Chapter 6

The Sanctity of Life

"You shall not commit murder" (Exodus 20.13).

The usual form of this commandment is, "You shall not kill", but it is assumed that the type of killing proscribed involves the wilful taking of the life of a fellow human being in the furtherance of one's own selfish ends. Life is God's most precious gift to us, and only he can withdraw it from us. To feel compelled to take one's own life is a grievous enough tragedy; to deprive someone else wantonly of life is the most terrible crime one can commit against him. Not only is his own creative future brought to an abrupt end, but society itself is also diminished. We do not live for ourselves alone, but are giving constantly of our own essence to others. This state of affairs applies not only to those people who have a joyfully creative function in life, whether in the realms of art, science or philanthropic endeavour, but also to the many who merely stand and wait. In the famous words from John Donne's Devotions, "No man is an island, entire of itself. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee". The basis of this communal involvement in all things is that we all are the parts of one body (Ephesians 4.25), and a single psychic energy infuses us all. If one of us behaves anti-socially, that person cuts himself off from a vital psychic link whose source is the Holy Spirit. Until he returns to the fold humble and contrite, so that he confesses his sin and asks forgiveness, he remains outside the pale of his brothers and excludes himself from the life-giving power of God's Spirit. On the other hand, the act of contrition with the earnest intention of amending his ways in the future places that person once more in the full flow of the Holy Spirit as well as at peace with his neighbours.

In this instance the fault of one person weakens the communal solidarity, the trust we have one in another, that is the basis of civilized existence on which we all depend for our sustenance. But when a person is summarily disposed of in the act of murder, a void is left in the society of which he was a member. It has been violated, torn asunder and dismembered by the forceful removal of even a single component, and the local social unit is irreparably diminished. This diminishing depends, as we have noted already, upon the unique essence of the person rather than his particular usefulness to those around him. Even if the victim is an infant incapable of contributing anything tangible to the community, its precipitate departure from the scene casts a shadow of chaos on the lives of those who are caught up in the tragedy. The mystic is always aware of a corporate solidarity that binds all creation together in the love of God. But in our world the human, by virtue of his massive intellectual equipment, has been given the power to weld the remainder of created forms into a mighty organism of purpose and development. Alternatively, he can destroy them utterly. Which of these two possibilities is to prevail depends on whether human ingenuity aligns itself to God in humble prayer or goes its own way regardless of the transcendent reality that governs all things. The first way is one of life and growth, the second leads inevitably to destruction. The wilful killing of a single person points to the consequences of the human being acting in disregard for the higher moral law which was given to us for our own protection.

That murder is an atrocious crime needs little further comment; few civilized people of normal mentality would disagree. The question, however, arises as to the scope of permissible killing of a fellow human being and ultimately the propriety of any killing at all. The matter is always urgent, but never more so than in our current intellectually brilliant society where mankind seems to have almost unlimited technological means at its disposal. It can prolong life for a long time where death would normally have occurred. On the other hand, it has terrible means at hand for widespread destruction of all living forms. Is it ever lawful to take another person's life? Alternatively, is it compassionate to prolong the life of a severely defective infant or an intractably demented adult, to say nothing of those many people with progressive, crippling organic disease for which there is no effective treatment at present available? Anyone who looks to Scripture for the definitive answer to these questions, in the frame of mind of a devotee consulting an oracle, is acting irresponsibly. We have also to use to the full the reasoning power God has given us as well as the deeper intuition with which we humans have been variably endowed. This intuitive faculty seems to be an essential quality of the soul; it is brought in at birth, but subsequently greatly developed in the school of life by the many experiences we all have to undergo. We learn especially in the depths of suffering, when, like Jesus, we are taken down from our own private seat of sufficiency to share unobtrusively with the milling crowds around us. The common people who heard Jesus gladly are our constant companions, and their wisdom is so easily ignored by the powerful figures among us who dictate the fashions of the age.

Scripture is not self-interpreting, nor is it elucidated purely by historical research, important as this may be. Its understanding requires a deep empathy with all life in order to penetrate the minds of those who were God's mouthpieces in past epochs. Their world-view was inevitably narrow and restricted as compared with ours by virtue of the paucity of scientific knowledge at their disposal. On the other hand, their awareness of the world of the spirit was far greater and more direct than our own because they were not diverted by technical expertise and worldly power as we are. We have yet to transcend the confines of a purely materialistic metaphysic, which sees matter as the only reality and physical death the end of all life, before the supreme scale of values may be properly assessed. Then alone will we be able to glimpse the eternal procession of life and its significance in earthly incarnation; then alone can we come to a spiritually informed understanding about death and growth into eternal life.

