The Unholy Desire of Christians to Legitimize Killing in War

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“People want to kill people, and they want biblical permission to do so.” ~ Wilma Ann Bailey

It is bad enough to hear the Bush Administration, the neocons, the Randians, most Republicans in Congress, the right-wing talk show hosts, and some assorted libertarians still defend the war in Iraq, but it is even worse when Christians do the same.

Never at any time in history have so many conservative, evangelical Christians held such unholy opinions.

The adoration that many of these Christians have toward President Bush is unholy. The association of many of these Christians with the Republican Party is unholy. The alliance between evangelical Christianity and the military is unholy. The idolatry that many of these Christians manifest toward the state is unholy. But what continues to amaze me the most is the unholy desire on the part of many of these Christians to legitimize killing in war.

The Sixth Commandment

Although the attempt to legitimize killing in war is done in a number of ways, watering down the sixth commandment’s prohibition against killing is always one of them. If someone is in the military or otherwise in the killing business for the state, then (so we are told) the commandment doesn’t apply. Many Christians would go further and say that the commandment never applies to killing in war, period, or at least it doesn’t apply to American troops. Others have the crazy idea that the commandment must be interpreted in light of the September 11th attacks. And although they would never say it publicly, some Christians believe that the commandment doesn’t apply to the killing of Muslim infidels because they’re not “innocent.”

The simplest way to water down the prohibition against killing is to redefine it. Since killing in the sixth commandment obviously doesn’t mean “the taking of any life,” it has been limited by some Christians to murder because, as everyone knows (so we are told), it is not murder to kill a man on the battlefield. Therefore, Christians can in good conscience enlist in the military knowing that they might be expected to travel halfway around the world and bomb, maim, “interrogate,” and kill for the state. No Christian need fear any negative consequences by God at the Judgment because he can’t be faulted for “following orders” or “obeying the powers that be.” End of story. Case closed. Christians can join the military or the National Guard and kill heartily in the name of the Lord. We should support the troops. They are not responsible for anyone they kill during a war. We should support conscription if the state says it needs more troops. We should ask God to bless our troops.

On the phrase “Thou shalt not kill” in the sixth commandment, here is Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don’t Know Much About the Bible: Everything You Need to Know About the Good Book but Never Learned (William Morrow, 1998):

This is another critical King James Version mistranslation of the original Hebrew. The correct reading is “You shall not murder” (NRSV, JPS, and others). As the rest of the Hebrew scriptures clearly indicate, God had no problem with certain forms of killing.

So, Kenneth Davis, who couldn’t recite the Hebrew alphabet if his life depended on it, tells us that the most widely accepted Protestant version of the Bible mistranslates “the original Hebrew.”

Where, then, is Davis getting his information? Evangelicals Robert Morey, in his book When Is It Right to Fight? (Christian Scholars Press, 2002, originally Bethany House, 1985), and Loraine Boettner, in his book The Christian Attitude Toward War, (Presbyterian and Reformed, 3rd ed., 1985), say basically the same thing. Morey mentions, but does not otherwise refer to, the definitive work of C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics (Headley Bros., 1919), in arguing that the early church did not reject war and military service for Christians. Boettner, manifesting a profound ignorance of American history, believes that “America is not and never has been a militaristic nation.”

A noted evangelical recently wrote:

Previously we examined five ways in which God revealed that murder violates and perverts His moral absolutes and fixed order of moral law. The fifth way was through God giving Israel the following commandment: “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13). Some versions of the Bible use the word kill instead of murder. But since the Bible indicates that some killings are not murder but are permissible and, in some cases, required by God, “You shall not murder” is “a more precise reading than the too-general . . . u2018thou shalt not kill'” [quoting the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody, 2003)].

He goes on to quote from volume 13 of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2004) regarding the Hebrew word for kill in Exodus 20:13: “It is noteworthy that rsh [rasah] is never used for killing in battle or for killing in self-defense. Neither is it used for suicide.”

Even Norman Geisler, in his valuable book, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Baker, 1989), tells us that the prohibition against killing in Exodus 20:13 “is translated correctly by the New International Version: u2018You shall not murder.'”

