We all know, I am sure, that one of the 10 Commandments says “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13), but many people tend to think that this only forbids murder, whilst killing people in a war, or executing criminals is OK in certain circumstances. This is because for thousands of years, the Church not only seems to have accepted that such things were OK, but actually executed criminals and waged war herself ; as well as sending her priests as army chaplains to support the soldiers, and often to argue that God was on the side of whichever side they happened to be on!
None of this was envisaged by the first Christians, because they were a small group of people with absolutely no power or influence of any kind. St Paul in our 2nd Reading, (1 Cor 9:16-23) when he speaks of making himself weak, of making himself as a slave, echoes the teachings and actions of Jesus who said “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:38-44) Jesus then goes further, and puts this into action, allowing the soldiers to arrest him, and saying, as he dies on the cross “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) Here is the ideal, which as in many other areas of morality, we rarely achieve.
For the first Christians however it was an ideal they could achieve unless they were actually a soldier, because they were not involved in war in any way; and so it only became a problem in the 4thC when more and more Christians were soldiers or held positions of power. It was then that reconciling Christian teaching with the realities of political and public life actually hit them. The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine (273-337AD) actually fought a war in the name of Christ to win his throne. However, he solved this problem by not getting baptised until he was dying, which shows us how strong at that time the pacifist teaching of the Church was.
Faced with this difficulty, it was some 100 years later that the great theologian St Augustine first began to lay out clearly what kind of war a Christian might be justified in fighting. This Just War Theory, as it is called, was then further developed by St Thomas Aquinas some 900 years later. The problem with the just war theory today is that it was developed in a time when war was largely limited to armies fighting one another with swords and bows and arrows and fairly primitive guns. The theory can thus say quite easily that only soldiers can be attacked, and that civilians must not be involved.
Anyway most Christians went to war in the past, as they do today, without considering how difficult it is to fight in a war and be a Christian. Modern warfare of course actually makes fighting a just war almost impossible, as it includes what is called “collateral damage” – a polite way of saying that when you bomb a place innocent people get killed! But one good product of the Just War theory is the understanding in modern secular society that war can go too far, that soldiers are not supposed to attack or kill ordinary unarmed people, and that loot and rape and other horrific acts are never justified. War crime has thus become something for which people can be tried and imprisoned, and it all stems from the Church ancient teaching on war. It has also meant that those countries like the UK do try to fight war as ethically as possible, particularly to limit, as far as possible, this “collateral damage”. But it still takes place, and so, strictly speaking, makes any war at all un-Christian – except perhaps for the limited resistance warfare as waged by those who fought against apartheid in South Africa. Our Catechism thus says “The Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.” (Se Paras 2307-2309)
As I said when I began, the other area where Christians sometimes justify killing, is in the execution of criminals. The Catechism (Paras 2266-2267) says that “The Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” but it goes on to say that for the modern world “Cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” I am always struck by the sad fact that some people who quite rightly proclaim that abortion is wrong, will go on to argue strongly for the execution of criminals. The Church says that all life is sacred, and that taking any life except in grave necessity must be avoided at all costs.
Few of us, thank God, have to make the difficult decisions about life and death that I have been talking about today. But as with all other areas of Christian morality, Jesus sets the ideal even higher so that it actually affects all of us. So he says “You have heard that it was said… ‘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” Faced with that, we all know that we fail to some extent to follow this teaching, and God who is aware of this knows that sometimes we have to do the best we can in less than perfect situations, be it anger, or abortion, or capital punishment or war. As Christians we follow Jesus. We always aim for the best, yet recognising how often we fail. The problem is that some people seek to justify their failures instead of living with them in the knowledge that God is all-merciful and full of compassion for the difficulties we face in our fallen human world. Aiming high requires us to really believe in a forgiving God.