If we trace the biblical understanding of the sanctity of life, we find little compassion in the attitude of the Israelites in the time of Moses and Joshua. Sihon, king of the Amorites (Numbers 21.22-4), and Og, king of Bashan (Numbers 21.33-5), together with all their followers were ruthlessly exterminated when they opposed the advance of the Israelite community. So also were the cities and inhabitants of Jericho (Joshua 6), apart from the prostitute Rahab and her family, and Ai (Joshua 8). All this is done in the name of God who has put the cities of Jericho and Ai under a solemn ban. Thus a primitive people is supplanted by a much more spiritually developed community, and civilization advances. But we cannot help feeling disquiet, at the very least, at the extermination of an aboriginal people, any more than we register revulsion when we consider how European immigrants in the earlier centuries of our era rooted out many of the original inhabitants of America, Africa and Australasia. Western imperialism throve on the exploitation of such aboriginal peoples as were spared immediate death. But, as we know, the harvest of rapacious colonialism is not a happy one. The descendants, perhaps centuries later, have to bear the brunt of the injustices perpetrated by their forebears. And what is the fate of ruthless exterminators in the life beyond death?

As the spiritual consciousness of the Israelites grew, so did their tendency to kill their enemies decline. The law of retaliation, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21.23-5), was in fact a significant moderation of the impulse towards indiscriminate revenge against a vanquished enemy; it limited the punishment to the extent of the offence. In the post-exilic period, when Judaism was being inaugurated, the clemency of the rabbis was well known. They shrank at the possibility of killing their fellows. Jesus went even further: "You have learned that our forefathers were told, "Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to judgement": But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to judgement. If he abuses his brother, he must answer for it in the fires of hell" (Matthew 5.21-2). The heart of these stern demands does not lie so much in the feeling of anger, which we all must experience from time to time in the face of obvious injustice, as in the act of nursing it in our heart. It grows in rancour as it is held within one, and in due course is very liable to erupt in violence. There are other ways of effectively killing a person besides depriving him directly of his life on earth. A cruel betrayal of trust or a vicious calumny can so demolish the shaky identity that a person has built up precariously amid the hazards of life and his own imperfect character that he is totally shattered and his future career completely blighted, if not terminated in suicide.

Jesus, though the prince of peace, says, "You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10.34). He prophesies that he will be the source of terrible family dissension, for each person will have to stand up and be counted on his own. In another context, however, we read: "How blest are the peacemakers; God shall call them his sons" (Matthew 5.9). It is evident that there is a comfortable peace in which falsehood flourishes under a mantle of easy complacency, the same complacency that Amos attacked so vehemently at the height of the power of the northern kingdom of Israel nearly eight centuries before Christ. It was soon to disappear with the inroads of Assyrian aggression. The true peace is characterized by the truth of God transforming the people into something of the nature of his Son. This comes in slow steps, but its end is definitive. Until it is attained there will be a war of attrition between the forces of selfish assertiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit which infuses the entire creation with new life. This life is of shared opportunity and devoted service to all. Selfish concern leads to conflict and death, the power of God lifts creation out of the cycle of decay and death into a life of abundant fertility and unending creativity. The Spirit is continually making all things new, so that a changed perspective on life is established among the people who live on the earth.

The law of life is evolution, which progresses by a process of natural selection: the species survives that is the fittest in the race of existence. By contrast, the inadequate are summarily disposed of in nature's perennial harvest. In the human drama it is well recognized that the majority of defective foetuses are aborted spontaneously in the earlier months of pregnancy; those that survive to full term represent merely the tip of an iceberg of congenital defect. In primitive societies, where the race for existence is close enough to death at all times, it is part of the scheme in many instances for the deformed and the weak to be left to fend for themselves, while the able-bodied move onward in the full thrust of life. Since life is God's most precious gift to us, it is not unreasonable that anyone threatening the existence of a fellow being is himself liable to execution. The crime of murder is so abominable that the strongest deterrent seems not merely justifiable but positively mandatory. When this observation is extended communally and nationally, it is equally certain that innocent, law-abiding people and countries should be protected against the inroads of powerful, aggressive neighbours. There is, in other words, a type of killing that can be justified in terms of self-defence, whether personal or national.