Thus, the general evangelical consensus is that the Hebrew word underlying the word kill in the sixth commandment means “murder.” Most of the Christians who make this argument do so, not because they know anything about biblical Hebrew or Bible translation, but because they are trying to justify Christians killing for the state in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever else the government has sent or will send its soldiers. This gives them something to fall back on when the recitation of their “obey the powers that be” mantra doesn’t quite do the job.

This ideological desire to legitimize killing in war is an unholy one, and every Christian who attempts to do so should be ashamed of himself and repent “in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21).

Kill or Murder?

Fortunately, Christians who are beginning to question the lies of the Bush Administration and distrust the latest pronouncements of their “leaders” have some help.

Wilma Ann Bailey, an associate professor of Hebrew and Aramaic Scripture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, has penned a small (94 pages) book called “You Shall Not Kill” or “You Shall Not Murder”? The Assault on a Biblical Text (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005).

I do not know Ms. Bailey, and doubt seriously that we could have much fellowship around any other thing than the subject of her book. She would probably consider me to be a fundamentalist, and I would probably consider her to be a liberal. I strongly disagree with her approach to Scripture (she believes that the source of Exodus 20 and 21 may be different because the vocabulary is different and Exodus 20 is apodictic law while Exodus 21 is casuistic law). I strongly disagree with her interpretation of Scripture (she denies that God sanctioned war, killing, and capital punishment in the Old Testament). I also strongly disagree with her political philosophy (she is in favor of gun control).

Nevertheless, Bailey has written an important work that I highly (but reservedly) recommend to anyone (Christian or not) who believes or is familiar with the “sixth commandment only prohibits murder” argument.

I have written briefly about this issue in my article “Humpty Dumpty Religion.” There I showed that it was wrong to limit the sixth commandment to just prohibiting murder. I have also explained in my article “Is It or Isn’t It?” that even if we grant that it is only murder which is prohibited by the sixth commandment, Christian warmongers are still responsible for explaining how U.S. soldiers killing for the state in Iraq is anything but murder. But because this is the first book on the subject that I have seen, the whole idea needs to be revisited and expanded upon.

Bailey’s book focuses on “the meaning of the Hebrew word used in Exod 20:13 and the altering of the English translation of the commandment in several large traditions during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” The book contains six short chapters and two short appendixes. The first chapter is an analysis of the Hebrew word underlying the prohibition against killing in the sixth commandment. This chapter is not only the longest; it contains the meat of the book. The next four chapters survey this commandment in Evangelical Protestantism, Mainline Protestantism, Judaism, and Roman Catholicism. The final chapter is her explanation of why “killing is not the solution to the problem of killing.” The first appendix is a helpful list of the major translations of the Bible with an indication of whether they use kill or murder in the sixth commandment. The second appendix is a technical study of the Hebrew word underlying the prohibition against killing in the sixth commandment. It is basically an expansion of the first chapter for scholars. All Hebrew words in the book are transliterated, except for those in the second appendix. (Bailey transliterates the Hebrew root in question as rtsh. Other acceptable transliterations are rsh, rasah, and ratsach, which is the form I have used in previous articles.)

We need not read far into the preface to see the direction in which Bailey is headed:

The sixth commandment is perhaps the most disturbing of all the commandments. This is evidenced by the lengths to which scholars and church folk go to explain it away. Most killing throughout history has taken place within the context of what is legal (e.g., war, capital punishment) and therefore exempt from this commandment in the minds of many people. Interpreters narrow the prohibition to what relatively few people do, a criminal act — a person illegally killing another person — while allowing for the bulk of killing that takes place in the world to continue.

“This commandment,” she continues, “exposes the true moral substance or vacuity of its interpreters. The Quaker Elton Trueblood once observed: u2018The ultimate moral principles of a people are revealed, not by what they do but by the way in which they defend their actions.'”

Bailey argues four things in her first chapter:

  • The English word “murder” is too limited and too varied a legal term to function adequately as the translation for the Hebrew word rtsh.
  • The use of rtsh in other biblical texts indicates that the word is meant to be translated more broadly.
  • The verbal form of rtsh often appears in a list or an ambiguous phrase that makes it impossible to determine a precise meaning.
  • Murder is too rare a crime to merit Ten Commandment status.

