Peaceable Kingdom Hicks
The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1826).

You shall not murder. Exodus 20:13  – The Fifth Commandment)

Asking people like us …not to kill is utterly nonsensical – if we are not a people of God.  Believing us to be God’s people, the commandments are so bold as to demand that we not kill.  In so doing, demand is transformed into gift, into good news of our redemption.  Acting as if we were peaceful, as if God’s promises were true, we become peaceable people.  God uses our fidelity as a means of carving out a little piece of enemy territory for the Kingdom.
It is any wonder that Israel thought the law to be a great gift?


The painting reproduced above by Edward Hicks[1] illustrates a key point.  That is that God intended a world “in which the lamb and the wolf lie down together without the wolf devouring the lamb.”  Unfortunately in our world the fact that no animal is more deadly than humankind illustrates “the mess we have made of God’s intention.” As Willimon and Hauerwas[2] put it “This is a somber, sad, and disordered life we live ” which s not what God intended.[3]

We have all been “traumatized” by the events of the past two weeks and with good reason.  We, as Christian people, want answers.  Why has our God allowed such things to happen in our country?  After all we are the most God fearing Nation on earth, aren’t we?  What’s going on?  Christendom is not supposed to be like this is it? And. indeed it is not.

A few weeks back a dear friend accidentally put me on to a book that I feel sure God intended for me to read.  The book is titled The Truth About God –The Ten Commandments in Christian Life.  It was written by the two theologians: William Willimon a bishop of the United Methodist Church and Stanley Hauerwas a devout Episcopalian and master theologian.  Reading this book has for me wrought a real transformation in my understanding of the faith and given me some comfort in understanding the events of the past few weeks.

Given the events of the last few weeks I turned, for solace and  guidance ,  to Chapter Five dealing with, yes you guessed it, the fifth commandment:  You Shall Not Kill- Exodus 20:13, which has for me opened a door into understanding what the fifth commandment means for Jews and Christians alike.  I need to quote the authors here so as not to misstate their message:

Here is a commandment that is short, terse, to the point. Simple. The commandment’s simplicity stands in stark contrast no only to the way we actually live, but also to the ongoing interpretation and debate extended by the church in its tireless efforts to have the fifth commandment say what we would like for it to say.[4]


Their reference to interpretation refers to a quote from John LeNoue and his wife Kaywin who are described as born -again Christians.  They argue that the Hebrew word used in the commandment means “murder” as opposed to simply kill and this in their minds justifies their possession of handguns because that involves self-defense and not premeditated “murder”. Willimon and Hauerwas answer that:

… strenuous efforts at interpretation are understandable among those who live in the most violent culture ever created, North American democracy (if one adds up the bodies killed by fellow citizens, to say nothing of all the wars). More people have been killed by their own government in this century even than in war.[5]


But, they go on to say further that despite our attempts to interpret and limit the application of the commandment “we would do well to admit that it refers to any act of violence against someone in a wide range of circumstances, intentional and otherwise.  Murder is too limited a term to encapsulate the concern of this commandment”.[6]

And, Jesus does not help us in attempting to soften the force of the commandment. He actually expands the scope so as to encompass verbal abuse and angry outbursts against another!  see Matthew 5:21-26.  In that passage Saint Matthew recounts that Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old. “You shall not kill, and whoever kills shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to council, and whoever says, “you fool! shall be liable the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge , and the judge hand you over to the guard and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. [7]

Obviously the Jewish law of Jesus day provided for the imprisonment of debtors.  If you failed to pay your debt you went to jail.  The advice Jesus gives is very appropriate even in today’s world.  I have on many occasions advised the same thing to clients facing litigation.  I have advised the same thing even when the client has a very good case because trials are like wars, they have uncertain outcomes, and settling a case out of court has a certain outcome and avoids the deep scars caused when parties seek to ravage each other verbally in court. Always remember that once the trial is over you may need your adversary.

