Jesus on Murder (by T)

This post is by T, a contributor to the comments and a sometimes blogger at this site — and he opens the whole issue of guns from a different angle.

Jesus on Murder

Steven Zeitchik : [Django Unchained] has a fair amount of gun violence and can be a bit flippant about it. Does that give you pause in the wake of what happened in Connecticut?

Samuel L. Jackson: I don’t think movies or video games have anything to do with it. I don’t think [stopping gun violence] is about more gun control. I grew up in the South with guns everywhere, and we never shot anyone. This [shooting] is about people who aren’t taught the value of life.” [emphasis added]

Much has been said and needs to be said about the recent killings of kindergarteners and their teachers in Connecticut. For all the discussion and thinking that has been done so far (and much of it good), I don’t think that enough voice or hearing has been given to what Jesus taught about murder.  Obviously, Jesus didn’t talk about gun control laws or the 2nd Amendment or even the American culture that celebrates guns and violence, though I don’t think he celebrates what we celebrate or trusts what we trust in that regard.  For my part, I tend to agree that American Christians need to reform our own attitudes about guns and gun regulation, and I even agree that more aggressive regulation may help curb intentional and accidental gun violence in the very long term.  But I’m not committing myself to seeing any of those things happening in the wake of this tragedy.  The question that came into my mind when I first heard about what happened is the same question that has lingered, and it wasn’t about how someone obtained the guns involved.  Rather the question that hit me right away and has stayed was simple and horrifying, namely:

“How does someone not see the simple holiness of a kindergartener?  How does a person get to the place where they can shoot not one, but several 6 and 7 year olds?”

This is the question that stays with me in the wake of the shooting.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s the question, of the many that a tragedy like this spurs, that Jesus actually did answer with some specificity.

“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.”  Matthew 5:21-22

Ironically, it was the selection above from an interview with Samuel Jackson that hit a nerve with me and sent me back to Jesus asking my question again.  Of course, what Jackson’s quote only hints at, Jesus explicitly names: murder doesn’t begin with murder.  It begins with ideas, with words.  It begins with insults, with sarcasm, with snark, with shaming and ridicule, with a verbal devaluing of the person.  I’m not disagreeing with Jackson (or Jesus) by saying that I think that the murderer of these children was taught to value life; he was just taught to value it very, very wrongly.  And I’m not blaming this kid’s parents or classmates or whatever.  We all suffer pain and all decide what to do with it, for good or ill.  I’m actually just trying to let Jesus answer my question, which is as much or more about the future as the past.  Because what we have in common as we look at something like this is “How do we prevent this from happening again, to whatever degree we can?”  That’s what the gun discussion is about.  I also happen to think it’s what Jesus’ teaching on murder is about.  For those of us who call him “Lord” that should give us great pause to listen, and some encouragement to have the help.

I can’t help but notice that the people who do these inexplicable mass murders often kill themselves.  Whatever else that says, to me it confirms that they truly did come to grossly devalue not only their victims’ lives, but also their own.  When I think about how someone sinks to the level of actual murder, I have to think that the kind of talking that Jesus warns so strongly against was a central and necessary part of tearing down a person who could do such things.  Again, I’m not trying to absolve or blame here—indeed, I think we have ultimate responsibility, not so much for the messages we hear, but for which ones we accept and nurture and build ourselves upon, and clearly any murderer repeats and builds upon some hateful things.  Just as we can “cling to” the gospel and bear its fruit, we can do that with other teachings as well.

But I want to hear again Jesus’ teaching on murder: ““You have heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who does will be brought to trial.’ But now I tell you: if you are angry with your brother you will be brought to trial, if you call your brother ‘You good-for-nothing!’ you will be brought before the Council, and if you call your brother a worthless fool you will be in danger of going to the fire of hell.”  I hear Jesus saying this: “Don’t try to only prevent or stop murder.  That’s like trying to stop a freight train that’s moving at full speed with a heavy load.  Stop it at the station.  Stop your biting, mean words.  Stop devaluing each other.  That’s what fuels the fire of killing.  Murder is born not with the hand, but with the tongue.  You breed murder with your rude and vicious words to each other.”

Let me be clear and say that I’m glad not very many will escalate the devaluing and meanness that is so common into physical murder.  Most of us will just give tit for tat.  We’ll just Insult for insult.  Most of us will merely reap divorces, estrangement from family and friends, and a background noise of woundedness and shame.  But in so doing we will continue to maintain a garden in which violence and murder will continue to bloom.

