I am old enough to have caught the tail end of the Vietnam War, during which time I felt called to register for the draft as a conscientious objector. I was willing to serve, I was just not willing to kill. Since that time, I have spent a lifetime trying to figure out how best to live my life so as to do no harm. It’s not always easy and it’s not always clear how best to do that. Especially in the face of violent threats such as those that make the headlines on a daily basis. Killing is all too common in our world, and it has only gotten worse with the advent of modern weaponry and destructive devices. For all their complexity, however, I am glad to live with the questions and I hope this Provision invites you into the conversation, at least for a time.
Happy New Year! We’re back with a full-fledged Provision this week in our continuing series onGuidelines for Living. This started, you may remember, by my review of various lists of “Ten Commandments” that come down to us from different religions, time periods, and cultures. The notion that we should avoid killing runs through them all, but it’s interesting to note the nuances that come through with each of the different formulations. Here they are, one right after another:
- Do not kill.
- Do not murder.
- Do not kill unjustly.
- The right to life.
- Strive to cause no harm.
- Show great consideration for your fellow beings.
Can’t you just see the authors and translators trying to create some wiggle room around such a basic injunction as, “Do not kill”? The complexities of life come through in these different formulations. Let’s consider each in turn.
- Do not kill. This can be viewed as the most sweeping and also the most difficult of all the formulations. It does not limit the focus to human beings and, as such, it represents the dictum of many vegans who exclude the use of animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose. It also represents the dictum of those who oppose killing on both ends of the spectrum of life (abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia) as well as all the way through (including murder, capital punishment, political violence, and war). Taken at face value, this is actually the easiest guideline to understand. Notwithstanding the issue of killing plants and fungi, everything else is pretty straightforward. If it’s an animal and if it’s alive, then don’t kill it.
- Do not murder. This version of what was originally the sixth commandment narrows the focus considerably. It clearly focuses on human beings, rather than all animals, and it introduces a huge caveat: what constitutes life? Those who view human beings as living, breathing, and sentient creatures who move and create on the face of the earth do not, for example, view abortion as murder. In the case of slavery, other considerations led to the same conclusion. Then there are the issues of intent and cause. Whereas a prohibition of killing excludes even accidental deaths, a prohibition of murder introduces other factors including the state of mind of the aggressor and the circumstances of the attack. Since it’s not always obvious when killing is murder, courts frequently have to get involved to sort things out.
- Do not kill unjustly. This version makes the question of killing a wide open question. What would George Washington have been called by England if the United States had lost its war of independence? Probably the equivalent of an “enemy combatant” or even a “terrorist.” History is written by the victors and questions of justice are always seen through that lens. Although there have been plenty of despots, pirates, and terrorists throughout the ages who care nothing about justice, many a conflict has people killing on both sides with a sense of “righteous indignation” and even “divine right.” On occasion, as Abraham Lincoln noted, both sides are praying to the same God at the same time. That said, the question of justice raises important questions of value, fairness, rationality, equity, and right relationship. It is certainly wrong to violate such principles by killing or other practices.
- The right to life. This version of the guideline comes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. It introduces a new concept into the mix when it comes to killing, namely the notion of certain inalienable rights. In 1776 the United Sates Declaration of Independence asserted this right for all people, along with the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The UDHR puts it this way: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” With the inclusion of the words “law” and “arbitrary,” the UDHR is making clear the responsibility of society to protect human life. That’s a good thing because, as we know, it doesn’t come easy.
- Strive to cause no harm. This version kicks things up a notch when it comes to killing. It’s a little like what Jesus had to say in the Sermon on the Mount: “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, The Message Version). “Causing no harm” is part of the Hippocratic Oath taken by medical doctors, when they start their practice: “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.” Instead of being angry, spiteful, vengeful, and hurtful, it’s best to avoid killing even the spirits of others.
- Show great consideration for your fellow beings. This version kicks things up two notches when it comes to killing. Not only are we called to do no harm; here we are called to do good to our fellow human beings. Although some might view killing as a necessary evil, few would say that it’s actually a good thing to do. How do we show consideration for people who are, themselves, being inconsiderate, let alone violent or deadly? We seek first to understand their feelings and needs. Marshall Rosenberg, of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, puts it this way: “All attacks and criticisms are tragic expressions of unmet needs.” They are tragic because they make it less likely that needs will be met. Yet they do serve as clues as to what may be going on under the surface, for those who have ears to hear. By seeking to understand those unmet needs, we show our fellow human beings consideration and do them good.
In his delightful book, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, Jack Kornfield writes, “Compassion is not foolish. It doesn’t just go along with what others want so they don’t feel bad. There is a yes in compassion, and there is also a no, said with the same courage of heart. No to abuse, no to racism, no to violence, both personal and worldwide. The no is said not out of hate but out of unwavering care. Wherever it is practiced, compassion brings us back to life.”
This is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about when he exhorted us to, “Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the instruments of love.”
In other words, the admonition “Do Not Kill” does not call us to be a meek and mild pushover in the face of violence and death. Marshall Rosenberg himself distinguishes between the protective use of force, in which he sees value, and the punitive use of force, which he argues against because of the ways it aggravates the spiral of violence. “Do Not Kill” rather calls us to be a strong and courageous catalyst for justice and nonviolent change. When we come to embody these values in our life and work, that’s when life becomes more wonderful for one and all.
Coaching Inquiries: How do you make sense of the guideline to avoid killing? Do you avoid killing at all costs? What exceptions, if any, do you make? How can you become more peaceable in your relations with others and with yourself?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.
Your poem and Provision, Seeing You, is well said. I really enjoyed it and shared it with my wife. Wishing you and your family all the best in 2010.
“Seeing You” is such a beautiful, meaningful poem. It calls for more than just one reading.
I also enjoyed the movie Avatar and your poem “Seeing you” is not only beautiful but certainly my wish for 2010 for humanity. Thank you for another wonderful year that caused me to think and rethink my thoughts and therefore my actions.
Love it – I see you!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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