When the argument is extended, it is all too easy to condone the abortion of foetuses known to bear severe defects in terms of the greater good of the community who would otherwise have to bear the cost of providing indefinitely for an unproductive member. At the same time it could be argued that death is the kindest solution to a life of impotence and humiliation such as severe mental defect entails. The danger of this rationalistic approach to survival is, of course, that the decision is placed completely in the hands of powerful men, who become the sole arbiters of matters as final as life and death. Those who suffered under the racial theories of the Hitlerites earlier in our century know only too well where this tendency led. Even those of us who are less obviously deranged than the murderers of that time are too much the victims of our own prejudices to be reliable guides as to the survival of those whom we may regard as hopelessly defective. Man is at his most dangerous when he plays god; the current experimentation with transplanted human embryos is another indication of the danger inherent in technical skill without the awe due to the Creator of all things, including the human mind. On the other hand, man is at his most glorious when he works in collaboration with God because, in his devotion to the work in hand, he is transformed into something of the nature of Christ.

Jesus said:

You have learned that they were told, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth". But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two. Give when you are asked to give; and do not turn your back on a man who wants to borrow (Matthew 5.38-41).

Then comes the command to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, for God makes his sun rise on good and bad alike, and sends rain on the honest and the dishonest. Even the wicked love their own kind, but we must have no limit to our goodness, even as God's goodness knows no bounds (Matthew 5.43-8).

These are counsels of perfection, but until they are prayed over, assimilated into our consciousness and become our rule of life, there will continue to be wars and killing. It must be said, in realistic acknowledgement of the human situation, that Jesus' demands are extremely hard. Not to resist the person who does you wrong is the vocation of a saint. Furthermore, even if we may have mastered our anger at an obvious injustice levelled against ourself, we could never lie passively when a fellow human was being similarly abused. This would apply especially to the maltreatment of one who was helpless, such as a child or a crippled person. Indeed, our solicitude would extend spontaneously to an animal which was ill-treated. An ethic which nodded at injustice in the interests of peace and quiet would be diabolical. We cannot, in the present state of human consciousness, forswear the use of lethal weapons when crime is on the rampage and terrorism threatens civilized values with destruction and a return to chaos. It is evident that Jesus' demands are compatible more with personal injustice and the need to transcend retaliation and work for reconciliation than with the terrible violence in our midst, much of which is a direct result of the evil actions of those who wielded power in the past as well as their present successors.

Indeed, the two events of our present century that cannot but mould our views on killing our fellow men are, first, the Nazi plague with its intention of total genocide, so that had it not been contained and vanquished, whole populations would have disappeared from the face of the earth, and secondly, the advent of nuclear power with its ever-present threat of total destruction of all life. The former event must justify the principle of self-defence with lethal weapons; the latter development makes all gestures of self-defence increasingly irrelevant in the face of a nuclear holocaust. Indeed, it is a dreadful thought that the nuclear deterrent has so far limited the scale of regional conflict and prevented any major war for forty years, a long time indeed in terms of the history of European conflict. Which of the two alternatives is the more acceptable, life endured indefinitely under an unbearably oppressive regime or total world destruction? The more deeply this appalling choice is considered, the more intolerable is either alternative. The first admittedly preserves life, but of what quality? The second hastens the death that is our reward in any case, but puts an end to life on our small but important planet. We can, however, remember the important prophecy, "For behold I create new heavens and a new earth. Former things shall no more be remembered nor shall they be called to mind" (Isaiah 65.17), which is seen in vision by the writer of the Book of Revelation: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had vanished, and there was no longer any sea" (Revelation 21.1). The sea represents the dark, subterranean forces of evil, the darkness of the personal and collective unconscious. This does not mean that the earth does not count, but that attachment even to it can become a subtle idolatry, unless we worship God above all else. On the other hand, no one knows the extent of suffering that a nuclear holocaust would unleash.