As Christ’s church we are called to believe this seeming stretch of a connection between insult (which we routinely accept and sometimes proudly practice) and murder (which we roundly condemn and mourn).  Further, we are called to model and live a different Way.  We are called to bless even those who curse us.  We are called to cultivate a fruit different from murder.  Rather, we are to cultivate reconciliation, forgiveness, patience, gentleness and love.  As we look at this most recent tragedy and rightly ask what we can do to move in the opposite direction, we need to hear and heed the warning of Jesus:  murder begins with anger getting control of the tongue.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.wyattroberts.com Wyatt Roberts

    Very timely and beautifully put.

  • http://emm.org Nelson Okanya

    Thanks Scott for this tweet. It reminded of N. T Wright’s commentary in Matthew for Everyone where he goes after the attitude and points to the fact that Jesus wanted to deal with the root rather focus on the letter of the law. I retweeted this tweet and shared it with my Facebook friends. Taking such an approach I believe makes the church be a city on s hill shading light for all to see.

  • Jim

    Terrific! I have been thinking a bit about how we frame the gun debate. Is it really about gun control or is it about violence control? The question I put to myself is, “What do I do about the hair trigger in my own heart?”

    Thanks for this!

  • Tracy

    I’m sorry, but an entire essay about what brought about the killing of children in Newtown, and not one word about mental illness? I sometimes think that part of our problem in this discussion is that Christians, and Americans in general, have such an impoverished understanding of the human condition, and human behavior which arises from it. We’re reduced to the individual sin-virtue construct. It is right or it is wrong, it is moral or it isn’t, it is an individual’s sin or it isn’t– perhaps none of that fully describes a tragedy like this. Perhaps this wasn’t about one individual choosing, in his right mind, to do something that the rest of us know in our bones is so wrong. Maybe this was about an individual who was simply not wired to see what we see, or feel what we feel.

    We do not betray our faith if we open ourselves up to an understanding of the world that is a little more complex than personal sin and individual responsibility.

    I fear too many Christians will read this as “excuse making” or as some capitulation to some secular liberal understanding of human nature. Until it happens to them. Until they have four children, and one of them suffers from a devastating mental health issue that may allow them to hurt themselves or someone else. Then suddenly all the moralizing in the world won’t help them understand or care for their child, or for the potential victims of violence perpetrated by that child.

    Human beings do not yet have enough wisdom to address all aspects of mental illness, just like we can’t cure all cancers. So for that reason, we do need to have a conversation about guns. Just as we need to have conversations about hospice — about how to care for cancer patients who we do not have the power to make well. We have to manage some mental illnesses we can’t cure, just like we have to manage other diseases we can’t cure. Patients need to be kept as pain-free as possible, and their symptoms managed as best we can. The same task belongs to a society in which people suffer from mental illness.

  • Tom

    Tracy. That was so well stated. I did like the original article but you added so much more to the ideas presented. This is a much more complex problem than what is being presented.

  • T

    Tracy,

    I have no doubts that mental illness plays a part in many if not all tragedies such as these, to one degree or another. As I mentioned much has been said and needs to be about this kind of tragedy, which I welcome, including mental illness, gun control, and the treatment of each, individually and together. Many more fruitful discussions can and should be had.

    My point with this post was not mention (let alone elaborate on) all those other areas of discussion, but to hear Jesus’ teaching on murder, which I think has loads of applicability to us, especially if our goal is to reduce the amount and severity of violence in our world, both for mentally well and ill alike. I think we would all benefit greatly from less verbal abuse and dehumanization, perhaps especially the mentally fragile or those for whom violence is more natural. As I said, most will respond to verbal dehumanization in much more “eye for eye” fashion, and mental illness may often be the difference b/n degrees of escalation. But for the vast, vast bulk of us (including the vast bulk of the mentally ill), what is said to us and what we then harbor and dwell upon and practice will matter greatly for what we become prepared to do. In a nutshell, for the vast, vast bulk of us, even the bulk of those who suffer from various kinds and degree of mental illness, Jesus’ teachings are good, genuinely helpful and deserve a wider and deeper hearing.

    But yes and amen to greater nuance in our diagnosis and treatment of mental illness! I don’t see that, at all, at odds with Jesus’ prescription here.

  • Marshall

    Very right on.

    Some mental illness is organic and congenital, I don’t doubt. AND I think a society that overall has anger management problems makes it easier to overlook the holiness of 6-yo’s: likewise the holiness of mentally ill people. As a society, we need to have our heart of stone replaced with a heart of flesh.

  • John I.

    Re “I’m sorry, but an entire essay about what brought about the killing of children in Newtown, and not one word about mental illness?”

