Thou shall not kill? A Socio-biblical Perspective on the Legitimation of Killing

by Nestor Ravilas

We live in a confusing time. People are getting killed. It is rising to about six thousand from the time killing season was officially inaugurated. And there is no sign of letting-up as the deadline given by the president is now approaching. There are about 30 dead people every night. And none of them was able to prove her innocence or guilt in the law of court. And in all these, we have in the congress the effort to revive the death penalty. That is where the farce comes in. What the hell is the purpose of the resuscitation of the death penalty when you can kill suspects in an instant, and hence circumventing the rigor of court battle and of subsequent imprisonment once the suspect is found guilty? The revival does not make any sense other than the two, the revival of death penalty and the spate of killings, are all about spilling of blood in which, seemingly, this government finds fetish with.

In this age of killing, the biblical injunction, “thou shall not kill,” has become the focus of demolition job. It appears that the mandate stands as the only snag against the forces that are trying to create killing a social norm. Humanity’s propensity in shedding of blood actually has never abated since the beginning of civilizations. It is becoming alarming, however, when sinister social forces are presenting killing as a norm; the way society has to take in order to achieve order, peace, and prosperity. Once this project is consummated, we are a little anxious if returning to the former state is still possible since norms are not that easily reverse. As Judith Butler asserts, we are forged and formed by social norms. A generation who lived in an atmosphere of violence and aggression are expected to conduct themselves in their violent formation. To reverse the norm this current government is creating is something that is difficult to do, if not completely impossible. What we can expect then is the ghastly transmission of this violence to posterity.
I am appalled that those who call themselves theologians are the ones leading the move to dismiss the injunction not to kill. Their favorite ploy is to confuse the mandate with the modern distinction between murder and killing. Murder was prohibited but not killing, they say. But such distinction is characteristic of modern penal justice, where the arbiter, the monarchy or the state, stands as offended party seeks the truth as to whether the killing was planned or unplanned. If Michel Foucault is to be believed, such modern way of adjudicating disputes only started in 12th or 13th century A.D. in Europe. Prior to that, killing is killing, and the guilty party has to enter “trial by combat” or “compensation” to buy out his own life. There is no third party to demand for the life of the killer as repayment for the life taken. The elders of the city were there just to make sure that the rules of the “trial by contest” or the “practice of compensation” will be observed properly. In extreme conditions, the severe punishment the elders could execute is banishment or exile from the city, but never death to the offender. That is probably the reason why rabbinic tradition argues later that lex taliones must be understood as more on figurative than literal. Life exacting for life, they said, did not occur in the early days of Israel. It was rather more on compensating the damage done by the offender.
Thus, it is anachronistic to confuse the injunction, “Thou shall not kill,” with the modern distinction of premeditated and unpremeditated killing. The only killing the early Israelites have qualified is the accidental killing such as in the case of one’s axe-head dislodges from its handle and accidentally killed someone. That one is not covered by the injunction since it was accidental, and thus the accidental killer would be allowed entry to the city of refuge as recognition of his non-killer status. Other than that, all killing is prohibited.
Another error of these theologians is when they see the injunction again from the point of view of the modern judicial system. Foucault particularly stresses the rise of the idea of “infraction” in the modern version of judicial system. Infraction is the technical term for the offense made by someone against the law. The dispute is no longer between human-human, but human-law. It was the law that was infringed when you killed someone, although it was someone you have actually killed. The law has taken over the interhuman effects of violence; and, as a result, it creates and decides what unlawful and lawful killings are. But we have to recall that Cain was punished for killing his brother thousands of years before killing was criminalized. Emmanuel Levinas, from reading the Hebrew Bible, might be right in saying that the injunction, “Thou shall not kill,” is a primordial command emanated not from the presence of the law, but from the presence of the “other”. Thus, even without any law prohibiting killing, the presence of the “face” of Abel is a command that says, Thou shall not kill! The dignity of human life then is not dependent to any presence and provision of laws, but in the face of the “other” that prohibits you from terminating.
I really wonder why these suppose theologians argue on the errors I mentioned just to cast support to this administration’s propensity on shedding of blood. I intentionally put at the end of this short essay the most radical phenomenologist of all, Jesus the Galilean. The problem of fixation of knowledge is not first the problem of Parminedes, of Kant, of Nietzsche, or of Husserl. It is first and foremost the problem of Jesus. Jesus problemetizes the proclivity of people to escape the demand of the injunction not to kill so as to promote killing instead. In his deconstruction of the law, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Martha Nussbaum was scandalized by Jesus’ radicalism. Jesus has widened the moral accountability from the domain of action to include intention, Nussbaum says. None must be penalized by mere evil thoughts. It was the actions that bring damage, never the thoughts. Jesus, however, puts the action and thought in the same level, and guilty of the same crime of killing. Here the distinction of murder and killing dissipates, for even the thought that is impossible to be criminalized in all philosophical and political laws, was declared by Jesus as guilty of actual killing.
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