One is forced to the conclusion that neither pacifism nor militarism is the answer to our unbearable dilemma. Pacifism is practical on a large scale only if there is a sincere will to peace with service among all people. While some are grasping for more, the remainder will be endangered if they cease to defend themselves, and indeed the situation of the aggressive groups will be increasingly unhealthy as they become objects of fear and detestation by those on whom they prey. Militarism is even less acceptable since it grows into a subtle love of weapons for their own sake, and often includes dangerous overtones of sadism. In the end it is the weapons that precipitate the minor conflict that could escalate into a nuclear war. The will of man cannot solve the problems inherent in human nature, any more than it is possible for us to pull ourselves together when we are in a state of mental disintegration. The panaceas conjured up by the human mind, though intriguing to consider in the luxury of peaceful affluence, do not work amid the turmoil of human suffering. Only a change of heart, a metanoia, can help us in our agonized, tortuous way forward to that peace which will put an end to killing our neighbour who, as the parable of the good Samaritan reminds us, is every fellow human being on the road of life.

Jesus said after he had made such apparently impossible demands that he left his disciples speechless, "For men, this is impossible; but everything is possible for God" (Matthew 19.26). Thus we are brought back once more to prayer - not for God to bring peace to the world so much as for him to fill our hearts and minds with his peace. "Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears" (John 14.27). These beautiful words of Christ in his farewell discourses are the true way forward to a society that does not kill. Once we know the peace of God that comes by grace when we are humble and silent, not only does that peace renew and transform our entire personality but it also emanates from us to all those around us. This is the healing power of the Holy Spirit which brings with it acceptance, trust and self-giving concern to all on whom it impinges. In other words, there will be no peace or security in the world until we personally can, in the footsteps of Christ, impart our own peace to the environment in which we live and work. How often do we encounter militant pacifists who seem to emanate hatred against those with whom they disagree rather than love to those whom they believe they are supporting! In fact such people are psychologically unbalanced, and are projecting their own unresolved conflicts on to those whom they distrust, whether in terms of politics or economics, and who become plausible scapegoats.

By contrast, the peace of God brings warmth and love into our hearts for all other people: "Glory to God in highest heaven, and on earth his peace, his favour towards men" (Luke 2.14). It is then that we can glimpse the possibility of carrying out Jesus' radical demands about loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors. It is no longer simply we who are striving after the unattainable, but God working in us to make all things possible. When we have attained this state of consciousness through the combined grace of God and the work of self-giving in prayer, we can be emissaries of peace to those nearby in personal fellowship and to those far away in intercessory prayer. Even one saint can convert a multitude to the way of God; how much more effective is the united witness of many to God's peace! In terms of the precarious world situation this approach by way of personal holiness seems decidedly elitist and other-wordly. Nevertheless, it is the only way in which the consciousness of mankind may be raised from the bondage of self-absorption in mundane possessions to self-giving in life to the whole creation.

Much intercessory prayer in church services sounds as if we were addressing God as a distant potentate rather than the intimate presence in whom we exist, live and move. It is more important to pray that we may become peacemakers in our local situation, whether at home or at work, than that we utter eloquent petitions about peace and justice in foreign parts. Once our own house is in order, our psychic presence will effect far more intense intercessory power in the service of God and our fellow creatures than it will when we are emotionally distraught and mentally confused. Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms to remove the great plank out of our own eye before we start removing the speck of sawdust from that of our brother (Matthew 7.3-5); only then will we see properly. The tools necessary for the even more important clearing of inner vision are the practice of constant awareness of our own attitudes to others and ceaseless, devoted attention to God in prayer.

Then we will discover guidelines about such difficult problems as deformed foetuses, the incurably defective person, and crime on both a communal and an international level. We will see that all life is precious, a gift of God, and we have no right to terminate it summarily when its presence becomes a burden to us. Even the mentally handicapped child can teach us all important lessons in love, provided he too is given love and respected as a person in his own right. No circumstance is lost on the person who is aware; Job himself would never have had a direct encounter with God had he not accepted his suffering, albeit with a necessarily rebellious heart. But two additional observations must be made: the care of defective individuals must fall on society as a whole as well as on those closest to them in personal relationship. Since we are all parts of the one body, we cannot reject even the puniest member, let alone one that is sick.

Furthermore, our life on earth is part of a much greater scheme in eternity. There is a time to die no less than a time to remain alive in our body of flesh and bone. It is as cruel to keep a person indefinitely alive in a state of impotence and distress, when death would so mercifully have terminated this part of his existence, as it is to take away the life of a vigorous, healthy person in an act of wanton murder. The balance between life and death is keenly set, and it is understood and respected best when we use God's three gifts to us: common sense, intuitive compassion and the availability of his presence in constant prayer. We begin to glimpse the wonderful truth that our responsible decision in such a matter as life and death is the final common path of a decision in which mankind as a whole, the communion of saints and the ministry of angels are all playing their part under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When we act as responsible, reverent people in this way, a great load drops off our backs and we learn, paradoxically, not to take ourselves too seriously. In such a state of joyous abandon we often do far more good than when we assume the mantle of God in trying to put the world aright.

