone tablet declaring it permissible to, er, actually kill, in certain circumstances? Is there?

Nah, I can’t be doing with it. These people are the ones who should be preparing themselves for eternal torment, or whatever it is they believe happens to bad people when they die. Instead George Bush retires to his ranch a free man and Tony Blair is made ‘peace envoy’ to the Middle East! The contradictions just keep coming…

May their god forgive them.

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  1. #1 CamstaQuinn 12 Mar 09

    In his book, <i>Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea</i>, Mark Kurlansky goes into some detail about the fascinating history of the evolution of Christianity from a philosophy of peace without exception to what it has become over the centuries. It's a story that's illuminating, relevant, and utterly predictable. Give it a look!

  2. #2 ADH61 13 Mar 09

    Thanks for the information re Mark Kurlansky's book. Another excellent read on the subject is All in the Mind: A Farewell To God, by Ludovic Kennedy ISBN 0-340-68063-6

  3. #3 John001 24 Mar 09

    Let's follow your argument through a little further. You say that the commandment ’though shalt not kill’ is so simple and clear that every Christian must obey it. By that logic, no Christian could ever become a police officer. Because that's a job that may involve killing criminals. Or worse, by that logic any Christian police officer must, for example, let a madman continue on a shooting spree rather than killing the madman. There's certainly no ’it's okay to kill murdering psychopaths to save dozens of innocent lives’ clause in the commandments.

    But in truth, no reasonable person would condemn the officer in that situation, Christian or otherwise, for killing a criminal to save others. Instead we find that even something as seemingly unambiguous as the ’though shalt not kill’ commandment actually has exceptions. There is very little in the world that is black and white. Whether explicitly stated or not, there are usually shades of grey.

    You imply that simple, clear, unambiguous rules in the bible, like the commandment, should be followed by Christians without exception. Ironically, the only people who would agree with that would be the blinkered fundamentalists that you begin your article condemning.

  4. #4 ADH61 25 Mar 09

    Interesting. Someone attempting to justify killing by Christians. Well, I guess you're not alone in that.

    I always imagine a Christian, in any given situation, should stop and ask the question of him or herself: What would Jesus do? Personally, I just can't imagine Jesus killing anyone, including your hypothetical psychopath - whatever the circumstances and whoever might be saved as a result. But perhaps I'm wrong. Doing a bit of research I came across some rum quotes from the New Testament, apparently from the man himself.

    Matthew 10:34
    Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

    Luke 22:36
    He said to them, ’But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’

    Jesus clearly has a liking for swords. Then we come back to the contradictions.

    Matthew 5:39 (also Lk 6:29)
    But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

    Matthew 26:52
    ’Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ’for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’

    Take from that what you will. But one point, from my original blog, you failed to address was the antics of Blair and Bush. What would Jesus make of them murdering thousands of innocent men, women and children?

  5. #5 John001 30 Mar 09

    What I said was that if there are only 2 possible outcomes, it’s more justifiable that the police officer kills 1 criminal to save, say, 10 lives. I believe that outcome is more justifiable regardless of the faith (or otherwise) of the police officer. If you believe that of the two outcomes, 10 dead innocents is more justifiable than 1 dead criminal, I can’t agree.

    What would Jesus do... ideally I think that anyone, whether Christian or not, should stop and ask the question of him or herself: What should I do, based on my judgement and morals and ethics. Not based on what they think a character 2000 years ago might have done.

    Furthermore I believe that they should be judged on their actions based on society's rules, laws, ethics and morals. And not on the rules of their particular faith. That works both ways. If their faith says that people should be put to death for working on a Sunday, they obviously should not be allowed to enforce that. If their faith says that they should not kill, they should be allowed the exceptions that society extends to everyone else (self defence, police officers, etc)

    The points that form the basis of your arguments appear to be:
    1) That the bible is contradictory, and is therefore hard to follow.
    2) That one statement in the bible is so simple and clear, and not contradicted, it must be followed without exception.
    But you have now pointed out that it is contradicted elsewhere in the bible. Which, ironically, contradicts your second argument. It only appears to be so simple and clear when read in isolation. And not when read in the context of the rest of the bible.

    Those are the foundations of your argument. You then go on to build a case against war. But with such weak and contradictory foundations, it's hard to discuss the arguments you've built on top of them.

  6. #6 ADH61 03 Apr 09

    Thanks for your latest comments.
    To tell you the truth, I'm not at all sure as to what you are trying to say. But this may be me being a bit dim.
    No matter. Whatever is said here (and after all how many people are going to read an NI blog?) or elsewhere, human beings will go on slaughtering each other, whatever faith they choose or whatever faith they don't choose.
    Go in peace!

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About the author

Alan Hughes a New Internationalist contributor

Alan Hughes was a graphic artist at New Internationalist. He retired in 2014. He is a life-long socialist and trade unionist and is currently involved in the Keep Our NHS Public Campaign. He is passionate about The Beatles and has supported Aston Villa FC for over 50 years. He lives in Oxford with his daughter.

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