I read a terrible story this morning, about how conservative Shia Muslim militias attacked a house of prostitution in Baghdad and executed 29 women and two men, all shot in the head, some of them in their hiding places.
was about how the Iraqi government can’t come down too hard on the militias – they need them to be the enforcers of the law in some places where the government isn’t getting much cooperation.
But what caught my attention was the very idea that these people, allegedly trying to be faithful to God, took the lives of others in order to enforce “holiness.” “This is the fate of any prostitution,” was inscribed on the door of the building. What this militia deems moral crimes can be punished by summary execution, and the only warning you’ll get was the last murder in your neighborhood.
We humans have some very strange ideas of “holiness.” If we’re going to enforce moral standards, what are the crimes against which we’ll fulminate? Wouldn’t murder be an important moral line not to cross?
But frankly, we do it all the time. I am often bewildered by this, that we, who so far have only been able to “create” life in the reproductive sense, think it makes us powerful to take life. That creation is outside of our skill set ought to make us pretty shy about extinguishing life, but we seem to regard that as the highest kind of power. Yet, it isn’t really all that hard to do. I don’t see how it makes us powerful at all. Ungrateful, yes. Full of hubris, indeed. Powerful? Why?
We even thought it was powerful to execute the Son of God, according to the New Testament. But he was allowing it all along, even putting up with our arrogance.
Please don’t misunderstand: what struck me about this story is not that it’s about Muslims. It’s easy to write off this deed as just “what they do,” but my point is that it is what humans do (yes, I know there are stories of this kind in the Old Testament, too). In my opinion, they are doing it for all the same reasons of fear and control and anger and defensiveness that we all do it. We pick a victim and we let that victim carry all of what we want to control, and by killing them we think we have won something.
But this is why Jesus, who shows us what God is like, is so striking. Jesus taught us that when we hold someone in contempt in our hearts, we are on the road to murdering them.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca [Aramaic term of contempt],’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” Matt 5:21-22
We protest: no, Jesus! We would never do that! But Jesus, who “had no need for anyone to tell him what was in a man,” knew whereof he spoke. There is murder in all our hearts, even if we never set out to do it.
He’s only telling us so he can save us from it.
And that brings to mind this: we are no better if we rail and rant against sinners, or against those who don’t belong here, or embrace the death penalty to get rid of the evil among us. Whenever we reduce anyone to what we don’t want them around here for, we are on the way to murder. Whenever we pick someone’s story up and tell it so we and all our friends can laugh with derision at it, we are on the way to murder. Whenever we think it makes us holy to call out the sinners, and powerful to determine their destiny, we are on the way to murder.
I have been on the way to murder. Have you?
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Matt 5:23-24