“You shall not murder.”
What is prohibited here is the taking of human life on a personal basis. ‘Murder’ is a different word from ‘kill’. It is quite plain that the Law allowed both the waging of war (e.g. Deuteronomy 20) and the judicial death penalty for certain serious crimes (e.g. Exodus 20:12). If Christians want to argue against these practices, they must do so on other grounds.
Life and death are ultimately in God’s hands (Deuteronomy 32:39). Only He has the right to take away human life – although that authority can be delegated to the judicial systems of human societies (Romans 13:4). Murder, however, usurps His authority; the murderer places himself at the centre of his universe and ‘plays God’ with the life of someone else.
For example: abortion is permitted by UK law on the grounds that the mother has a ‘right to choose’ what to do with the child inside her body. If the child’s presence threatens her life (rare these days, except in cases of ectopic pregnancy), its removal is justifiable. But (in the UK, at any rate) the vast majority of abortions are carried out merely because having a child would be inconvenient. The mother’s self-determination is paramount; her responsibility zero. This is understandable in a society where personal fulfilment is seen as the highest possible goal. There is usually a cost involved in going through with an unwanted pregnancy: financial loss, shame, career disruption, or the lifetime commitment of caring for a disabled child. But a Christian woman has to consider if any of these factors are more important than an individual’s life.
Murder was the very first crime (Genesis 4:8), and the ultimate antithesis of the fundamental command to love one’s neighbour. Within a few generations, it had become commonplace amongst Cain’s descendants (Genesis 4:23). After the Flood, God restrained the violence of men by laying down the death penalty for murder (Genesis 9:5,6).
Why is murder so serious? It is a crime against God as well as man – because human beings bear God’s image. (Genesis 1:26) Human life and human beings must be honoured accordingly. History shows that institutionalised killing has often been justified by first downgrading the status of the victims to something less than human. The Nazis classified the Jews as Untermenschen; an unborn baby is referred to as a fetus (a term that is scientifically correct, but also one that effectively depersonalises it).
Probably few of us are seriously tempted to commit murder. But the commandment is about more than just the act of killing (Matthew 5:21,22). Cain’s murderous act was the end result of a long process: he must have hated his brother Abel for months – maybe years – beforehand.
Cain’s defence was: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) He denied all responsibility for his brother’s welfare; his focus was entirely on himself. As in all other areas of life, attitude is the root of behaviour. If I myself am the most important person in my life, I shall view other people as being there merely for my benefit; then I am justified in getting angry or contemptuous if they get in my way or make me feel bad. It is a short and logical step from there towards verbal abuse, maybe physical violence – and possibly even murder. (I John 3:15)
For those who belong to God’s Son (who took human form in order to redeem us), other people can never be regarded so casually. “The Incarnation is the ultimate reason why the service of God cannot be divorced from the service of man.” (D Bonhoeffer) How we treat others is how we treat God Himself (Matthew 25:31-46). As James says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:9,10) And as John puts it, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (I John 4:20)
So other people must always be treated with respect (Philippians 2:4). Our example and model is Jesus – whose perfect love for us was carried to its logical conclusion when He died on our behalf. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (I John 3:16) Such an extreme endpoint may be rare in everyday life; but the attitude underlying it can be cultivated in a myriad of smaller loving words and acts. Every decision that we make concerning our behaviour towards others is moving us (however slightly) in one of two directions – either towards love, or towards hate. Which way do you want to travel?