THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT : "Thou shalt not kill"

Importance Of Instruction On This Commandment

The great happiness proposed to the peacemakers, of being called the children of God, should prove a powerful incentive to the pastor to explain to the faithful with care and accuracy the obligations imposed by this Commandment. No means more efficacious can be adopted to promote peace among mankind, than the proper explanation of this Commandment and its holy and due observance by all. Then might we hope that men, united in the strictest bonds of union, would live in perfect peace and concord.

The necessity of explaining this Commandment is proved from the following. Immediately after the earth was overwhelmed in universal deluge, this was the first prohibition made by God to man. I will require the blood of your lives, He said, at the hand of every beast and at the hand of man. In the next place, among the precepts of the Old Law expounded by our Lord, this Commandment was mentioned first by Him; concerning which it is written in the Gospel of St. Matthew: It has been said thou shalt not kill, etc.

The faithful, on their part, should hear with willing attention the explanation of this Commandment, since its purpose is to protect the life of each one. These words, Thou shalt not kill, emphatically forbid homicide; and they should be heard by all with the same pleasure as if God, expressly naming each individual, were to prohibit injury to be offered him under a threat of the divine anger and the heaviest chastisements. As, then, the announcement of this Commandment must be heard with pleasure, so also should the avoidance of the sin which it forbids give pleasure.

Two Parts Of This Commandment

In the explanation of this Commandment the Lord points out its twofold obligation. The one is prohibitory and forbids us to kill; the other is mandatory and commands us to cherish sentiments of charity, concord and friendship towards our enemies, to have peace with all men, and finally, to endure with patience every inconvenience.

The Prohibitory Part of this Commandment

Exceptions: The Killing Of Animals

With regard to the prohibitory part, it should first be taught what kinds of killing are not forbidden by this Commandment. It is not prohibited to kill animals; for if God permits man to eat them, it is also lawful to kill them. When, says St. Augustine, we hear the words, "Thou shalt not kill," we do not understand this of the fruits of the earth, which are insensible, nor of irrational animals, which form no part of human society.

Execution Of Criminals

Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment­ is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.

Killing In A Just War

In like manner, the soldier is guiltless who, actuated not by motives of ambition or cruelty, but by a pure desire of serving the interests of his country, takes away the life of an enemy in a just war.

Furthermore, there are on record instances of carnage executed by the special command of God. The sons of Levi, who put to death so many thousands in one day, were guilty of no sin; when the slaughter had ceased, they were addressed by Moses in these words: You have consecrated your hands this day to the Lord.

Killing By Accident

Again, death caused, not by intent or design, but by accident, is not murder. He that killeth his neighbour ignorantly, says the book of Deuteronomy, and who is proved to have had no hatred against him yesterday and the day before, but to have gone with him to the wood to hew wood, and in cutting down the tree the axe slipt out of his hand, and the iron slipping from the handle struck his friend and killed him, shall live. Such accidental deaths, because inflicted without intent or design, involve no guilt whatever, and this is confirmed by the words of St. Augustine: God forbid that what we do for a good and lawful end shall be imputed to us, if, contrary to our intention, evil thereby befall any one.

There are, however, two cases in which guilt attaches (to accidental death). The first case is when death results from an unlawful act; when, for instance, a person kicks or strikes a woman in a state of pregnancy, and abortion follows. The consequence, it is true, may not have been intended, but this does not exculpate the offender, because the act of striking a pregnant woman is in itself unlawful. The other case is when death is caused by negligence, carelessness or want of due precaution.

Killing In Self­Defence

If a man kill another in self­defence, having used every means consistent with his own safety to avoid the infliction of death, he evidently does not violate this Commandment.

Negative Part Of This Commandment Forbids Murder And Suicide

The above are the cases in which life may be taken without violating this Commandment; and with these exceptions all other killing is forbidden, whether we consider the person who kills, the person killed, or the means used to kill.

As to the person who kills, the Commandment recognises no exception whatever, be he rich or powerful, master or­parent. All, without exception or distinction, are forbidden to kill.

With regard to the person killed, the law extends to all. There is no individual, however humble or lowly his condition, whose life is not shielded by this law.

It also forbids suicide. No man possesses such power over his own life as to be at liberty to put himself to death. Hence we find that the Commandment does not say: Thou shalt not kill another, but simply: Thou shalt not kill.

Finally, if we consider the numerous means by which murder may be committed, the law admits of no exception. Not only does it forbid to take away the life of another by laying violent hands on him, by means of a sword, a stone, a stick, a halter, or by administering poison; but also strictly prohibits the accomplishment of the death of another by counsel, assistance, help or any other means whatever.

