My March Column – Full Text

The Fifth Commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

Continuing my investigation of the Ten Commandments as God’s guide to human happiness, I have come to the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”. The commandment is fairly clear but does it make us happy? I don’t have any personal experience of killing nor of being killed but I would be perfectly happy not to be killed. From what I’ve read, soldiers in wartime have often found it difficult to kill another person and many were happy not to have to do it. However I wonder if my everyday experience is made happier by this commandment.

I need to look closer at just what this commandment means before I make a judgement. According to my old style catechism this commandment forbids murder, suicide and all other acts that may lead to these or that unjustly inflict bodily injury. According to the book other sins forbidden are drunkenness, fighting, jealousy, unjust anger, hatred and revenge as well as scandal and bad example.

Now that is quite a list. It shows us many of the things that can lead to unhappiness. It might not be immediately obvious that some of these are forbidden by the commandment. Drunkenness might be seen as something comical but I am advised by someone involved in investigating deaths that a large proportion of the killings we read about in the newspapers (and many that we don’t) are committed in drunken rages. Few murders are planned killings, most involve drunkenness or drug taking.

The commandment expresses the Church’s belief in the sanctity of life. That’s the idea that underlies all of this. It sounds very theoretical but what does it mean in reality? Life is God’s gift to us. When we put it that way it sounds like life is something that exists on its own. But life is not something separate from us. Life is an essential property of us as human beings. Our immortal soul enters the body at conception and we have life. When the soul leaves the body life is gone too. So it seems to me that the sanctity of my life is sanctity of me. I am God’s creation and the fifth commandment forbids damaging me. That is true of every human being, regardless of colour, religion or ability.

We are, each of us, God’s gift to the world. That’s why we are important, because God made us important. Now that is a view that is not universally shared. If we view each other as a gift from God then we must cherish each other. We can’t distinguish between people on the basis of race or place in society if we are all gifts from God. Human beings must treat each other with equality. We can’t regard a rich person as being more important than a poor person because they both derive their dignity from being created by God.

Today we are proud to state that we regard everyone as having human rights but that was not always the case. Even today we do not always treat women and men as equals. It seems to me that if we are forbidden to kill our fellow human beings because they are God’s special creation then we must, as God does, treat everyone equally. So the fifth commandment is not just forbidding us from killing but forbids us from discriminating against anyone because of their race, religion or any other pretext.

I have to stop here and think about my own attitudes. Do I discriminate against anybody? I think I don’t but what about those times when I say something like “Women drivers!” or repeat jokes about Irish people? Do these instances reveal something about my attitudes that I can’t even admit to myself? The thing about the fifth commandment is that it is easy to dismiss it because I’ve never killed anyone. That is surely missing the point. Do I hold attitudes that enable killing?

I think about the films I watch where shooting and bombing and incredible fights are shown in widescreen and full colour. The violent television programmes may or may not result in a more violent society but they do reveal something about our attitudes to killing. The large number of murders, knife crimes and violent attacks we read about don’t even accurately show the real growth in these crimes. What’s going wrong?

Let’s look back at attitudes. If every person is a gift from God then our response to that gift must be better than don’t kill. If we are given a gift we either accept and treasure it or we reject it. So either we accept and treasure each person or we reject them, reject God’s gift. The fifth commandment is telling us to treasure every person.

The implications of treasuring every person are extensive. We must go further than doing no harm to anyone; we must help and support our fellow human beings. Doesn’t that make us responsible for feeding the hungry, treating the sick, helping those in need wherever they may be? That might sound like a very challenging request. How can we possibly make ourselves responsible for the wellbeing of everyone else? I suppose the answer lies in our attitude to others. How do we treat the people we come across in our daily lives?

How do I regard the person serving me in the café? Do I just give them my order and expect it to be filled promptly or do I speak to them as a person? Do I ever ask them how their day has been or am I just wrapped up in my own world? It might be even worse. I was reading an article about human trafficking. In the article it said that there are many people working in this country who have been trafficked, brought here illegally, and made to work for little or no pay. It asked the question “Have you ever had your car hand washed for a low price? Then you may well have played a part in human trafficking.”

Now, that disturbed me and made me think about my own behaviour. Now I’m not so sure that the fifth commandment doesn’t apply to me. I’d certainly be happier knowing that I’ve never caused anyone to be abused and definitely happier not being abused myself. It then occurred to me that people are being paid very low wages to produce the goods I buy. Workers in Asia, Africa and South America are producing foodstuffs and consumer goods like clothes, in poor conditions and for little pay. Do I ever think about where my purchases have come from?

So having thought about it, I definitely think I’d be much happier if I keep the fifth commandment. It will mean thinking more about the people I come into contact with every day. It must mean I’ll be more discerning when I shop, even in the fancier shops. Like all the commandments this one is designed to make us change. I will try to change how I see other people. They are not just other bodies taking up space and getting in my way. Each one of them is a gift from God, here to make the world a better place.

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