Sunday, October 11, 2015

October 11, Proper 23, You Can Do This #6: Practice Kindness

Heidelberg Catechism 105-7, Lord's Day 40, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

“Don’t kill.” 

The Ten Commandments were not originally presented as a list, despite how you often see them. Neither were they numbered, nor in a two-column chart. They are a single speech of God, like a unified poem, with rhythm and texture in the writing. They are like an elegant recipe from a classic French cookbook, wherein each ingredient contributes to the whole. Some ingredients get elaborated, and others are mentioned only briefly, though not for lack of importance, but because they are more obvious. The Ten Commandments are the ten-step recipe to get you loving God above all and loving your neighbor as yourself.

You notice the texture at the Sixth Commandment. You get a sudden return to prohibitions after the positive language of the Fourth and Fifth. Remember that the First, Second, and Third were “Don’t, Don’t, Don’t,” three negatives, and then Four and Five were positives, “Remember,” and “Honor,” and then Six is Don’t again.

Not only that—Six, Seven, and Eight hang together as Don’t, Don’t, Don’t. In just nine total syllables: Don’t kill, don’t adulterate, don’t steal. These three are by far the shortest of all ten: “Lo-tirtsakh. Lo-tinahf. Lo-tignov.”  Three commandments in nine punchy syllables, while it takes 128 syllables to command the Sabbath Day. Why this sudden brevity? I haven’t figured it out yet.

It’s usually explained that the first five commandments were particular to Israel, and thus more theological, while at Six they get universal for all of humanity, and thus are only moral. I don’t agree with those distinctions. My favorite commentator (Cassuto) says that the brevity is because while one through five were new ideas, everybody already knew what killing and adultery and stealing were. I’m not convinced by this line either.

We certainly don’t know it now. Certainly not in America. In this country we’d have to put a great big asterix next to the Sixth Commandment. Somebody told me that in 2013 three times as many pre-school children were shot to death as armed policemen. We don’t seem able to stop this, which suggests to me that killing has some compelling power over us. Do you find it not a little troubling, for example, that a comedian will tell her talk-show host that at her last performance she killed her audience? We talk about killing so lightly.

Our nation believes that we posses the right to kill. On foreign soil we kill people routinely in order to protect our economic interests. Domestically we hold that every citizen is guaranteed the right to kill by the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. We don’t say it like that, but what the right to bear arms implies is the right to kill. For every citizen to have this right is a modern liberal belief, ironically. The historically conservative belief is that the right to kill is given only to the government, and that by God. You see that in the Heidelberg Catechism that we just read. This was the general belief of the Sixteenth Century, and they could reference their belief by the epistles of St. Paul.

The prohibition which our nation does seem to believe in is this: “Don’t die.” The prevention of our own dying is what we spend our money and resources on. If we can’t prevent it then we do our utmost to delay it. Delaying our deaths for on the average just six more months consumes some outrageous proportion of our health-care dollars, but we can’t find some way to prevent the killings of our school children.

“Thou shalt not die” is more powerful among us than “Thou shalt not kill.” This consuming fear of our own death becomes an idol which allows the sacrifice of children. But your neighbor’s life should be as precious to you as your own. Don’t die is ultimate selfishness. Don’t kill is ultimate love. You’d rather die than someone else be killed. Even if your neighbor is your enemy. You’d rather die than your enemy be killed.

Really? How fully should we take this Fifth Commandment? Does it mean to never kill at all? How about animals? You kill bugs, and mice, and maybe you kill fish, but would you kill a dog or a cat? What’s the difference? We have to kill. The animals we eat. Even the plants that we eat.

There is no eating without killing. Killing is part of the natural cycle of life. And it is by no means unnatural for animals to kill fellow members of their own species. It isn’t nature or natural science that prohibit you killing another human being. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes demonstrated that the state of nature is not what you would call humane. The only morality of nature is the survival of the fittest and to kill or be killed.

What makes it wrong for Jews and Christians, at least, depends on God. It’s because every other human being carries the image of God, and you are not allowed to extinguish that image. This commandment means that to love God prohibits you killing other human beings. Every killing of a human is a strike against God.

The Hebrew verb in the commandment is Ritsakh, and that’s a different verb than the one for killing animals. This verb is used for any human killing, from innocent accident to manslaughter to murder. The later tradition says it’s narrowly murder that’s prohibited, which tradition is quoted by Our Lord himself in our Gospel lesson; and hadn’t the same God who had given these commandments also told Israel to kill the Canaanites and exterminate the Amalekites? But if it meant only murder, there was another more specific Hebrew verb for that, which is not the verb in the commandment. It is general and stark and simple: Do not kill. How inconvenient.

So the commandment is less precise than we might want. By design. It’s not black and white, it has lots of gray. And the way the Gospel goes, you can’t just simply say, “I don’t do that,” as the rich young man in our Gospel did. In Matthew chapter 5, the Lord Jesus says that you break this commandment any time you merely hate your neighbor. He says that’s murder in your heart. And what Jesus says is taught by our Catechism.

The imprecision of the commandment is intentional—for you to keep on measuring all those gray areas in your life: Am I killing here? Is this killing okay? Am I hating? Am I disrespecting? Am I dehumanizing? Why am I doing it? What am I afraid of? What do I want? All of us are always guilty of this commandment in the Christian sense. This means that you should confess it as a sin even when no one can accuse you of it. Daily. That’s my first take home. Confess the sin of killing every day. Actually it’s very liberating. It helps you to define your define your personal goodness not by your own proud rightness but by the gift of grace that you humbly accept and joyfully share.

My second take-home is that killing is always an evil, even when we have no choice but to do it. I wish I could be an absolute pacifist, but I can’t. I can imagine a well-ordered militia taking arms in communal self-defense, but even then, every killing is a failure, every killing is an evil and a grief, even of your enemy who attacks you. For a Christian, the death of your enemy is not your victory. It’s an evil, which you ask forgiveness of as the lesser of two evils, but it’s still an evil. It’s a defeat even when you win. There is no such thing as a good war. Don’t kill, because even when you have to do it will cost you, and cost you dearly.

My third take-home is positive, it’s about what you can do in your Christian walk and how you address the world. You obey this commandment by practicing kindness. Most religions consider kindness a virtue, but for Christians it is non-negotiable. You must cultivate kindness, as the subset of love, as the action of love when it comes to your neighbor.

You act in the interest of your neighbor without regard for your own interest. You do good without payback. Not servility, not submission, sometimes it might be telling someone No, or even that you be willing to share bad news. The point is that you are of the same kind as your neighbor, so it means fellow-feeling, and patience, and listening instead of telling. You are probably kind in some ways and not in others. Kindness is unpredictable and it requires many judgment calls, and you’ll make mistakes. It’s tricky to distinguish selfishness from proper self-regard. So kindness is an attitude you really put to some practice in.

Don’t get down on yourself when you don’t feel it. It isn’t always natural. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, according to St. Paul. You practice it as opening up your life to God. You have to let God be kind through you. Because God is kind. You see that in the Incarnation, God becoming one of us, the ultimate act of kindness and of fellow-feeling. “And even if you kill me, I will only love you back.” It’s how God keeps the Sixth Commandment. The kindness of God is the active demonstration of God’s love for us.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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