“Thou Shalt Not Kill”


The sixth commandment’s injunction to avoid murder is the minimum standard. The Savior’s example points to a higher level: enhancement of life for others.

“Thou Shalt Not Kill”

Among the treasures kept in the sacred ark of the covenant during the time of ancient Israel were the two stone tablets on which were written the ten commandments. The first four of those deal with our relationship with God, and the fifth with our relationship to our parents. It was traditionally thought that the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13), headed the list on the second tablet—a list addressing the Lord’s concerns for our relationships with our fellow beings.

Though comparatively few mortals are seriously tempted to kill, many of us are more deeply affected by violations of this law than we realize. Peace continues to elude us in a world where killing is often an instrument of political strategy or personal gain. We seem to need a modern smoking Sinai from whose heights God might thunder down in power again: “Thou shalt not kill!”

A Worldwide Problem

It was said after World War I that it had been the war to end all wars. The succeeding generation came to think after World War II that such horrors as the Holocaust, in which so many people had been exterminated, could never happen again while civilized nations looked on. Yet in our day, attempts at mass extermination have taken place in locations from southeast Asia to Africa to eastern Europe.

The sixth commandment is also violated through the acts of serial killers or mass murderers from Moscow to Los Angeles. Death is almost epidemic in gang warfare punctuated with drive-by shootings and other senseless acts of violence, in big cities and small. This wanton killing brings untold misery to families who lose their loved ones, and it brings fear to those whose cities, villages, and neighborhoods are now unsafe.

I remember fondly my experiences growing up in a small town in southeastern Idaho; I could return home alone after an evening at the movies or a high school activity with absolutely no fear for my safety. I hope that is still possible in some smaller towns, but I sense that it is an unknown experience in many larger urban settings. I am especially concerned when I hear of cases such as that of the ten-year-old girl in Missouri who, after the killing of two young girls in her area, is reported to be afraid to go outside alone. Says her mother, “I’d really like to be able to tell my child the world is a safe place.” 1

The Most Grievous Sin

We know that the Atonement is efficacious for all except those committing the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost (see Matt. 12:31). However, in our associations with each other on earth, violation of the sixth commandment represents the most heinous crime that can be perpetrated. The murderer, by terminating an individual’s earthly experience, sins grievously against the person he has killed. Those who murder steal the precious gift of mortal experience from another and set themselves in open opposition to God, the giver of life.

Further, murderers place themselves in a position where it is impossible to ask forgiveness of the one sinned against or to make restitution—at least in this life. So grievous is the act that the Prophet Joseph Smith said murderers “cannot be forgiven, until they have paid the last farthing.” 2

Further, many of the major moral issues of our day are related to the sixth commandment in one way or another when we take into account the postscript the Lord added to it in modern revelation: “Thou shalt not … kill, nor do anything like unto it” (D&C 59:6; emphasis added). Today’s news headlines and broadcasts are full of issues “like unto it”: suicide, abortion, 3 mercy killing, toxic pollution, knowing transmittal of AIDS, and more.

A Constant Vigil

The violence which currently characterizes our society tells us much about ourselves and the things we need to watch out for in our own lives and those of our children. For example, we need to guard constantly against greed and self-centeredness. These are often at the root of violence. As the Lord points out in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5:21–22), our problems that start with anger or the demeaning of others can escalate to more serious offenses—even murder, if selfishness or pride are manifest in violent outbursts.

Most often our anger arises when things are not going the way we want or when others do not act in the manner we would have them act. If we are in a position of authority or power relative to others, anger can emerge in a variety of forms of “unrighteous dominion” (see D&C 121:34–46), as in the case of physical abuse. If we are not in a position of power, anger emerges more commonly as smoldering hatred and resentment that is sometimes released on innocent parties. King Benjamin apparently worried about this in the family setting when he instructed his people not only to feed and clothe their children, but also to keep them from fighting and quarreling and thus serving the devil, the enemy of all righteousness (see Mosiah 4:14–15).

No person does himself or herself a service if he or she continually seeks out situations in which negative, ugly feelings are fostered. Sometimes our society seems to have a morbid fascination with the darker side of life, especially as it manifests itself in death and violence. We watch killing reenacted over and over—often in slow motion—in cinema and television. At times we may also seem to stand in danger of glorifying violence in sports and other competitive activities. The graphic portrayal of violence becomes a type of violence itself, perpetrated upon the audience. While some have argued for the cathartic value of vicarious brutality in the theater, others have attributed a rise in violent crime to the same source. We can judge for ourselves what reactions the viewing of savagery on television or in the movies engenders in us.

I have always been intrigued by a lesson that the Prophet Joseph Smith gave to the brethren who marched with Zion’s Camp. That group, organized in response to revelation, was prepared to face armed conflict with the persecutors of the members of the Church in Missouri—to give their lives or to take lives in defense of others, if necessary. Yet the Prophet prevented them even from killing three rattlesnakes they found in one of their camps. “Let them alone—don’t hurt them!” he commanded. “How will the serpent ever lose its venom, while the servants of God possess the same disposition, and continue to make war upon it? Men must become harmless before the brute creation, and when men lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race, the lion and the lamb can dwell together, and the sucking child can play with the serpent in safety.” 4

Certainly if most of society come to value the sacredness of life, in all of its forms, with this reverence, there will be far fewer violations of the sixth commandment.

Living in a Violent World

But what are we to do in a world seemingly full of violence? How are we to respond to problems associated with violation of the sixth commandment? The scriptures and the words of our Church leaders, coupled with the principles of faith, hope, and charity, suggest some answers.

