The Ten Commandments
A book by Joseph Lewis
The Sixth Commandment
The Sixth Commandment
"Thou shalt not Kill."
Killing and Self-Preservation
Many theologians contend that the five previous Commandments are supposed to deal with man's relation to God, and the remaining five, beginning with this one, with man's relation to man. Assuming this premise to be correct, would that account for an important difference that distinguishes the first half from the second -- the element of reward and punishment?
The Second Commandment states that God was to visit the "iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate him, and show mercy unto the thousands of them that love him."
The Third Commandment warns that the Lord would "not hold him guiltless who taketh his name in vain."
In the Fourth Commandment, the Lord "blessed the Sabbath and hallowed" it.
For the observance of the Fifth Commandment, "thy days would be long upon the land that thy God giveth thee."
In this Commandment there is no stipulation of reward for its observance, or punishment for its violation. What is one to assume from this difference? Is it that the Commandments dealing with our supposed relation to God, as biblically recorded, are more important than the ones dealing with man's relationship to man? Is one half of the Decalogue more binding than the other half?
Consistency is one of the prime requisites of any code of living. Any inconsistency, particularly in a moral code, invalidates whatever value it might otherwise have. The Ten Commandments are no exception to this rule. To exempt the Decalogue would be to take from it the claim of infallibility.
If no reward is offered for the observance of this Commandment and no punishment is to be inflicted for its violation, why was it made one of the Commandments? Why was it prescribed, and what is its meaning? Was it intended to be a moral precept or a taboo? Has it any ethical or moral value for our own time? Can it be observed? Or was this injunction not to kill based on a belief in animism and the fear of blood contamination, as we discovered the previous Commandments to be based on animism and sympathetic magic?
It is universally maintained that there is nothing more valuable than life. The law of self-preservation prevails not only among the so-called civilized races, but also among the primitive. The highest authorities tell us "no known tribe, however low and ferocious, has ever admitted that men may kill one another indiscriminately." [*1] The same condition exists even in the animal world and, from the most careful observation, among all the lower forms of life. To make a person pay the supreme penalty for any wrongdoing is to deprive him of his life. To kill is to commit an irreparable deed. Since this rule is universal, why was it necessary to repeat it in the Commandments?
As some form of killing takes place every moment of the day, does this Commandment apply to human beings only, or to all forms of life? At this very moment myriad forms of life are being killed that myriad forms of life may live. There are some instances where conditions are such as to permit only the alternative of killing or being killed. To tell us not to kill, when the fundamental law of life is self-preservation, is to force us into a conflict and contradiction; the stronger motive must inevitably prevail even though that stronger motive the preservation of one's own life -- is contrary to the explicit and unqualified edict of this Commandment. Man kills and will continue to kill those things which he feels to be a menace to his existence.
The instinct to kill cannot be eradicated by merely repeating the words of this Commandment. What kind of moral ruler of the universe was this Bible God who gave rules of life that are contrary to and in violation of the very principles upon which life itself is based? So far experience has not only made it necessary for him to kill, but has taught him, as the first law of self-preservation, that he must sometimes kill. At the present time, man's ignorance and fears make him kill needlessly and indiscriminately.
Therefore, "Thou shalt not kill," unless qualified, becomes a meaningless Commandment and an indefinite precept. Because it is subject to many interpretations, it cannot help but prove of little or no value. What one word suggests to one person may have an altogether different meaning to another. "Thou shalt not kill" may mean to one that he should not kill a human being; to another it may mean that he should not kill an animal for food. Some people advocate the killing of a few to save the lives of many.
If lightning, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and other death-dealing manifestations of nature are "acts of God," as they have been legally classified, then the Bible God himself is guilty of taking the lives of hundreds of millions of defenseless men, women and children, as well as other forms of life.
Vegetarians are constantly quoting this Commandment and substantiating it with the words of Isaiah: "He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man." [*2]
"Thou shalt not kill" may mean to one child that he should not kill anything that lives; to another it would seem ridiculous not to use his rifle to kill rabbits and birds. Many a churchgoer who has repeated this Commandment over and over again engages in the sport of killing wild animals. Apparently he does not consider that wild animals come within the scope of this Commandment. In fact, the killing of wild animals is regarded by many as a great sport. Little do they realize the pain and suffering that follow such indiscriminate and thoughtless killing.
