“You shall not kill.”
“God alone is Lord over life and death. Except in the case of legitimate self-defense of oneself or another, no one may kill another human being.” -YouCat 378
The fifth commandment seems at first glance to be one of the easiest to understand and to follow: don’t kill others. But as is the case with all the thou shalt not commandments, we can find both a negative and a positive meaning. Certainly, you shall not kill means the obvious – not killing – but it also has a positive meaning: we need to stand up for life, particularly those that are the most vulnerable. You could say that you shall not kill also means you shall protect all human life.
There are several different areas in which YouCat explains our need to avoid harming others and to stand up for their lives. Obviously, to obey this commandment means we aren’t to murder another person, nor to act as an accomplice to murder. But the spectrum of those we are to “not kill” starts with those who we would readily identify as “neighbor” (friends, family, strangers, even those we don’t love), unarmed civilians during war, as well as those lives whose dignity is often questioned. These include the unborn (killed by abortion), and the sick, the weak, or the elderly (killed by euthanasia.) In short, we are challenged by this commandment defend human life from the moment of conception until natural death.
“God-given human life is God’s own property; it is sacred from the first moment of its existence and not under the control of any human being. ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you.’ (Jeremiah 1:5)”. -YouCat 383
When I am in high school religion classes discussing this commandment, two issues which are often brought up are capital punishment – the death penalty – and the concept of ‘just war.’ When we speak of capital punishment, the Church recognizes that there are moments where the safety of society can only be guaranteed by the execution of a dangerous criminal- moments where standard incarceration would be inadequate. In reality, these situations are very few and far between. More often, it seems that the death penalty is sought as revenge for a heinous crime, having little to nothing to do with the desire to protect the rest of society. We are called to leave these judgments, whenever possible, in the hands of God. For the second issue, that of “just war,” there are six criteria by which we judge whether entering into a military conflict can be justified:
“The use of military force is possible only in an extreme emergency. There are several criteria for a ‘just war’: (1) Authorization by the competent authority; (2) a just cause; (3) a just purpose; (4) war must be the last resort; (5) the methods used must be proportionate; and (6) there must be a prospect of success.” -YouCat 399
In other words, war can be justifiable, but it is never preferable. If we are sending so many brave, honorable men and women to war, it is crucial that we do so for the right reasons.
Protecting life under all its forms – from conception to natural death – also has other, difficult implications. There are very few things we consider more despicable and contrary to the law of love than the crimes (sins) of abuse and rape. These don’t take the life of another, but tragically do great harm to the other. The statistics I hear about the number of people who will experience some form of emotional, spiritual, physical, or sexual abuse are staggering – 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys (click here to read more on that), and each one is a tragedy. Jesus is harder on those who perpetrate these forms of abuse (and directly or indirectly lead the young away from God) than anyone else, suggesting that they should have a millstone tied around their neck and they be tossed in the sea (Matthew 18:6). YouCat explains:
“Every seduction and incitement to evil, every use of force is a serious sin, especially when it occurs in a relationship of dependency.” -YouCat 386
The fifth commandment also carries with it one further demand: the need to respect one’s own life. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), the implication is that we do, in fact, love ourselves. Clearly, we’re not advocating for a vain sense of self-love, but for a genuine respect for the gift of one’s body and life. And so this commandment prohibits self-destructive behavior, self-mutiliation, and suicide. Other sins against this commandment might include overindulgence in food, drink, sexual promiscuity (that will be discussed further under the next commandment), and even the use of illegal/mind-altering drugs:
“Using drugs is a sin because it is an act of self-destruction and thus an offense against the life that God has given us out of love.” -YouCat 389
Simply put: this commandment is all about seeing the value in each and every human life, at each state of development, and even in the state of sin. It means trying to see each life from God’s perspective, and recognizing that we have received these lives from God as a precious gift – and so, we need to treat each life as such. Karol Wojtyla (Blessed Pope John Paul II) explained that “the person is the kind of good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love” (Love and Responsibility), but it is perhaps the words of Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) which are more fitting here: “A person is a person no matter how small.”