But, think about the passage.  How countercultural can you possibly get?  Who among us has been so strong as to have thought of speaking ill of our fellow man as a form of “killing”?   And yet, Hauerwas and Willimon make  the assertion that “Christians are not simply prohibited from killing, but also invited to live in a way that does not force us to kill. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that Jesus tells us even to avoid “anger” and that we are to develop among ourselves those virtues that free us from temptation to envy and self-importance which so often lead us to presumptions that we have been grievously wronged. Such a bloated presumption too easily leads to the presumption called murder. [8]

And, John Calvin notes that “…therefore this law also forbids murder of the heart, and enjoins the inner intent to save a brother’s life.  The hand indeed gives birth to murder, but the mind infected with anger and hatred conceives it.”  [9]  Calvin recognized that not killing, one of the simplest and briefest of commandments requires a whole range of virtues and dispositions few of which are simple or easy.  He counseled that we only keep the nature of God in mind, it is no longer necessary to confine the law of God to external works, but it is fitting to conclude that when God speaks of murderers he equally speaks of all enmity, and all indignation and anger and rancor that we harbor against our fellowman. He goes on to say that this is why Saint John says “whoever hates his brother in his heart is (already) a murderer” (1 John 3:15).[10]

To avoid what comes naturally (i.e. murder) Hauerwas and Willimon say “we will have to learn how vulnerable we are and how dependent we are on one another.  If we are going to be non-violent we will need more than a little help from our friends.  We will need them to be not only our friends but friends with God. Such friends being are called “church”.”[11]

And, given this interpretation of the commandment it calls into question violence –producing activities such as our acquisitiveness, accumulation of riches, and the idolatry resulting from the holding up of the unrestricted possession of firearms as a badge of freedom and prestige. [12]

We often fail to see the violence in our wealth.  We cannot see that our safety has been bought at the expense of others.

So there it is.

Are the events we are seeing in the news what God intended?  Or is there something else at work here?  I think the answer is yes and as the cartoon character Pogo said:  “We have found the enemy and it is us.”   Unfortunately,  we all stand complicit in the tragedy of Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas as accessories both before and after the fact.  We have through our own fallen nature rationalized “murder” as a necessity in certain situations.  We have narrowly defined murder as the actual physical event of killing another human being but we have forgotten that the precursor to physical killing is the mental and spiritual killing. To hate and to despise our fellow man is in fact a form of murder, a murder in gestation. By defaming, or being prejudicial we create the spiritual context giving rise to physical actions. By allowing an uneven distribution of wealth and limiting the opportunity to progress economically we not only fail to be faithful disciples of the Founding Fathers, but of God as well.

No person reading this piece is personally responsible for the fallen nature of our world.  God did not want the killings in Baton Rouge, in Minnesota, or in Dallas whether of the drivers who were stopped, the officers, or of the man suspected of committing the shootings in Dallas but human depravity and sin has moved us to engage in the murder of the mind and murder of the soul which has brought about the actual murders of the bodies we have witnessed. Our job now is to restore in our own minds the dictates of the commandment as interpreted by Our Lord and Savior.  Let us begin again to reshape our hearts and minds and our conduct.

Let us confess:

That we have erred and strayed like lost sheep in harboring hatred and disrespect for our brothers and sisters,

That we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts through the acquisition of wealth at the expense of our brothers and sisters,

That have offended against God’s holy laws and that we have left undone those things which we ought to have done such as regulating the acquisition of wealth, the acquisition of firearms, and the failing to give the simple caring and respect to any and all of our brethren we encounter in our families, our offices and workplaces, or in the streets, and

By doing those things we ought not to have done by blindly attributing to groups of people such as African Americans, Latinos, Gays and Lesbians, Transgender persons and Immigrants negative traits making the assumption that every member of that particular group are unworthy of our respect, and caring,  and that they are to be feared.

Let us pray with sincere and contrite hearts and let us begin the work God has created us to do.  Amen






[1] American Quaker, born

[2] William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, The Truth About God – The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Abingdon Press (Nashville 1999). Page 82.  Hereinafter referred to as Willimon and Hauerwas.

[3] Willimon and Hauerwas, page 82.


[5] Willimon and Hauerwas, page 79.

[6] Willimon and Hauerwas, page 80.

[7] The Gospel of Saint Matthew, Chapter 5, verses 21-26 (Revised Standard Version).  It is interesting to note that the RSV translates the Hebrew as “kill”.  Thou shall not kill. The New Revised Standard translates it as “murder”. Willimon and Hauerwas note that the Hebrew word in question can mean murder in certain contexts and kill in others. It can refer to unintentional killing as in Deuteronomy 4:41-42 s well as execution of a convicted killer as in Numbers 35:30.  It is chilling to think that even the acts of the Dallas police in using the bomb dismantling robot to deliver a fatal blast t the suspected killer in the Dallas shootings may be construed as a violation of the commandment.

[8] Willimon and Hauerwas, p.84.

[9] Institutes, 8.39; 404

[10] John Calvin, Sermons, 159.

[11] Willimon and Hauerwas, p.87.

[12] Willimon and Hauerwas, p.87.



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