According to the Christians, if Jesus had not been killed, they would have been deprived of salvation. In other words, through the violation of this Commandment they claim the human race was saved. We are told that Jesus said:
"For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." [*3]
I cite the above not as an event that actually took place or which has any significance or value, but to show how utterly impossible it is to make so all-embracing a command as this one without qualifications as to its meaning, because Jesus also said:
"Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me?" [*4]
To tell us not to kill, without defining the meaning of the word "kill" is to tell us to do something impossible of performance. Not only cannot man survive unless he kills, but no form of life can exist without killing. We must kill to live, and in turn we are killed that something else may live. Death is just as much the law of life as is living; nothing dies of itself. To be killed is to pay the penalty for living. How true are these words of Henri Fabre:
"At the banquet of life each in turn is a guest and a dish."
If the purpose of this Commandment is to prevent killing, has it had any influence? Or does the instinct of self-preservation nullify this edict? [**5]
Is Killing Ever Justified?
A peremptory Commandment of "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not" is impossible of fulfillment. Each and every act must be subject to the conditions surrounding it. What may be applicable in one case would not apply in another. To follow indiscriminately a certain dogmatic and inflexible precept would not only prove futile, but might result in serious consequences, which would be worse than the condition sought to be prevented. This was demonstrated by the Iconoclasts who wrought havoc by blindly following the provisions of the Second Commandment, and the Sabbatarians who adhered literally to the provisions of the Fourth Commandment.
A Commandment that read "Thou shalt be good always" could not be applicable to all people at all times. To show the same degree of goodness or kindness to one who has befriended you as to one who has injured you would be to insult your benefactor by failing to differentiate between a friend and an enemy.
Even a Commandment that read "Thou shalt smile always" could not be observed under all circumstances. Suppose you entered a house where the loss of a dear one was being mourned. Would you greet the members of the household with a smile? If you did, would it not be natural for them to assume that you were callous and indifferent to their suffering? Would not your smile be taken as an insult by those who had been visited by misfortune or death?
Understanding of a situation must always govern our actions. Any moral code that fails to take into account the variations of human conduct and provide for contingencies cannot help but prove to be a faulty system. A proper moral code must make provision for time and place and circumstance. The preacher of Ecclesiastes (Chapter 3, verses 1 to 4) knew this when he said:
1. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
Does this Commandment distinguish between killing that is deliberate and killing that has some basis of justification? Is the man who kills in self-defense just as guilty as the one who kills in cold blood? What of the person who is provoked to kill? Is he to be held to the same accountability as the deliberate murderer? Is a justifiable, excusable or accidental killing to be put in the same category as deliberate murder? In nearly all societies, killing in self-defense is considered justifiable homicide; in primitive societies, killing for food and in defense of property was also so considered.
In Exodus, Chapter 21, verses 20 and 21, we read:
20. And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
21. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.
In other words, if a slave is severely beaten so that he lives but two days, yet dies on the third day from the injuries received, the master and the owner shall not be held for his death!
How can this Commandment be considered all-conclusive regarding the taking of life, when there still rings in our ears the bloodthirsty and murderous injunction, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"?
Man's own efforts in the field of law show a far greater understanding of his nature than this Commandment, even when it is considered in its broadest possible aspect. In law there are different degrees of homicide. Killing in self-defense is considered justifiable. Killing under certain provocations is not so severely condemned as when other motives are involved. For instance, killing an intruder or thief is held justifiable homicide.
A woman is held justified if she has killed a man who attempted to ravish her. Even today it is difficult to convict a man of murder who kills another caught in an adulterous act with his wife. Among the Moslems, the man who does not kill the adulterer is shunned by society as being unworthy of friends and a disgrace to his family. [*6]
Among the Wakammba, "a thief entering a village at night can be killed." In Uganda there is no penalty for killing a thief who enters an enclosure at night. [*7] An ancient Norwegian law permitted the slaying of a thief caught in the act, and according to a Javanese law, if a thief is caught in the act, it is lawful to put him to death.
For years there has been agitation by enlightened people for recognition of the fact that there are times when killing becomes an act of mercy. Humanitarians have been pleading for years that children born with irremediable mental and physical defects should be permitted to pass out of life in the quickest and least painful way. They hold that it is cruel and unjust to permit such children to live in this world of terrific strife, where all the faculties are necessary in order to meet the exigencies of life. These pitiful creatures become a burden not only to themselves but to others. Life for them is a perpetual tragedy.
