Killing in God’s Name

The Sixth Word says, “Thou shalt not kill.” But the Bible doesn’t treat all forms of man-slaying equally. It doesn’t prohibit every form of killing.

Scripture permits killing animals for food, self-defense (Samson kills a lion), or protection of property (David kills a bear that threatens his flock).

Israelites were permitted to kill, under restricted conditions, to defend their homes with deadly force (Exodus 22:2-4).

The Lord authorizes civil rulers to execute criminals (Romans 13) for murder, some sexual crimes, forms of Sabbath-breaking, blasphemy, public idolatry, kidnapping, and cursing parents. Unchecked, these crimes sicken the land until it vomits out the inhabitants. Civil rulers punish these crimes to defend the land against pollution.

War is permissible in some circumstances (Deuteronomy 20), and Yahweh sometimes commands Israel to carry out wars of utter destruction, where Israel wipes out entire cities, men, women, children, and to devote all of the plunder to the Lord.

Yet, the Bible never gives blanket permission to kill, whether human beings or animals. Even if someone deserves to be killed, we’re not free to kill them.

In Israel, all shedding of human blood has to be dealt with, either by the confinement of the manslayer, the execution of the murderer, or a rite of cleansing (cf. Deuteronomy 21:1-9).

Even killing in war has to be “atoned” by a money payment (Exodus 30:11-16). Apart from the conquest, Yahweh permits war only after Israel offers terms of peace, and Israel isn’t allowed to prosecute total war against trees and land (Deuteronomy 20).

Even killing animals is hedged with restrictions. From Noah on, human beings were prohibited from eating blood. Israelites aren’t allowed to butcher a mother bird and also take the eggs (Deuteronomy 22). A righteous man cares for his cattle.

In sum, as William Cavanaugh has written, we’re allowed to kill only in the name of God.

Talk about “killing in the name of God” sounds dangerous. Saying it makes me sound like an ayatollah inciting terrorism.

But think about it. People kill all the time. Who authorizes the killing?

In liberal systems, who pronounces the capital sentence? Does a judge appeal to God when he sentences a convicted criminal to death? He’s not allowed to. That would be unConstitutional. He’s only allowed to kill if he leaves God out of it.

We think that’s normal.

Who authorizes war? Do Presidents send troops to war because they’re convinced before God that it’s a just war? Presidents pray in the privacy of the Oval Office, but the public rationale has to be secular. Modern soldiers kill, as Cavanaugh puts it, for “a state whose very ideal is the separation of violence from the will of God.”

We think that’s normal.

In most “advanced” societies, the right to kill one’s unborn baby is a basic human freedom. As Robert Jenson says, legal abortion grants “the most interested party” a license to kill at will. Abortion privatizes murder. It’s nothing less than “a relapse to pure barbarism.”

We think that’s normal.

Who authorizes mass shooters? Some kill to protect the white majority of the US from the immigrant invasion. Everyone condemns white nationalist terrorism, but aside from body count, what’s the difference from killing we permit? If we grant a woman a private right to kill her baby, by what logic do we restrict the private right of a white man to kill Hispanic immigrants?

God determines when killing is permitted because of who He is: Lord of life and death. If we kill at another’s command, that other has effectively become our God, our Lord of life and death. If we can kill by our own authority, we’ve made ourselves gods. And that’s a prescription for a war of all against all.

“Kill only in the name of God” doesn’t sanction a bloodbath. Following that principle is the only way to stop the bloodbath.

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