An old axiom suggests that the sixth commandment gets all the ink, but the fifth commandment is the one that does us in. This is quite accurate. We are always killing.
Why do I say that? Murder, after all, is a rather infrequent occurrence.
There are different meanings to the precept thou shalt not kill. On the surface, it is clear. Murder is wrong. Jesus, however, in the Sermon on the Mount, points out that this commandment, understood more fully, does not just forbid the external act of killing, it also forbids killing others in our thoughts and attitudes: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder …’ but I say to you that if you are even angry with a brother or sister, you are liable to judgment.“
Henri Nouwen once said that nobody is shot with a bullet who is not first shot with a word – and nobody is shot with a word who is not first shot with a thought. Killing is not just a brute external act; it is, in its more common form, a subtle internal thing. All of us break the fifth commandment in countless ways.
We do it in the negative and suspicious judgments we make about each other: “He thinks he’s so clever!” “She always thinks she’s better than others!” “He’s a sham, everything he does is for show!” “She’s so proud of herself, but she should be staying home and taking care of her own children!” “I know his angle, he’s a selfish person who’s using other people for his own glory!” Daily, hourly, almost every minute of our lives, we are making judgments like this and, in them, we are killing those around us, shooting them through the heart just as surely as if we were doing it with a gun. What breaks the fifth commandment is not just the brute act of murder, or even the physical acts of bullying or abuse. Paranoia, false suspicion, harsh judgment, cynicism, and negativity, be it in word or attitude, also kill.
Thus, for example, in our envy of others we kill their spontaneity; in our criticism of others we kill their enthusiasm; in our neglect of our own children and in our refusal to bless them with our affirmation, we help kill their capacity to love others; with our suspicions we kill trust; with our cynicism we kill the capacity of the community to build; in our broken commitments we kill relationships; in our infidelities we kill the bond that makes for family; in our laziness we kill creativity; in our abuse of food, alcohol, and drugs we kill our own bodies; in our excesses we kill enjoyment; and in our constant habit of first depreciating before appreciating, we kill the very goodness with which God surrounded creation, we kill the original blessing of God. In the harsh thoughts we have we kill each others’ capacity to be free and joyous. Small wonder that death, sadness, harshness, coldness, fear, suspicion, and joylessness are most everywhere.
An image can be helpful here: Most of us shrink in horror from the word necrophilia, the perverse practice of making love to dead bodies. It is incomprehensible to us. How could someone actually do this? Yet, in very subtle forms, this is what we do when, in our paranoia, suspicion, envy, and woundedness we kill enthusiasm, kill freedom, and kill life in the ways just described. When I am so cynical that my main wish is to see things destroyed rather than built up, I am preferring death to life; when the first mode of my entry into community is to criticize rather than to look for the good, I am preferring death to life; and when my habitual thoughts of others are suspicious and judgmental, I am likewise preferring death to life. In all these ways, I break the fifth commandment.
Thou shalt not kill! The older we get the more that commandment, among all others, takes on prominence. Alice Miller, the renowned Swiss psychologist suggests that, from mid-life onwards, the great struggle for all humans is the struggle to not give way to bitterness, resentment, self-pity, and all the negativity and harsh judgments that flow from that. That is another way of saying that the real struggle for adults is with the fifth commandment. Jesus, in dialogue with the Scribes and Pharisees, says essentially the same thing. His issue with them, as with the Older Brother of the Prodigal Son, is with fifth commandment. In their attitudes, they were forever killing others.
Thou shalt not kill! Thou shalt not negate the goodness of creation by preferring death to life! Do not silence a heartbeat – not just with a gun, but also not with harsh words, paranoid thoughts, suspicious judgments, empty cynicism, broken commitments, and blessings that are never given.