    Not that the author, T, stated that “Much has been said and needs to be said about the recent killings of kindergarteners and their teachers in Connecticut. For all the discussion and thinking that has been done so far (and much of it good), I don’t think that enough voice or hearing has been given to what Jesus taught about murder.”

    So, he starts of by acknowledging that there are may relevant things that have been discussed and need to be discussed–which would, obviously, include such topics as security, regulation and, yes, mental illness. T then goes on to state that he will be discussing only one of all these potential topics–violence that starts with ourselves and our words–and he does not exclude mental illness. Furthermore, and this is beyond T’s post, many people have mental illness but not all of them mass kill children. It is worth wondering about how social values toward words and violence affect and influence the mentally ill. But this is not T’s point, T is dealing with people at large, in general, that is people who are not mentally ill. And he is asking what we should do, how we should approach violence, etc. and how this relates to what we know of Jesus.

    Posts should be read charitably, especially if one want’s to make a point that is different from the lede post. Tracy’s post regarding mental illness is a valuable point regarding mental illness and violence, but the reaction to T is unwarranted and she does not connect her post to the themes and issue that T raised.

    J.

  • Tracy

    Understood, T and John. There isn’t room to discuss everything here. But my issue is that leaving out mental illness at any point in the discussion is the reason we have people like Samuel Jackson saying, “the problem is that we have people who haven’t been taught about the value of human life.”

    I suspect we’ll learn that Adam Lanza was taught many things, but most likely was taught that human lifeis very valuable indeed, and that 6 year old children are most especially of value. We will not learn that his church, his school, even his family failed to teach him this.

    My problem is that to fail to mention mental illness and talk only about moraility, is to lead everybody in the wrong direction. This is why our prisons are full of the mentally ill — all we know to do as a society is punish. Because all we know how to do is moralize.

  • E

    Tracy & Others,

    I was a kid diagnosed with mental illnesses (plural), who has a history of mental illness in my family, including an illness that led to my sister’s suicide. I was the angry, violent, depressed, confused, bitter guy who was on the edge of exploding in a fit of rage on whoever decided to force their will upon me. I was a cutter and lived on the brink of terminating my own life for four years. All of this was enhanced by drug and alcohol abuse, as well as a steady dose of violent music, films and games. (Say what you will about external influences, but as my mother use to say: “Garbage in, garbage out.”) My parents raised my sisters and me in the best home environment they could. They were hardworking, loving and responsible adults. We had a ton of friends and regularly attended church and church-related events. While I was not a follower of Jesus, I understood the value of human life and the need for a God bigger than me. Those things may have restrained some of my “insanity”, but I lean heavily on the fact that I’m a truly transformed man today, because my mother never ceased praying for me. That’s the only reasonable explanation. I was not in any place to make a “rational” decision to follow Jesus or to give up my lifestyle – I was so consumed with self-hatred and anger that I couldn’t think straight. I just thought about dying…daily – and not in the Biblical sense. And no amount of medication or psychiatry changed that.

    All that to say, whether we talk about the “normal” sinful state or about specific mental illnesses the answer remains the same: Jesus. He is the solution and we are His ambassadors. He is the only One who can bring transformation in our lives. And we are responsible for loving and praying for those around us, which brings Jesus into their lives. I’m living proof of that. Not only did God restore my mental health, but I have a successful marriage, family life and career. There are tremors of my past life and mental condition that still remind me of the person I once was, but there’s so much grace and freedom that I experience daily from the Holy Spirit and from those around me that I can’t imagine being the person I once was. It’s like a horrible nightmare that I woke up from. The memories are still there, but the reality is that it no longer has power over me. And the person who brought that freedom: Again, Jesus. There’s alot more to this story and alot more to the life I’ve been living with Him for the past 13+ years. But, I hope this adds to the discussion positively in some small way and that someone finds encouragement from this story of God’s grace.

    Thanks for listening.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    T, Fresh. Thanks.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Yes, and we shouldn’t excuse any evil thoughts toward another. I will say I’ve seen this at work among those who profess nonresistance. Blunts that witness for sure. I likely would have remained in that part of the church after I came to Christ, except for that.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    T, thank you very much for this timely and thoughtful essay. We have come to minimize the injuries which violent words inflict on one another. We take Jesus’, James’ and Proverbs admonitions about our words too lightly.

    Tracy, while I hear what you’re saying, ISTM that you changed the subject or at least put it on a tangent from what T was expressing. May I also point out, as someone who has ministered to a number of people in various stages and types of mental illness, that our listening ears, kind words and the peace of the Holy Spirit have tremendous effect on the mentally ill, too?