She first shows that “the word u2018murder’ is a legal term,” with a variety of meanings “from one jurisdiction to another.” The fifty states each have their own legal code that defines what a murder is. Bailey then undertakes an exhaustive study of the Hebrew word rtsh in the Old Testament. Among other things, she points out that when this word is used in a list, “it is impossible to determine its precise meaning,” Ahab is said to have killed (rtsh) Naboth (1 Kings 21), but never actually killed anyone, and a lion can kill (rtsh) someone, but would never be considered a murderer.

She concludes in chapter one:

This chapter has presented a biblical argument against the automatic assumption that the commandment “You shall not kill” must be understood as “You shall not murder.” First, it is clear that the Hebrew word rtsh does not mean u2018murder’ everywhere it is found in the Bible. Second, it is inappropriate to harmonize Scripture rather than letting the various theological traditions in the Bible speak for themselves. The English word u2018murder’ is a restricted legal term. Last, the Ten Commandments are meant to be general and not to refer to one particular, rarely committed crime.

After refuting the arguments for the translation “murder” in the sixth commandment using the biblical data, Bailey turns to how that commandment has been interpreted and translated in the various theological traditions: Evangelical Protestantism, Mainline Protestantism, Judaism, and Roman Catholicism.

The second chapter, “The Sixth Commandment in Evangelical Protestantism,” is the most important of these because of the unholy alliance that exists today between evangelical Christianity and the military. Bailey shows that evangelicals were pacifistic during the period between the world wars, but notes that “by the 1960s the argument that the word u2018kill’ in the Ten Commandments really means u2018murder’ was being used by evangelicals even though the primary Bible translation used by evangelicals, the King James Version, did not read u2018murder.'” This is no doubt due in a large measure because “in the latter half of the twentieth century being patriotic in the United States started to mean being pro-military and pro-war.” In this chapter Bailey chronicles the shift in the rendering of the sixth commandment in the Bible translations of evangelicals from kill to murder. This change was accepted because of the “melding of evangelicalism, patriotism, and militarism.”

“Although,” as Bailey says, “a major American mainline translation did not read u2018murder’ until the publication of the New Revised Standard Version in 1989,” the notion “began appearing in commentaries and sermons much earlier.” Why have mainline Protestants, who would be most open to critical scholarship, also produced a translation that reads “murder”? Bailey bluntly replies: “People want to kill people, and they want biblical permission to do so. The translators of the NRSV and the other translations of the late twentieth century gave them that permission.”

English translations of the Old Testament made by Jews did not appear until the middle of the nineteenth century. The earliest, that of Isaac Leeser in 1853, reads “kill,” but this was changed in the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 translation to “murder.” Thus, Bailey acknowledges, the translation of murder has a longer history in Judaism than Protestantism, but, as she also shows, “it is not an unchallenged reading.”

In her chapter on the commandment in Roman Catholicism, Bailey finds that “all of the English translations produced in the Roman Catholic tradition have been consistent in the translation of the commandment.” Yet, she believes that “the church developed u2018just war’ theory in order to theologically cope with the incongruity between biblical teachings (particularly New Testament teachings) and the desire of the state to wage war. Wars that were declared to be just, however, tended to be wars the state wanted to fight.”

In her concluding chapter, Bailey summarily restates her objection to the “movement away from the traditional wording of the sixth commandment” in the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first century: “This would be appropriate if it more accurately reflected the meaning of the biblical text, but it does not.” Her argument in the end is that rather than being more precise, murder is much too narrow of a translation. The ambiguity of the word kill in English matches that of ratsach in Hebrew. And since “the vast majority of violent and unnatural deaths during the last century were not the result of murder, but actions that in English are covered by the word u2018kill,'” to limit “the scope of the commandment to illegal one-on-one killing exempts the primary causes of unnatural deaths in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.”

