Reflections on Killing

It can sometimes seem that killing people ­- somehow putting them to death ­- possesses enduring appeal, the allure of it circulating deeply and even ineradicably in the human condition.

At one level, of course, not all killings are the same. On one side there is what we might call regulated killing: just wars, capital punishment, perhaps self­-defence. Apart from these, though perhaps interacting with them, there’s an idea of justice according to which even unregulated killing can appear fitting: in such circumstances we might say that certain people get what they deserve. Meanwhile, on the other side, there are all the other killings, the wrongful killings, the killings which we call murder. Of these, of course, we disapprove, and of some of them, at least, we do so passionately.

So we distinguish just from unjust killing. Complex theoretical arguments underlie this distinction, and at that level they have real plausibility. But at another level -­ at which the theoretical becomes consequential existentially -­ the situation is perhaps more complicated. Conceptual clarity, and the arguments, distinctions and conclusions it makes possible, intersect, of course, with real life, but they do not always readily contain it. This can be especially so when we are dealing with a phenomenon as spiritually deep and pervasive as the impulse to kill. This impulse circulates in history, in culture and in the human psyche at levels that cannot always be brought reassuringly to the surface, where abstract reasoning is most at home. We must reckon with the subterranean effects of what is unacknowledged and perhaps even unthought. Arguments for the legitimacy of killing ­in just wars, capital punishment or self­-defence ­ can then appear in a new light: or rather, they can seem to pass into a kind of obscurity, subject to a disconcerting but intangible uncertainty. In such arguments, are we reasoning or are we rationalizing? The presence among us, and within us, of the impulse to kill, at once more primitive and more sophisticated than we can comfortably acknowledge, begins to haunt and destabilize our concepts and the reasonings which they sustain. Are we in fact able to secure for ourselves what we would like -­ the supreme, because supremely reasonable, reassurance that in certain circumstances, purified of every ambiguity and ambivalence, we are killing justly?

Given the immemorial, mysteriously charismatic and almost gravitational attraction exercised by the impulse to kill, we may legitimately doubt it. It isn’t that our rational theories about just and unjust killing are disproved. But they can come to seem naively incomplete. For there are forces here which it is difficult even to perceive steadily, forces which, as apparently rational agents, we cannot aspire to comprehend and master. Is our hope that reason can regulate the impulse to kill sometimes too self­-assured and too easily self­-serving? It can seem to be. We may then feel the need to think differently, to live differently, hearing the call to a deeper renunciation.

But what renunciation? For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard it said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. 

In these words, an answer opens out. We are to renounce not only killing, but every way we have of negating another person: despoiling, reducing, demeaning -­ in short, every way we have of diminishing the presence and the weight of his or her humanity.

‘Not only killing, but also negating’. It’s a difficult teaching to receive. And the difficulty is in fact deeper than we first realize. Christ separates killing and negating only to unite them again. Our strategies of negation are revealed as having a kind of mystical affinity with killing: killing and negating belong to each other spiritually, negating is more than a remote origin or even a proximate anticipation of killing, but it is already alive with the putting to death that killing simply brings to consummation. This mystical affinity is certainly mysterious ­ but, for all that, it is not unprecedented. Think of adultery in the heart -­ not adultery strictly speaking, yet primordially unfaithful. In the same way, to negate a person is already to exercise a lethal energy. There is a bond and inherence here which is made explicit by St John: Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.

Such teaching is not only difficult, but, for us, almost insupportable. If killing is simply the consummation of our ordinary and seemingly ineradicable antipathies, then either everything must change, or nothing. Articulating a middle way can seem the only path to take. It isn’t foolish to hope that moral philosophy can help to constrain the dark energies of the lethal, permitting only a sanitized killing to remain in circulation: hence the idea of killing justly. But if what Christ says is true, such killing would have to be free from anger and insult and every other kind of negation. In theory we can perhaps glimpse such a possibility: a pure killing, impersonally serving the abstract reciprocities of justice. But in practice the possibility can seem vanishingly remote. Think of the contexts in which killing actually takes place, especially the killing we might want to describe as just. Think of the real­world settings, cultural, social and psychic, in which warfare and judicial execution actually unfold. And then recall that we are told that anyone who hates his brother (does not kill justly but) is a murderer.

The renunciation which is asked of us here cuts very deep. In this renunciation, what do we lose? In a way, what we lose is ourselves. Our self-­affirmations, even our identities, are so often intimately interwoven, not merely with our difference from others, but with our negations of them. I am this, because I am not that. We point to others and implicitly, often explicitly, disparage them; or else we value them extravagantly, and disparagement reverses itself upon ourselves. Affirmation and negation seem almost inescapably to co-operate. Difference as such is so rarely apprehended neutrally, much less opened up to us an opportunity to love. Instead we experience it under the domination of the impulse to negate, to kill. And this is too easily how we are who we are.

