Christian Nation series: Jesus, totalitarianism, and genocide

Christian Nation series: Jesus, totalitarianism, and genocide July 12, 2023

Christian Nationalism insists that Christianity is baked into our national identity, and that the combined wisdom of Americanism and Christianity would make America a kind of heaven on earth. Imagine a land in which “thou shalt not kill” was really the law of the land!

But are the foundational documents of America (Declaration of Independence and Constitution) and Christianity (here, the Ten Commandments) even compatible? Today we will finish up “thou shalt not kill” in our Ten Commandments series (go here to read the series in full).

Last time, we peeked behind the curtain at the God who supposedly gave us the Ten Commandments. It would be a stretch to describe him as merciful or even just. For a deity that forbade killing, he was liberal in his calls for the death penalty, and made copious use of genocide – including innocent parties, and even children.

As promised, today we will look at Jesus’ teaching on “thou shalt not kill,” and then spend a few minutes examining the concept of moral relativism in respect to killing and religion.

Jesus takes Thou Shalt Not Kill to the next level

Usually, we credit Jesus with taking the rough edge off of Hebrew Testament laws. When it comes to this commandment, he actually makes things more complicated:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)

The writer of 1 John confirms:

Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:15)

Commentary from asserts that anger, insults, and hatred are a gateway to murder, and that

a step toward a sin is as bad as the sin itself…Anger is dangerous and must be stamped out immediately… Making someone feel small, worthless, and insignificant with words and actions is unrestrained anger giving its first blows.

Hatred is a deep and abiding anger and disdain…The apostle John tells us that hatred of another makes us a murderer. It is a sign that you are unrepentant and caught up in sin that violates the…commandment.

Some other time, we’ll talk about the evangelical notion that “all sins are created equal,” and the idea that anger is always bad. For today, let’s just acknowledge that neither Jesus, nor the writer of 1 John, nor Crosswalk backpedal on the death sentence as an appropriate punishment for anger, insults, and hatred (the epistle writer goes even further, damning the hater for eternity).

Of course, we shouldn’t take these passages literally (although evangelicals claim to take the whole Bible at face value). The point of these passages is that anger, insults, and hatred are serious business.

Ok, but Jesus’ version of the commandment, forbidding anger, insults, and hatred (with or without the death sentence), is incompatible with our country’s founding documents for the obvious reason that if followed literally, all of us would be dead.

But even taken with a grain of salt, Jesus’ rendition of the commandment does not belong American lawbooks. Why?

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“Thoughtcrime,” says Andrew Seidel, “is the defining feature of totalitarian regimes.” He continues:

The First Amendment is one of humanity’s greatest political and legal triumphs. [It] stands opposed to the Judeo-Christian god’s Ten Commandments…

The six rights enshrined in the First Amendment—secular government, religious freedom, free speech, free press, free assembly, and a right to petition the government—can be summed up as the freedom of thought [emphasis added].

To be told what we may or may not think – even by God – violates our fundamental right to think for ourselves.

Is this to say that Christians should let their thoughts run rampant? No. It is to say that while some American Christians may want to hold themselves or each other to a standard like this, it is not appropriate to impose it on anyone else.

That is, thought policing (yes, even by Jesus) is un-American.

Thou Shalt Not Kill: moral absolutes and moral relativism

Were you raised like me, to believe that moral relativism is wishy-washy and dangerous? That unbelievers are moral relativists because they bend rules to suit them, while Christians stand firm in our understanding of right and wrong?

Andrew Seidel, author of The Founding Myth, weighs in:

Christians [tend to] believe in moral absolutes handed down from on high…

[T]he moral absolutist might believe it is always immoral to kill because God says so.

The religious system of absolute morality is actually moral relativism in disguise, but with an alarming alteration: God-given rights depend solely on a particular individual’s interpretation of God’s word…

One person’s moral belief is given the authority of divine law. That relativism is far more dangerous because it involves a fallible human being claiming divine sanction.

A few examples may be in order here.

A denominational leader decides (or “hears from God”) that life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore all abortions are murder. It sounds absolute, but it’s not. A human is deciding when life begins and who is a murderer – based on his interpretation of certain Scripture passages. He attributes his belief to God, but it is his own.

A Christian preacher determines that modern Israel is the fulfillment of certain promises of God, and exhorts his congregation to support Israel in all it does.  That exhortation, based on the preacher’s interpretation of Scripture passages, enables Israel to kill innocent Palestinian people. Again, a human being is deciding who should live and who should die, and then assigning God as the source.

We could look at many more examples of religious leaders (and often, politicians) speaking as though they are the mouthpiece of God – making claims about immigrants, the poor, the uninsured, the unhoused, the marginalized.

Christians who accept these claims uncritically are not engaging in moral absolutism, but allowing the moral relativism of their leader to be the final word. Such Christians are not thinking for themselves.

If and when the state takes on these issues outside the influence of religion, it employs (at least in theory) careful examination, debate, and advice from experts across the political spectrum. Each decision grows out of moral relativism, but with (at least in theory) the consent of the ruled.

On the issue of gun control, most Americans want background checks and other controls; on Israel, the majority of Americans disagree with our government’s support; on abortion, most of us favor the woman’s right to choose.

As long as the religious right is calling the shots, we will not have equitable policies, but faux moral absolutism that refuses to see nuance in the world.

A moral relativist might admit, “abortion is not a great option, but sometimes it may be the lesser of two evils. No one knows a woman’s circumstances like the woman herself. She must be free to decide what’s best, and the government must give her a chance to succeed in life.”

Evangelicals might not like this position, but freedom is the American way.

Thou Shalt Not Kill – except those who are less than human

Andrew Seidel speculates on how God could command “thou shalt not kill,” and then turn around and order his people to commit genocide: he suggests that since those other tribes did not worship Yahweh, they were somehow less human.

Hmmm. Seeing others as less human. “Does that sound like an American principle?” Seidel asks. 

Yes and no.

On the one hand of course, we Americans have been guilty of seeing “others” as less human from the moment we first started to colonize lands. We have happily killed “savage” indigenous peoples, fought wars against nations of brown people around the world, enslaved millions of Black people, and marginalized countless groups whose skin, language, or lifestyle is different from ours. And we’ve done much of this with the blessing of the Church.

On the other hand, America is built – at least in theory – on the philosophy that all people are created equal.

If equality rings true for you – and equality means everybody – then wholesale killing has to stop. We need to oppose discrimination of all kinds, war, colonialism, oppression, and the demonization of the poor. Abortion is rather small potatoes compared to these.

We must guard against dehumanizing any fellow human being. We must examine our beliefs and our leaders’ beliefs, and not just assume that we and they have “the mind of Christ” on all things.

We have an obligation to all humans. We must go beyond doing what we are told: we must think about what we are doing as a community.

If your community is not actively pursuing justice, equality, and love, maybe it’s time to find a new one.

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FEATURED IMAGE: “Blow Your Mind” by kozumel is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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