Thou Shalt or Thou Shalt Not?

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a9/John_Donne_house_Pyrford.jpg/500px-John_Donne_house_Pyrford.jpg

In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, a few of my patients spontaneously offered some interesting commentary. It amounted to the following: they felt uncomfortable celebrating his assassination. They viewed the immediate and most visible response to bin Laden’s death as if the general public entered into some bizarre and gigantic adaptation of the scene from the Wizard of Oz  in which most everyone is singing “Ding Dong, The Wicked Witch is Dead.”

Please understand, none of them thought he was a good guy. They all believed he was an evil man on the order of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong. All of my patients believed that the world would be a better place without him. And, they understood the sense of relief, exhilaration, and justice expressed in the streets and around Ground Zero of the 9/11/01 attacks.

But, he was still a human being, murdered with relatives — who included his children — close by. And here we were, waving flags, chanting “USA,” singing, and celebrating. It simply felt uncomfortable for the few patients who mentioned it, who were also aware of the bittersweet nature of this man’s death, especially for those who were most harshly affected by his life.

This got me to thinking about how we view moral rules and exceptions to those rules, including the biblical admonition not to kill.

What follows is a brief commentary on a few of the Ten Commandments — how they are understood and how most of us create some wiggle-room with respect to carrying them out or not. You will note that I skip a few:

  •  “… you shall have no other gods before me.” I find this interesting because it does not say that you cannot have other gods. Rather, you are told not to place any other gods higher than the god of the commandments. Remember that polytheism was common in the ancient world, so a relative ranking of gods might not have struck people as unusual at the time these rules were written.
  •  “… for I the lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me …” Here, it seems not only that are you in trouble if you reject the almighty, but so are your kids, and your kid’s kids, etc. Contemporary civil justice rejects this notion.
  •  “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slaves may rest as well …”

Relatively few among us in American society follow the letter of this direction. Even if we do not personally work (or study), we may employ others who work in our stead. Interesting too, that no mention is made here of the inappropriateness of slavery. Rather, it seems to be considered acceptable, and advises only that you give your slaves one day of rest per week.

  •  “Honor your father and your mother…” Well, does that include a parent who abandoned you or abused you, too?
  • “You shall not kill/murder.” This allows for no exceptions, but civilized societies commonly make exceptions for self-defense, justice, and war.
  • “Neither shall you commit adultery.” Although most agree that this shouldn’t be done, it is obviously done quite a lot. Some even justify it. See my blog: Infidelity and Its Treatment
  •  Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Boy, if we really could wipe out the “desire” mentioned here, Western economies would fall like dominos. Envy fueled by advertising is omnipresent. Without that desire, cars, jewelry, homes, clothing, and gadgets of all kinds would be valued only in terms of utility, not because they are necessary to “keep up with the Joneses.”

One of the toughest things in life is to match up what we say and what we do. Life is complex and some amount of compromise, not to mention relativism is inevitable: not every situation easily permits the use of a hard and fast rule. Certainly, these commandments have not been taken literally in every situation as we live them, whatever lips service we might give to their importance and guidance.

It is more than understandable that Osama bin Laden’s death would be celebrated in this country; or, at least, provide a sense of some relief and satisfaction, despite the biblical injunction not to kill.

Somewhere, though, in the fading sounds of the near festive gatherings surrounding the announcement of his death, is the quiet rejoinder of John Donne. The last four lines, in particular, just might capture a bit of the sentiment that my patients were referring to:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The photo above is part of the house which John Donne occupied in Pyrford, England; taken by Suzanne Knights, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

John Donne’s words come from his 1624 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation 17.

2 thoughts on “Thou Shalt or Thou Shalt Not?

  1. “Shalt or shalt not” for me not as much of the question as “Can or Cannot”. To me Buddhist idea of karma always seemed much more inclusive of the reality of the human nature than the Bible. Besides, the Bible that we know was re-written numerous times throughout history and each time those who re-wrote it included their own interpretations based on their personal biases. So, we don’t even know what the original Bible was saying.

    Back to my point, according to the karmic idea of our development, being able not to kill another human being under any circumstances shows the highest level of spiritual development that virtually no one can attain in today’s world and that is ok. In this life time, there are many circumstances under which not killing would go beyond one’s capability. “Kill Bill” is a great example of such karmic duty that the main character played by Uma Thurman had to fulfill. However, when one is on a mission to fulfill this duty, one should be conscious not to make this an excuse and a justification for letting one’s violent instincts out of control. In “Kill Bill” Uma Thurman said it very well. When she was about to kill one of her tormentors, the tormentor asked her if she wanted to get even. She said:”Getting even would be killing not only you but also your child and your husband because this is what you did to me, but I am not going to do what you did.” She understood that for the sake of restoring the balance, killing her tormentor would be enough, but going further and killing her family would not be justified as that would be a sheer expression of her own violence.

    By the same token, the feeling of relief after learning that Bin Laden was killed was perfectly appropriate, but celebrating his death was not, as it was just an expression of wild primitive sadistic violence that enjoys seeing murder much more than concerns itself with matters of justice. Those who celebrated Bin Laden’s death were no different from those in Muslim world who were burning American flags.

    By the way, Bin Laden’s death feels right also because he was killed during the fight where he had an opportunity to fight back. This kind of murder is much more justifiable than a murder by execution. I agree with Dostoevsky who said that a murder by execution is a more serious crime than any other murder. The video would say it better than I do. Here is the link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5aNBjfgCS4&feature=related Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a separate short clip where the death penalty is discussed but in this video this topic is discussed 8-9 min from the beginning. Actually, it’s worth seeing the whole thing.

    Like

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