Some years ago the most virulent abuse and vituperation were heaped on the head of a famous Chicago physician, Dr. H. D. Haiselden, for pleading for the right to chloroform the miserably misshapen and distorted body of a child that he had delivered. [*8] The child was doomed to imbecility, blind in one eye, crippled in limb, the helpless prey of physical and mental distortion; yet, this humanitarian doctor was hounded to death by clergymen who insisted that the child "had come directly from the hand of God," and that since God sent the child here in that condition, it should be permitted to live and suffer as God intended that it should! [**9] If a child comes "directly from the hand of God," should it not be sent here free from the defects that would make its life a burden to itself and others? And what kind of sadistic God is it that would so frightfully afflict a human being?
Despite the fact that the law does not differentiate between a "merciful" killing, and a deliberate murder, those who commit the former are rarely convicted when brought to trial. A grand jury, some time ago, refused even to indict a father for killing his two-year-old son who had been born with an inflamed brain and who was doomed to a life of imbecility and agonizing suffering. [*10]
A jury brought in a verdict of not guilty against a son for killing his mother who was suffering indescribable agony from an incurable cancer. She had pleaded with him time and again to relieve her of her misery. Unable to endure his mother's hopeless condition, he acceded to her entreaties and ended her life. Despite the judge's opinion that "it was for God to consider when your mother should have died," the jury thought the son justified and acquitted him. [*11]
After killing her hopelessly invalid son, whom she had nursed for over thirty years, a mother wrote this note before she committed suicide: "This is done in the name of mercy. Every night my son got on his knees and begged me not to leave him alone. He was so terrified that it was horrible. I, his mother, could not permit this. The law should relieve such helpless sufferers. The burden should not be upon me." [*12]
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, noted poet, lecturer and writer, and one of the greatest women of her time, preferred to take her own life rather than to endure the sufferings and miseries of cancer. She said that "justifiable suicide" was the simplest of human rights. In the note which she left, she said: "Human life consists in mutual service. No grief, pain, misfortune or 'broken heart' is excuse for cutting off one's life while any power of service remains. But when all usefulness is over, when one is assured of an unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. Public opinion is changing on this subject. The time is approaching when we shall consider it abhorrent to our civilization to allow a human being to lie in prolonged agony which we should mercifully end in any other creature. Believing this choice to be of social service in promoting wiser views on this question, I have preferred chloroform to cancer." [*13]
Even the district attorney had to admit that it was a "sad case" when the facts were presented to him concerning the killing of an imbecile son by a distracted father. After his "act of mercy" had been discovered and a physician tried to revive the boy, the father cried: "I hope you don't revive him. He is better off dead." When the full story was told of the dread with which both the mother and father feared a violent outbreak by their imbecilic son, the jury promptly acquitted him. [*14]
These are but a few of the hundreds of such cases that take place year after year.
Are these acts in violation of this Commandment? Or should they be placed in the category of justifiable killing? Is it not obvious from the meager facts already related here that this Commandment could not possibly be applied unequivocally as a prohibition of killing in the strictest sense of the word?
Religious Delusion and Homicidal Mania
How are those people who are victims of religious homicidal mania to be considered? Killing is no less killing when done as "God's will." Those who kill under the influence of religious delusion, "in the name of God," have not even the excuse of extenuating circumstances. Their only explanation is that they have Biblical sanction to support their murderous deeds.