Our work is to co-operate with nature, at the same time acting to fulfil its destiny by the grace of God, which perfects the natural order. Alternatively, it could be said that nature acting as it should reveals God's grace fully, and it is our privilege and duty to facilitate the perfect action of the natural order. Anyone who acts in wanton destructiveness to undermine the natural order must be checked summarily and decisively. Thus the criminal should be apprehended at once, both for his good and the safety of those around him. In undeveloped countries it is not unreasonable to demand the life of anyone who endangers the well-being of the community or kills another person for selfish gain. The deterrent effect of the threat of severe punishment cannot be denied. In the more developed parts of the world a kinder, more enlightened approach to murder should be possible. There should be less need for draconian measures inasmuch as the people are better educated and the socio-economic climate is more conducive to a truly civilized style of life. It is always a moment of great rejoicing when a society can support the abolition of capital punishment: it indicates that the instinctive reaction towards retaliation has been lifted up to a more considered response by insistent pangs of compassion, itself an awareness that we too have played our part in shaping the character of the criminal and that we must in turn bear his punishment. This acceptance of communal as well as individual responsibility leads us to explore the root causes of murder and to heal the criminal rather than simply to do away with him.

In fact it is extremely doubtful whether death settles anything finally; the hatred of the criminal continues to poison the psychic atmosphere, and it is very probable that the spirit of the executed person continues to live on in a hellish state of confusion that does no good either to him or to his fellows. This applies as much to those still in the flesh as to the deceased who now inhabit the greater world beyond death. Therefore it is in the greater interest of all that we should work towards the redemption of the criminal from his destructive tendencies while he is still alive in the flesh. A final observation is valid: we should not be ashamed when we feel anger, almost of murderous intensity, on hearing of a deliberate killing. This is preferable to a cold indifference with permissive undertones. But we should then master our wrath, thanking God that we too did not act as the killer did, and working with responsible concern to prevent the recurrence of a similar tragedy in our own neighbourhood.

The same principles apply to international relationships: constant vigilance should be informed by the ever-present possibility of a change in perspective. In this way friendship may lead to a transformation of our hearts of stone into living flesh. All intelligent people long for the time when mutual trust will be so firm that all armaments may be laid aside. Before this state of affairs can occur, however, nations must be freed from the duress of political and ideological tyranny on the one hand and grinding poverty on the other. Jesus said, "If you dwell within the revelation I have brought, you are indeed my disciples: you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8.31-2). Jesus' revelation is that the Kingdom of God is eternally here, and if we dwell in that knowledge and direct our lives in accordance with it, we no longer depend on any of the world's idols: they drop like a dead body from us. We then need neither possessions nor power to implement our identity, but can live in trust with all people. Until we no longer need to make demands on others, and can let all people be free to live their own lives according to the insights God has set before them, and in a state of material security that liberates them from the threat of poverty and disease, there can be no peace in the world. Needless to say, these radical requirements are beyond human manipulation, but depend on divine grace working a feat of inner transfiguration in all our hearts.

Meanwhile we can give thanks for the witness of responsible peace-directed groups, notably the Society of Friends, who have exposed themselves to general abuse in the cause of pacifism. This refusal to take up arms has been determined not for selfish personal motives of safety but in a wide approach to world harmony. Their witness, minuscule as it is in a world of confusion, helps to lighten the load of aggressiveness under which we all labour. It must be said, however, that the Quaker witness flourishes most strongly in countries where there has been a powerful tradition of civil and religious freedom; the Quaker contribution has added depth to that tradition but has also depended for its existence on it. Its future would be in doubt, to say the least, in a bellicose, totalitarian society.

In the end our attitude to self-defence has to be pragmatic. Idealism is one thing in the comfortable halls of learning of an academic establishment or in the body of a church. In the hard school of life it has to be tempered by the harsh realism of struggle, subsistence, procreation and death. The more open we are to God in prayer, the more will our hearts, souls, minds and bodies be infused with the divine grace. Then alone will people cease to kill each other, whether by the vicious tongue, the scurrilous allegation or the lethal weapon. When we know love we will start to love all living forms, and will work for their healing instead of their destruction.

Chapter 7
Back to Index Page