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    E, #10, may the Holy Spirit continue to strengthen and give abundant grace to you. Thank you for sharing your hurt, your ongoing healing and your heart with us. You’ve blessed me!

  • scotmcknight

    E, I am so grateful you told your story and our prayers are with you brother.

  • Tracy

    E, I am very, very happy for you, and can give the credit to Jesus as well. I understand that it seems “no amount of medicine or psychiatry worked for you” I just can’t claim that is the case for everyone. But I understand you are telling your own story, and I honeor that.

    Thinking more about this whole discussion–Last night I was listening to a radio program about “good news” in the world, and among those things named, was the decline in violent crime — specifically, the fact that the murder rate in New York City has declined from roughly 2000/year in the 1960′s, to roughly 400 now. That isn’t zero, which we all hope for, but an indication that other things are at work. Is it more Jesus? Yes, of course. Is it less mental illness — well, I don’t know if outreach and services are better than they were in that period, maybe, maybe not. I suspect if we were sociologists we’d look at many factors –the economic picture in New York City, for one thing, also, we’d look at gun policies –(new york’s are famously restrictive now, but I’m not sure whether that has led to a decline in availability or not) we’d even look at what was happening, sociologically, within gangs. They have cycles — sometimes much of the leadership is in jail, and the violence becomes less organized. We’d also look at community level anti-violence programs, which address many things. We’d look at many factors. I don’t think we’d simply answer, “the human heart has changed” without looking at why that might be the case.

    Why do I mention these things? Because while of course I think God is the answer, I think God would like us to be compassionate and wise, and that wisdom ought to provide the impetus to look behind a slogan like “they just don’t value human life” (Samuel Jackson’s line) so that we can address actual causes of violence. Some part of it is, surely, the human heart, plain and simple. But someone above said exactly what I fear I hear from too many, that somehow discussion about mental health will “let people off the hook.” I think our tendency to dismiss mental illness as perhaps the most decisive factor in a killing spree like that in Newtown, is, well, wrong. Mental illness is not the cause of every murder, but it is a fact that affects something like 25% of families (not murder, but mental illness of some sort or another) and I’ve felt for some time now that while Christians, and the American public in general, sorta knows this, it sorta doesn’t.

    One of the things I think is terribly sad about the Newtown story, is that you read variously there were 26 victims, there were 27 victims, there were 28 — depending on people’s willingness to see Adam Lanza’s mother and he himself as victims. Perhaps it is too soon, and we don’t know enough about these two people yet, but in other cases like this, where schizophrenia has been clearly diagnosed, how do we fail to see the perpetrator as a victim as well? A vctim of a terrible, terrible disease. As E points out, enviornmental factors sometimes interact with a person’s mental condition. But I think of an older woman who was part of a church I once belonged to — I don’t know her full story, only that she was schizophrenic and could be violent. Even in church. I’m pretty sure video games were not a part of her life — she was elderly, and homeless. When a nurse in the church arranged things so she could come daily to the hospital to pick up her medicine — instead of trying to remember to take the right amount herself, and not lose it on the street — it made all the difference, and she quit hitting people in church, and on the street, for no apparent reason.

    It is that sort of wisdom and compassion we need to have more of, in my opinion. Thanks for listening again.

  • Tyler

    While I agree completely, I think the bigger thing is the deeper thing. Actions and words (decisions) come from thoughts, which come from Ideas, which come from beliefs. Now, while I would love to see everyone evangelized and come to Jesus, we all know that is not going to happen. But Paul gives us and Jesus has given us a mandate to pursue peace, which can mean doing things that create an almost Christian atmosphere, but not for the Christian atmosphere, but for peace. For example, a nation where it is normative and cultural to be kind to strangers. We can all agree that this would be something seen in God’s kingdom.

    Point being, when we change peoples beliefs about value of life, value of other human beings, value of strangers, human dignity, and the wretchedness of “Us Vs. Them” mentalities. We will see fragments and pieces of kingdom ethics and values when we take peacemaking seriously. I don’t think peace making is simply to approach certain groups that have been set at odds against Christians (ex: homosexual community). That is an important first step, but I believe it also entails spilling ourselves out into culture so that foundational ideas and beliefs begin to shift.

    We have to recognize basic human workings, that experiences and information generate ideas (which get assimilated, accommodated for, or thrown out), then formed into beliefs, then thought on more, developed, and then decisions about how to live those out, (actions and words). A lot of times the words come before the actions. But the violence is all about the foundation of how they think of other people.

    And we all have to remember, no monster is created in good circumstances, something twisted happened to them or was taught to them by life, experiences, other people, over time. Mental illness issues would be the only exception to the rule.


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