Sinful Anger Is Also Forbidden By The Fifth Commandment

The Jews, with singular dullness of apprehension, thought that to abstain from taking life with their own hands was enough to satisfy the obligation imposed by this Commandment. But the Christian, instructed in the interpretation of Christ, has learned that the precept is spiritual, and that it commands us not only to keep our hands unstained, but our hearts pure and undefiled; hence what the Jews regarded as quite sufficient, is not sufficient at all. For the Gospel has taught that it is unlawful even to be angry with anyone: But I say to you that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, "Raca," shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, "Thou fool," shall be in danger of hell fire. From these words it clearly follows that he who is angry with his brother is not free from sin, even though he conceals his resentment; that he who gives indication of his wrath sins grievously; and that he who does not hesitate to treat another with harshness, and to utter contumelious reproaches against him, sins still more grievously.

This, however, is to be understood of cases in which no just cause of anger exists. God and His laws permit us to be angry when we chastise the faults of those who are subject to us. For the anger of a Christian should spring from the Holy Spirit and not from carnal impulse, seeing that we should be temples of the Holy Ghost, in which Jesus Christ may dwell.

Our Lord has left us many other lessons of instruction with regard to the perfect observance of this law, such as Not to resist evil; but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other. And if a man will contend with thee in judgment, and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him; and whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him two.

Remedies Against The Violation Of This Commandment

From what has been said, it is easy to see how inclined man is to those sins which are prohibited by this Commandment, and how many are guilty of murder, if not in fact, at least in desire. As, then, the Sacred Scriptures prescribe remedies for so dangerous a disease, the pastor should spare no pains in making them known to the faithful.

Of these remedies the most efficacious is to form a just conception of the wickedness of murder. The enormity of this sin is manifest from many and weighty passages of Holy Scripture. So much does God abominate homicide that He declares in Holy Writ that of the very beast of the field He will exact vengeance for the life of man, commanding the beast that injures man to be put to death. And if (the Almighty) commanded man to have a horror of blood,' He did so for no other reason than to impress on his mind the obligation of entirely refraining, both in act and desire, from the enormity of homicide.

The murderer is the worst enemy of his species, and consequently of nature. To the utmost of his power he destroys the universal work of God by the destruction of man, since God declares that He created all things for man's sake. Nay, as it is forbidden in Genesis to take human life, because God created man to his own image and likeness, he who makes away with God's image offers great injury to God, and almost seems to lay violent hands on God Himself !

David, thinking of this with a mind divinely illumined, complained bitterly of the bloodthirsty in these words: Their feet are swift to shed blood. He does not simply say, they kill, but, they shed blood, words which serve to mark the enormity of that execrable crime and to denote the barbarous cruelty of the murderer. With a view also to describe in particular how the murderer is precipitated by the impulse of the devil into the commission of such a crime, he says: Their feet are swift.

Positive Part of this commandment

Love Of Neighbour Inculcated

The mandatory part of this Commandment, as Christ our Lord enjoins, requires that we have peace with all men. Interpreting the Commandment He says: If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee; leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother, and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift, etc.

Charity To All Commanded

In explaining this admonition, the pastor should show that it inculcates the duty of charity towards all without exception. In his instruction on the precept he should exhort the faithful as much as possible to the practice of this virtue, since it is especially included in this precept. For since hatred is clearly forbidden by this Commandment, as whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer, it follows, as an evident consequence, that the Commandment also inculcates charity and love.

Patience, Beneficence And Mildness Commanded

And since the Commandment inculcates charity and love, it must also enjoin all those duties and good offices which follow in their train. Charity is patient, says St. Paul. We are therefore commanded patience, in which, as the Redeemer teaches, we shall possess our souls. Charity is kind; beneficence is, therefore, the friend and companion of charity. The virtue of beneficence and kindness has a great range. Its principal offices are to relieve the wants of the poor, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked; and in all these acts of beneficence we should proportion our liberality to the wants and necessities of those we help.

These works of beneficence and goodness, in themselves exalted, become still more illustrious when done towards an enemy; for our Saviour says: Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, which also the Apostle enjoins in these words: If thine enemy be hungry, give him to eat: if he thirst, give hint to drink. For, doing this, thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.

Finally, if we consider the law of charity, which is kind, we shall be convinced that to practice the good offices of mildness, clemency, and other kindred virtues, is a duty prescribed by that law.

Forgiveness Of Injuries Commanded

But the most important duty of all, and that which is the fullest expression of charity, and to the practice of which we should most habituate ourselves, is to pardon and forgive from the heart the injuries which we may have received from others. The Sacred Scriptures, as we have already observed, frequently admonish and exhort us to a full compliance with this duty. Not only do they pronounce blessed those who do this, but they also declare that God grants pardon to those who really fulfil this duty, while He refuses pardon to those who neglect it, or refuse to obey it.