There is no disputing the fact that many modern versions of the Bible narrow the prohibition against killing in the sixth commandment to murder. There is also no disputing the fact that many Christians appeal to the sixth commandment, not to condemn killing in war, but to countenance it. But does the first fact necessarily have to lead to the second? Has the change in the sixth commandment from kill to murder in recent translations of the Bible contributed to some Christians turning into Christian warmongers? I think not. And neither does Bailey. She is merely saying that the change was accepted and even welcomed by those seeking biblical permission to legitimize killing in war. Does she put too much emphasis on this change in translation? I think so, and for four reasons. First, the earliest major modern Bible translation to make the change from kill to murder was the Revised Version of 1885. This is much too early to substantiate Bailey’s thesis. Second, the venerable King James Version of the Bible (but not the New King James Version), which is the only Bible used by some conservative Christian warmongers, contains the familiar reading “thou shalt not kill.” But this hasn’t stopped these Christians from defending the death and destruction meted out by “Christian” U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Third, a reviewer of Bailey’s book from Denmark pointed out that “the Danish Bible changed from u2018kill’ to u2018murder’ in the late 1990s, but neither is capital punishment favored in the Danish society nor is there a growing positive attitude to (just) war but rather to the contrary.” And then there is the matter of the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation — obviously not even the work Christians — which also reads “murder.”

I have some other problems with Bailey’s book as well. She does not address the implications of an absolute prohibition against killing that she seems to be sanctioning. Also, she unfortunately does not interact with the New Testament references to the sixth commandment (Matthew 5:21, 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Romans 13:9). The strength of Bailey’s book clearly lies in the first chapter where she shows that the Hebrew word for kill in the sixth commandment doesn’t mean murder in many contexts. Therefore, Bible versions that use the translation murder are wrong to narrowly focus the word.

The Unholy Desire to Legitimize Killing in War

Christians who desire to legitimize killing in war will attempt to do so no matter what any Bible says. Most, however, want some kind of biblical permission for their unholy desire.

If their Bible reads “murder” in the sixth commandment, then Christians will repeat the old canard that “All murder involves the taking of life, but not all taking of life is murder” and say that killing in war is not murder. And not only is it not murder, to kill for your county — regardless of the location of the war — is the quintessence of patriotism. To kill for your country — regardless of the cause of the war — is always the right thing to do. To kill for your country — regardless of the nature of the war — is a perfectly okay thing for a Christian to do.

If their Bible reads “kill” in the sixth commandment, then Christians can simply redefine it as “murder” and treat the text as if that is what it actually says. Therefore, everything said in the previous paragraph would then apply.

But just because the sixth commandment prohibited murder doesn’t necessarily mean that it allows for killing in war. Would anyone say that manslaughter is acceptable because the commandment only condemns murder? Why, then, do people appeal to the sixth commandment to justify killing in war unless they have an ideologically desire to legitimize killing in war?

There are, of course, other attempts by Christians to legitimize killing in war by distorting the sixth commandment. They reason that one cannot apply the sixth commandment to killing in war:

  • Because the prohibition against killing in the commandment obviously doesn’t mean the taking of any life.
  • Because God commanded the Jews in the Old Testament to go to war against other nations.

Every Christian I have ever talked to or read who made these statements did so, not because of his concern to correctly interpret the Scripture, but because of his desire to justify Christians killing for the state in Iraq. In reply to the former reason I would point out that it is unlawful killing that is condemned in the sixth commandment. Killing in self-defense, animal sacrifices, and capital punishment were all permitted by God in the Old Testament because they were lawful killings. There is nothing lawful about an American soldier traveling thousands of miles away and killing an Iraqi in his own house. In reply to the latter reason I would remind the desperate Christian warmonger who uses it that no nation or group of people can claim today to enjoy the privileged position that was occupied by the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. And that goes for the United States as well.

The desire to legitimize killing in war is an unholy one. Of all people, it is conservative, evangelical Christians who ought to be the first to denounce the state’s latest pretext for war instead of defending it and in many cases supplying the state with a fresh supply of cannon fodder in the form of their young people. It is a terrible blight on Christianity that many non-Christians are not so blindly in love with the state that they defend its president, its military, and its wars.

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