Countless children have been murdered under the delusion of performing a human sacrifice as an appeasement of the Bible God. In Spandau, Germany, a father cut the throat of his son. When he surrendered' he said: "I am Abraham. My mission is fulfilled. I have sacrificed my son." [*15]
After hearing "voices" and seeing "visions of heaven," Clair Young brutally killed his nineteen-month-old baby girl. When he was apprehended, he cried: "I had to do it to save my soul. I'm a very religious man. In the eyes of the Lord, I was to sacrifice something in order to go to heaven." [*16]
"As a test of his faith and acting under divine command," Antonio Lopez Malo of Madrid, Spain, brutally stabbed his twenty-two-month-old daughter to death with a kitchen knife "after the fashion of Abraham." When the monstrous deed had been committed, the family gathered around the dead child for prayer. [*17]
Acting as a "messenger of God," thirty-two-year-old Oskar Hestness strangled his only two children, boys ten and four years of age. His only excuse was that he had had a "vision of God" ordering him to "choke the devil out of the boys." Hestness said his wife knew what he was doing, "but she knew that it had to be done because God had told me to." [*18]
Responding to what she said was a "command of God," Mrs. Herbert Kennedy drowned her eight-year-old daughter. "God told me to do it," she said. [*19]
Crazed by religion, Walter Bingham of West Chester, Pennsylvania, murdered his two children of eleven and three years old under the delusion that "God sent a command in a spirit that told me to do it. Why shouldn't I obey the commands of God?" was his only excuse. [*20]
A farmer, whose mind physicians said was affected by intense religious fervor, killed his wife, their two children, a boarder and himself in their home near Blue Mountain, Mississippi. [*21]
Age is no respecter of religious fanaticism. There has just come to public attention the brutal strangling to death of a mother of eighty-seven years by her religiously deluded daughter of sixty-four years. When apprehended she said: "I just killed mother because she was possessed of the devil and the Lord told me to kill her." [*22]
An eighty-year-old religionist, living near Johannesburg, South Africa, killed his son in the belief that by so doing he would bring rain to his parched community. Accordingly he cut the throat of his son, put the blood into cattle horns and dissected the body for "rain medicine." When apprehended, this religious fanatic said: "I loved my son, but believed that if I sacrificed him I would bring plenty of rain and food for my people, and we would not need to work again." [*22a]
A few years ago the country was shocked by the brutal murder of a ten-year-old girl in White Plains, New York. A sixty-year-old man, known to be deeply religious, was arrested for the murder. He confessed that he had been commanded by God to sacrifice a virgin so that she could not live to become a harlot. He successfully carried out the mission entrusted to him for which he said he had received the approval of Christ. He was electrocuted at Sing Sing prison for the murder of this child. [*23]
Wilfred Pichette, a religious fanatic who bought "the power of Christ" from a gypsy band, confessed with his wife to killing their nineteen-year-old maid. Pichette said that "divine power" drove him to hammer Marion Doyle to death with a flatiron. "I was going to drive the evil spirits out of the house," he gave as his reason for committing the murder. [*24]
A twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of Christian Scientists, died after an eight weeks' illness during which the parents refused to call a physician. [*25]
The parents of another child, Hilda Freer, allowed her to die rather than permit the use of diphtheria antitoxin. They "trusted in prayer to save her," the doctor who was called in testified. [*26] The father was arrested and held for trial on a charge of manslaughter.
Newspapers and the courts, as well as our insane asylums, are continually crowded with cases similar to the ones mentioned above. These crimes have occurred throughout the ages and continue without abatement. It would require volumes to detail them. [*27] Should not the book which inspired these people to commit these insane religious murders be condemned as an accessory? Should a book exercising such a vicious influence be held without blame? In face of these facts, the conclusion is inevitable that religions based on the Bible as a divine message from God have provoked far more killings and murders than they have prevented.
Irresponsible and Accidental Killing
Should a person who has no comprehension of morality be condemned for his actions? Only by the most painstaking effort can a normal child be taught to differentiate between right and wrong conduct. Since that is so, is it not utterly impossible to inculcate a moral sense in the insane, the idiot, or those of retarded mentality? This is a fact recognized even in primitive society.
The North American Potawatomis regard those whom they call "foolish" as not having an understanding of crime. The Iroquois believe that a person who is not in his right senses is not to be reprehended, or at least not to be punished. Among the West African Fjort, fools and idiots are not personally responsible for their actions. Crimes committed by lunatics in the Wadshagge tribe are judged more leniently than others. [*28]
What about those who are insane -- those who are unable not only to control their actions, but are absolutely ignorant and unconscious of what they are doing?
What about children? Does this Commandment demand of them the same discretion and ability to control their acts as is demanded of adults? Must punishment meted out to them be of the same severity as administered to their elders?
One of the blackest pages in the history of man deals with the execution of children five and six years of age for misdeeds. Even today, under the law, a child of seven can be held accountable for his acts. In England, as late as 1748, a boy of ten was convicted of first-degree murder, and the judges before whom he was tried demanded execution of the sentence. [*29]
It was Seneca who said: "'Why do we bear with the delirium of a sick man, or the ravings of a madman, or the impudent blows of a child? Because, of course, they evidently do not know what they are doing.... Would anyone think himself in his right mind if he were to return kicks to a mule or bites to a dog?"