How to Persuade Men to Forgive Injuries

As the desire of revenge is almost natural to man, it becomes necessary for the pastor to exert his utmost diligence not only to instruct, but also earnestly to persuade the faithful, that a Christian should forgive and forget injuries; and as this is a duty frequently inculcated by sacred writers, he should consult them on the subject, in order to be able to subdue the pertinacity of those whose minds are obstinately bent on revenge, and he should have ready the forcible and appropriate arguments which those Fathers piously employed. The three following considerations, however, demand particular exposition.

All We Have To Endure Comes From God

First, he who thinks himself injured ought above all to be persuaded that the man on whom he desires to be revenged was not the principal cause of the loss or injury. Thus that admirable man, Job, when violently injured by the Sabeans, the Chaldeans, and by Satan, took no account of these, but as a righteous and very holy man exclaimed with no less truth than piety: The Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away. The words and the example of that man of patience should, therefore, convince Christians, and the conviction is most just, that whatever chastisements we endure in this life come from the hand of God, the Father and Author of all justice and mercy. He chastises us not as enemies, but, in His infinite goodness, corrects us as children. To view the matter in its true light, men, in these cases, are nothing more than the ministers and agents of God. One man, it is true, may cherish the worst feelings towards another, he may harbour the most malignant hatred against him; but, without the permission of God, he can do him no injury. This is why Joseph was able patiently to endure the wicked counsels of his brethren, and David, the injuries inflicted on him by Semei.

Here also applies an argument which St. Chrysostom has ably and learnedly handled. It is that no man is injured but by himself. Let the man, who considers himself injured by another, consider the matter in the right way and he will certainly find that he has received no injury or loss from others. For although he may have experienced injury from external causes, he is himself his greatest enemy by wickedly staining his soul with hatred, malevolence and envy.

Advantages Of Forgiveness

The second consideration is that there are two advantages, which are the special rewards of those, who, influenced by a holy desire to please God, freely forgive injuries. In the first place, God has promised that he who forgives, shall himself obtain forgiveness of sins, a promise which clearly shows how acceptable to God is this duty of piety. In the next place, the forgiveness of injuries ennobles and perfects our nature; for by it man is in some degree made like to God, Who maketh his sun to shine on the good and the bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.

Disadvantages Of Revenge

Finally, the disadvantages which arise from the refusal to pardon others are to be explained. The pastor, therefore, should place before the eyes of the unforgiving man that hatred is not only a grievous sin, but also that the longer it is indulged the more deeply rooted it becomes. The man, of whose heart this passion has once taken possession, thirsts for the blood of his enemy. Filled with the hope of revenge, he will spend his days and nights brooding over some evil design, so that his mind seems never to rest from malignant projects, or even from thoughts of blood. Thus it follows that never, or at least not without extreme difficulty, can he be induced generously to pardon an offence, or even to mitigate his hostility. Justly, therefore, is hatred compared to a wound in which the weapon remains firmly embedded.

Moreover, there are many evil consequences and sins which are linked together with this one sin of hatred. Hence these words of St. John: He that hateth his brother, is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth; because the darkness hath blinded his eyes. He must, therefore, frequently fall; for how can anyone view in a favourable light the words or actions of him whom he hates? Hence arise rash and unjust judgments, anger, envy, detractions, and other evils of the same sort, in which are often involved those who are connected by ties of friendship or blood; and thus does it frequently happen that this one sin is the prolific source of many.

Not without good reason is hatred called the sin of the devil. The devil was a murderer from the beginning; and hence our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when the Pharisees sought His life, said that they were begotten of their father the devil.

Remedies Against Hatred

Besides the reasons already adduced, which afford good grounds for detesting this sin, other and most suitable remedies are prescribed in the pages of Holy Writ.

Of these remedies the first and greatest is the example of the Redeemer, which we should set before our eyes as a model for imitation. For He, in whom even suspicion of fault could not be found, when scourged with rods, crowned with thorns, and finally nailed to a cross, uttered that most charitable prayer: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. And as the Apostle testifies: The sprinkling of his blood speaketh better than Abel.

Another remedy, prescribed by Ecclesiasticus, is to call to mind death and judgment: Remember thy last end, and. thou shalt never sin." As if he had said: Reflect frequently and again and again that you must soon die, and since at death there will be nothing you desire or need more than great mercy from God, that now you should keep that mercy always before your mind. Thus the cruel desire for revenge will be extinguished; for you can discover no means better adapted, none more efficacious to obtain the mercy of God than the forgiveness of injuries and love towards those who in word or deed may have injured you or yours.