[This was originally published at Ethika Politika on 17 January 2019. At the moment, the link at EP isn’t live, and I wanted to provide a live link for another piece I’m writing. It is being reprinted with permission.]
Students years ago heard me complain how imprecise it was to translate the Fifth Commandment as “Thou shalt not kill.” As a moral theologian, I would note that “kill” is too generic, lacking specification by a moral object. It should be “Thou shalt not murder.” And, technically, that is true.
And yet. And yet. Human killing is something we should always be in the practice of withdrawing from—in our minds, hearts, viscera, as well as in our social practice. That withdrawal belongs at the heart of the New Law of grace. Yes: grace does not destroy nature, but rather perfects it. Yes. But it is a perversity to use that fact to insist grimly on a right to kill given nature’s imperative of self-preservation and the requirements of justice (in cases of self-defense, capital punishment, just war), as if nature were not always already, bottom to top, meant to unfold according to the measure of the Slaughtered Lamb. That is, nature is for the Kingdom of grace ruled by a King crucified before the foundation of the world so that no sin might outstrip the divine will for universal reconciliation.
It is wrong to carve out an interior space, that tends to grow, in which I am at pains to assert my rights against a world of threats. To harden nature against the reconciling energies of grace: one could call that secularization. It is not Christian liberty.
Grace perfects nature by setting it within a context so vast, it will look to unevangelized eyes as if everything is upside down and backwards, even unto the Cross: loving and forgiving your enemy, though he be killing you.
The Question of Gun Control
Let me address the question of gun control in light of the Christian desire to withdraw from killing. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court reinterpreted the Second Amendment to be about “the core lawful purpose of self-defense.” I say “reinterpreted” because, given the civic conversation at the time the Bill of Rights was under consideration, it should be recognized that the Second Amendment is about the right to revolt, which had barely fifteen years before been activated by town militias, of ordinary citizens, at Lexington and Concord.
Both Anti-Federalists and Federalists believed in the right to revolt, but it was the Anti-Federalists who were worried about the threat to liberty posed by the authority the Constitution vested in Congress to create a standing army and to regulate state militias. The awkward phrasing of the Second Amendment is an attempt to fudge the common belief in a right to revolt in a way that would try to ease specific Anti-Federalist concerns: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The Heller majority established the individual right to bear arms: against the fairly recent legal innovation claiming that the Second Amendment had only established a collective right to bear arms. That latter view is indeed incorrect. But the truth lies in between the two poles: originally, the Second Amendment acknowledges an individual right to bear arms for the sake of a social end: the capacity for states to resist should the federal government become tyrannical.
Fixating on the misinterpretation of the Second Amendment as a mere collective right to bear arms, the Heller majority misinterpreted in the other direction. What the great legal interpreter William Blackstone (whose bridging of the common law and the natural law was so decisive for the Founders) called “the natural right of resistance and self-preservation” at stake in the right to have arms was, largely, truncated to the question of self-preservation.
That said—and here we return to the main impetus of this essay—I think it a happy mistake that the majority under Heller truncated the meaning. In theory, I believe in the right to revolt. But under no circumstances do I ever envision shooting an American soldier—not least because my father was one. And as National Review’s David French has argued cogently and forcefully (to the point, unwittingly, of showing the absurdity of the position), taking the right to revolt seriously means, in principle, allowing people access to weapons powerful enough to fight a government that would wield the might of the American military against the people.
The Christian Tendency
Many Christians share my perplexity: recognizing certain natural-law rights as real, while recoiling from vindicating those rights through killing. Support of the right to revolt in principle combined with a profound reticence to countenance any activation of it in practice illustrates my point about the general Christian tendency to withdraw from killing.
Pacifism is not the teaching of the Church, and I am not a pacifist. If we care about the victims of history, we must stand ready to apply force against predators. But every Christian should feel within him or herself a tectonic pull towards pacifism. Likewise, I recognize that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, but I have also come, in Catholic docility, more and more into harmony with the tendency (since Pope Saint John Paul II’s analytical siting of capital punishment within the culture of death in Evangelium vitae) to leave the option behind.
The last case of justified killing, self-defense, is the easiest because it does not involve social responsibilities: just the individual before the possibility of a radical demand to love one’s enemy to the end. Surely every Christian recognizes from the Sermon on the Mount the extreme possibility of having to sacrifice oneself in favor of an aggressor. The Cross we take up is that of the One Who did not resist.
There is only instance in which the possibility of killing must remain on the table: when those directly in my care are threatened. It is one thing for me to turn the other cheek, quite another for me to turn a vulnerable person’s cheek. We must not fail in our basic responsibilities towards our children, towards those who have less power. (Of course, there can be no question in natural law, and certainly not in Christianity, of killing someone merely to defend property. That would be a demonic inversion of values.)
But even here a powerful word rings in my ear. The editor of the Massachusetts Citizens for Life quarterly, Helen Cross, has a son who served in Iraq as a Marine. She says something that applies no matter what kind of killing is under discussion— whether the “justified” instances of killing, or the ones we want to think justified (such as abortion to end a crisis pregnancy): killing always costs. No matter how real the emergency; no matter how weighty the justification: killing always takes something from the killer. We would all do well to take that fact in dead earnest. It would elevate the civic conversation about these matters of life and death.
Aimed at Something Limitless
Being pro-life means, first of all, feeling the urgency to restore the right to life of each innocent human being in law. As its target is the most powerless human life, abortion is a form of human killing we should always withdraw from.
If one does not recognize the right of the most innocent and most vulnerable to live, then one hasn’t truly received the most rudimentary of the principles of liberal republicanism—the equality of each human life. But then it makes no sense to pursue, as we ought to pursue, the pro-life logic into muddier waters—say, the prudence and policy of how exactly to regulate guns under the Second Amendment.
But it is also the case that the pro-life impulse is there to move the whole dead and killing weight of history, of resentments, of fear, of scarcity, of entitlement. To be pro-life, the baseline is to be anti-abortion. But the pro-life impetus aims at heaven-wide ramifications from that root. It points us to the necessity of withdrawing from killing in more ambiguous cases. Indeed, it submits us more and more, here and now, to the measure of a Kingdom of total intimacy and friendship, a Kingdom that cherishes the body and soul of the refugee, the stranger, and even the enemy. To be pro-life is to cherish the whole of our fellow-human’s life—and every one of those lives.
The immensity of the Gospel cannot be legislated. One cannot, for example, legislate away the natural-law right to self-preservation. But Christians are to be leaven in the world. Christians are to be fire from heaven. The structure of nature, designed by God, is not a static thing. It moves. And it moves towards universal reconciliation. Every Christian is called to be a minister of that pro-life directionality. This direction is rooted in the natural law, but aims towards something limitless.
To be pro-life is a radical and growing thing: it begins with fundamental responsibility towards the barest human life, and strains towards the heaven-tree of peaceable infinity.