How Jesus’ Murder-Is-Wrong Ethic Is Deeper than Atheists' Ethic
For the past few months, my pastor has been preaching the Ten Commandments. Though the first four gave me pause, causing me to consider my singular worship of God, and the fifth one about parent honoring resurfaced vivid childhood memories, I sighed in relief at the sixth: "You shall not murder." I could safely say I'd never murdered anyone.
Not so fast! Because as John Dickson explains in his new book A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments, “For Jesus, the command about murder is a shadow of a deeper reality in which God calls on us to revere people so much that we will refuse even to denigrate another…” (125)
Jesus’ murder-is-wrong ethic is a strong one. Even stronger than atheistic, secular notions. Because as Dickson reveals, his logic goes deeper.
The Atheist Ethic of “Murder is Wrong”
First, Dickson insists Christians aren't better than atheists, happily acknowledging “that secular humanitarians frequently put believers to shame with their commitment to justice and compassion.” (129) Yet the logic of such justice and compassion is problematic. Where does their logic lie? Social order and utility.
He explains that for atheists, “the grounds for such an absolute moral statement [murder is wrong] would probably include reference to the kind of society we want to live in. To countenance murder is to countenance a society without order, and so everyone suffers.” (122)
Though some may root a murder-is-wrong ethic in so-called “inalienable rights,” Dickson notes atheist philosopher Raimond Gaita says such language is “problematic and contentious” without a religious framework. “These are ways of trying to say what we feel a need to say,” Gaita notes, “when we are estranged from the conceptual resources we need to say it.” (122) Meaning: "these are Judeo-Christian ways of talking about human obligations...[that] are inappropriate for a mature secular society." (122)
And here's the problem: “how to endorse the basic ethical norms granted to the West by centuries of biblical influence without holding any biblical beliefs about the world and humanity?” (122–123)
The Biblical Ethic of “Murder is Wrong”
Unlike atheism, whose murder-is-wrong ethic is rooted in social order and results-oriented utility, biblical social ethic is “more driven by a recognition of the high value of human beings. Every man and woman, regardless of capacity or utility, is intended by God to bear his image in the world.” (123)
Though all reasonable people hold to a murder-is-wrong ethic, Dickson argues that “the Judeo-Christian worldview provides a powerful additional rationale…” (123) He goes on:
For those who see humanity as intended by God to bear his image, expressions such as “sanctity of life” and “inalienable rights” are not outmoded expressions. They are reflections of reality. The high value placed on humanity in biblical logic means that the command “Do not murder” could never be read as permission to mistreat one’s neighbour all the way up to, but not including, the premeditated taking of their life! (124)
Jesus built upon and deepened this logic in offering his own murder-is-wrong ethic.
Jesus’ Deeper Ethic: The Law of Love
It should be no surprise that Jesus’ ethic takes our sixth command in a direction that neither atheists have nor even Moses himself did. After all, he did it with idolatry, intensifying it to include greed. Read Matthew 5:21–24 and you’ll see he did it again with murder, giving it “the most extraordinary extrapolation of its intention.” (124)
Dickson argues Jesus’ “dazzling move” from banning murder to pitying the poor is premised on a simple logic and rationale that sits at the heart of all social ethics in the Bible:
Human beings are loved and valued by the Creator. Not only are they made in God’s image, they are creatures for whom Jesus Christ died. If that is true, a straight conceptual line can be drawn from murder to uncharitableness. Both are acts of demeaning what is inestimably precious. (127)
He quotes John Calvin to reiterate this love-ethic: “If we do not wish to violate the image of God, we ought to hold our neighbor sacred. And if we do not wish to renounce all humanity, we ought to cherish his as our own flesh.”
Such a logic is what gave rise to “the colossal tradition of charity that has characterized the West from the first century to today.” (127) From orphan care to food pantries and hostels to even the modern human rights movement, the sixth command, deepened by Jesus to include neighbor-love broadly, is their foundation.
“As a historical not theological claim,” Dickson argues, “both secular humanitarians and contemporary believers have inherited their way of thinking about the Good Life in large part from the specifically Judeo-Christian tradition of, as Calvin put it, ‘reverencing God’s image imprinted in man.’” Including our thoughts preserving and promoting human life.
Engage Dickson’s book on the Ten Commandments yourself to better understand and live the six commandment.
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