Under the influence of this Commandment, animals and even insects were held responsible for killing people. They were solemnly tried by "due process of law" before legal tribunals, with religious approval. Judgment of guilt was solemnly pronounced and sentence carried out with all the ceremonies attendant upon an official killing! [*30]
In 1457, in the town of Bourgogne, a mother pig and six little pigs were tried for murder. The mother pig was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was duly executed. The six little pigs were acquitted. The sympathy of the court was with them, because they would have to bear for the rest of their lives the shame of being the offspring of a criminal mother!
In addition to all species of animals, insects and vermin that have been tried and convicted for murder, we find that stones, statues and other inanimate objects were held to strict accountability for causing death -- a survival of the belief in animism.
A Greek writer recounts how a bronze statue was found guilty of murder for killing a man by falling upon him. The statue was duly tried in court, found guilty of the murder, and cast into the sea. Another instance is recorded of a small boy who, while playing under a bronze ox, struck his head against it, cracked his skull, and died from the injury. The proper procedure was to bring the statue into court for trial; but, since it was guilty of only involuntary homicide, a ceremony of purification was carried on at the statue.
Even among the Hebrews, according to the Mosaic law, there is a provision exempting from punishment certain acts of homicide. Deuteronomy, Chapter 19, verses 4 to 6: [**31]
4. And this is the case of the slayer, which shall flee thither, that he may live: Whoso killeth his neighbour ignorantly, whom he hated not in time past,
5. As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live:
6. Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not in time past.
There are many instances where the killer of another is "not worthy of death, inasmuch as he hated him not" when committing the deed. If this Biblical reference makes such an exception, is it not also probable that there are many such acts that are "not worthy of death" and that might prove an exception to the peremptory words of this Commandment? [*32]
Should the accidental killing of a little girl by her brother, who shot her with a gun he did not know was loaded, be included in the provisions of this Commandment?
In an attempt to kill himself, a man fired a pistol, the shot went wild, and instead he killed his mother-in-law. Was this deed worthy of death? [*33] Or should it be placed in the category of accidental killing?
In Temuco, Chile, a priest, unable to overtake a thief who had just stolen a crucifix, shot and killed the man as he sought to escape. [*34] Under what degree of guilt should the priest who committed this murder be classified? His crime is difficult to understand. He was not only trained to observe this Commandment not to kill, but he also was taught that the crucifix possessed miraculous powers. Should a Catholic priest kill a Catholic believer because he steals a crucifix? The priest should have been pleased with the theft. If the crucifix possessed the power the Church claims for it, its possession by the thief might have made him an honest man -- and that should be "punishment" enough for a thief! But the truth is that the priest knew the crucifix had no such miraculous powers, and he shot the thief because he had stolen an "implement of trade" a piece of property by which he makes profit.
Just as there are people suffering from mental and physical diseases which cause them to commit all kinds of acts, so there are men and women who are victims of homicidal mania who cannot control their impulse to kill. These people are impelled to commit their crimes by forces utterly beyond their control and often feel the greatest remorse after the deed has been perpetrated. Such people and their crimes are constantly coming to public notice. How are these people's acts to be judged in relation to this Commandment?
One such criminal boasted that he had killed nine people beginning with a girl only ten years of age. [*35] The only defense of a barman charged with having thrown a girl before an onrushing train was that "a sudden impulse came over me and I wanted to push someone under the train." [*36]
A bride of one week was stabbed to death and decapitated by her husband, who confessed that an overpowering "urge to kill" came over him as he saw his young wife lying in bed. [*37]
From Rome came the report that a priest connected with the Catholic Institute of Pius IX confessed that he had murdered a thirteen-year-old student as he lay in bed "in a moment of unconsciousness." [*38]
Henry Hagert, age eighteen, killed Charles and James Collins, twins, "just for the heck of it." [*39]
Louis R. Payne could only give an irresistible impulse as his explanation for killing his mother and brother. He said he was unable to restrain his actions. [*40]
James McCullough, giving vent to what he described as an "uncontrollable desire to kill somebody," murdered his fellow worker. He could offer no other excuse for his deed. [*41]
In an address before the Michigan Medical Society, Dr. Foster Kennedy, of Cornell University, one of the most noted neurologists of our time, stated that the impulse to kill was a natural instinct. He said: "The sudden impulse to slay is more often felt by ordinary persons than they confess to anyone but their doctor. Only sanity and reason keep most of us from obeying that impulse." [*42]
Killing as an atavistic impulse deserves far more consideration than has been given to it. It may reveal the cause of murder when other "motives" cannot be discovered.
How are these wholly irresponsible acts to be judged in relation to this commandment?
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