But of course we want to respond that sometimes difference is negative, and therefore that negating it is a duty. Religion can appear to confirm this. Judging others negatively can seem to be what we owe to Truth, to the Faith, even to God Himself. Isn’t it a mark of the seriousness with which we take being Catholic, this courageous vehemence of negation, especially towards those whom a decadent and anti­-Catholic culture celebrates?

Of course we know, because He has told us, that God does not in fact want our judgments of others, indeed that by means of them we estrange ourselves from Him. But we reassure ourselves that it’s the sin we negate, not the sinner, whom on the contrary we love. But is it? Is it only the sin that we negate? And do we love the sinner, beyond the kind of love which all too easily seems to fulfill itself merely in telling him that a sinner is what he is? Sometimes, this is not clear. Sometimes, it sounds otherwise.

And besides, is it certain that we are dealing with sin, and hence with sinners, in the first place? Of course, at one level, the answer is clear. The Church teaches that certain things are objectively wrong, and it is essential that we both adhere to this ourselves and profess it to others. But this doesn’t, as such, bring us to the question of personal sin. For something to be a personal sin, attributable as sin to the person who does it, something other is required than the objective wrongness of what he does. What is required is that at some level he understand that what he is doing is wrong, and nonetheless act freely against his understanding, which is to say against his conscience. If this isn’t the case, then although what he does may be objectively wrong, it isn’t a personal sin, and in doing it he isn’t, in that sense, a sinner.

Now it is true that there is more to sin than personal sin. The release of sin into the world means that in various ways it influences us, sometimes seems almost to dominate us, even though we may not be personally responsible for the power it exercises, or even be aware that it exercises it. The mysteriously diffusive power of sin explains the importance of the Church’s insistence on the reality of objective evil -­ among us, within us, undoing us, whether we know it or not.

So sin can be present and active, even if there is no personal sin; a person can be being harmed by sin, even intimately harmed, he can be harming himself and others, and yet not be a sinner. That is why he can do good even in and through behaviour which is objectively sinful. And what does all this mean for how we relate to him? The question is difficult. But we have at least to bear in mind the following possibility: that the sinner who is given to us is not necessarily to be addressed, spoken of or treated as one who has given himself to what he knows to be wrong.

But then how should we address him? How should we speak and act? Here we may have to learn more readily to accept hesitation, even incapacity. An exhilarating and adversarial fluency of negation can certainly simplify things ­ and simplification is not always distorting; it can also empower and reassure those who are speaking or listening, something of which Catholics may understandably feel in need today. But this is also true: for those who are the targets of such speech, it can inflame, embitter or repel; and we simply cannot assume that such reactions demonstrate that our discourse has been authentically Christian and that the only reason for rejecting it lies in bad faith.

Besides, is Christian witness always a matter of Christian discourse? In His redemptive encounter with the mystery of sin, the Incarnate Word eventually fell silent. On the Cross and in His descent to the dead He witnessed beyond discourse, spoke only in silence. What was it that took the Word beyond words?

Perhaps it was that there was nothing left to say: no self to affirm, no other to negate. He was Himself only in identifying with us, and let Himself be found only in His solidarity with the lost. Perhaps this is the best, and perhaps sometimes the only, authentically Christian witness. We are not necessarily called to have a public voice, in print, online or in person. If we are, then it will be a call, a dimension of our vocation, not simply an expression of zeal or enthusiasm, as if such expression was always and everywhere legitimate. And if we are called to speak, then underlying our speech there should still be our participation in the Word Himself and in His silence, the silence articulating the furthest reach of His solidarity with those whom He would save.

His silent solidarity with us was not, of course, a solidarity in sin, which in fact annihilates solidarity. But it was the willingness to bear in Himself everything that sin means for us ­- even to the apparent loss of the Father, even to death and to dwelling among the dead. In the end He, the sinless one, did not wish to be distinguished from us, for He carried us on our behalf, enduring us all the way through, and only in that way transforming us from within. He overcame the alienation that was ours, surpassing it in the encompassing embrace of Trinitarian love, but only by loving us to the end, only by identifying with our alienation unreservedly. So unreservedly, in fact, that St Paul can say that He, Who knew no sin, was made sin for our sake, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.

The silently redemptive solidarity with us chosen by the Incarnate Word is a unique mystery of love. But precisely because it is a unique mystery of love, it can be shared. And the Christian vocation is, above and beyond everything else, to share it. What does this sharing look like? Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, expressed it, beautifully and exactly, as follows:

For the saints [he writes] ‘Hell’ is not…a threat to be hurled at other people but a challenge to oneself. It is a challenge to suffer in the dark night of faith, to experience communion with Christ in solidarity with his descent into the Night. One draws near to the Lord’s radiance by sharing his darkness. One serves the salvation of the world by leaving one’s own salvation behind for the sake of the others.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
[email protected]