Faith in God in the midst of a violent world. In knowing the nature of our God, we find strength to face our world. In his great love for us, he sends his Son “to bind up the brokenhearted, … to comfort all that mourn” (Isa. 61:1–2), but he “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and, at the same time, is more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.” 5

The first part of these assurances should increase our trust and love for our Heavenly Father. In the depths of confusion or anguish (particularly when this is brought on by the loss of a life precious to us), we can receive his solace in many ways. His Son has promised us peace (see John 14:27). Also, the Savior has counseled us to “fear not even unto death” but rather to take care “for the life of the soul” (D&C 101:36–37). He calls upon us to become peacemakers ourselves, and thus “children of God” (Matt. 5:9).

But the warnings that the Lord will not “clear the guilty,” that the execution of his punishments is “more awful” than men can imagine, should help us find solace in the real sense of God’s justice. He is aware of our situations, he knows those who transgress against us, and he will deal with them in his own time and his own way.

Hope in the midst of a violent world. Latter-day Saints ought never to be found among the world’s doom and gloom mongers. Yet if we are not careful in talking about the problems and tragedies of today’s society, our children could get the message that the world is no good and no one is to be trusted. We need to counterbalance this idea, in our family discussions especially, with the fact that we are living in the fulness of times when some of the most extraordinary things the world has ever witnessed are occurring—including the spread of the gospel of peace. There is need to teach our children to be wise and cautious, but nevertheless our message should be one of hope in the face of the pessimism. The Apostle Paul reminds us that despite sin and depravity in the world, the fruits of the Spirit in our lives can include love, joy, and peace (see Gal. 5:22–23).

Charity in the midst of a violent world. As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we can do something to curb the effects of violence in our own lives and homes. We can avoid making unrighteous judgment concerning others; we will thus avoid bringing pain to their families by spreading uninformed opinions and speculation. Second, we can curb any expressions of violence in ourselves and in our homes. And third, we might look for opportunities to relieve suffering wherever possible—especially in the case of those whose lives have been affected by violations of the sixth commandment.

When we fall into the error of judging others, we may tend to write off the violator of the sixth commandment as a lost soul. However, only God knows the minds and hearts of his children. Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, in writing about suicide, raised issues that seem to apply to other transgressions of the sixth commandment as well:

“I feel that judgment for sin is not always as cut-and-dried as some of us seem to think. The Lord said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Does that mean that every person who kills will be condemned, no matter the circumstances? Civil law recognizes that there are gradations in this matter—from accidental manslaughter to self-defense to first-degree murder. I feel that the Lord also recognizes differences in intent and circumstance.” 6

Elder Ballard goes on to suggest that mental, emotional, or physical factors may play roles in suicide that we do not understand. Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve gave us the following related insight:

“Persons subject to great stresses may lose control of themselves and become mentally clouded to the point that they are no longer accountable for their acts. Such are not to be condemned for taking their own lives. It should also be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s.” 7

It may well be that some of the same kinds of considerations apply in the cases of abortion and physical abuse. Our responsibilities are to be as compassionate as possible in all cases and to leave the judging to the Lord.

We should reach out in love every way we can. Sometimes our response may be restricted to prayers in behalf of those who grieve; at times this is the only way we can take upon ourselves the burden of others, “to mourn with those that mourn … and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). But wherever possible, we need to work to restore a greater sense of life and its purposes to those who, in their sorrow, have retreated from living.

His Message of Life

From my youth, I have often thought how reassuring it would be to have a scriptural text I could call my own, one I could turn to over and over without exhausting its possibilities for solace and instruction. But there were always too many strong possibilities in the standard works for me to narrow my selection. Over the past few years, however, one scripture has come to me again and again during moments of reflection. Jesus said simply: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). That scripture reminds me that the Savior’s major goal is to open the way to more abundant life for all of us, if we will but listen and stay near to him.

For me, that single passage reaches out and draws in—on tethers, as it were—entire clusters of satellite phrases and passages: “God who gave them life” (Alma 40:11); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); “This is my work and my glory—to bring … eternal life” (Moses 1:39); and many others. The very word life seems synonymous with his mission. Everyone whose heart he touched received from that contact a more abundant sense of life.

When Jesus was asked which was the greatest of all the commandments, he responded by combining parts of two scriptures, Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

“This is the first and great commandment.

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40).

In short, all of the commandments of God, including the sixth of the Ten Commandments, are covered by these two great principles—love of God and love of our fellowmen. These principles are key elements of charity, or the pure love of Christ, and this love is at the center of the gospel’s message.

Certainly one who comes to understand this will also understand why “Thou shalt not kill” is a major commandment relative to our associations with our fellow beings. Killing is the antithesis of the mission that the Lord himself announced: “I am come that they might have life … more abundantly” (John 10:10).

As his disciples, how can we offer less to our fellowmen than the love that helps make possible this abundant life?

[illustrations] Top left: Moses and the Ten Commandments, by Ted Henninger

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

Arthur R. Bassett is high priests group instructor in the Northridge Second Ward, Orem Utah Northridge Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Newsweek, 20 Dec. 1993, p. 28.

  2.   2.

    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 189.

  3.   3.

    Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve has taught: “Except where the wicked crime of incest or rape was involved, or where competent medical authorities certify that the life of the mother is in jeopardy, or that a severely defective fetus cannot survive birth, abortion is clearly a ‘thou shalt not.’ Even in these very exceptional cases, much sober prayer is required to make the right choice” (Ensign, Nov. 1990, p. 85).

  4.   4.

    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 71.

  5.   5.

    Ibid., p. 257.

  6.   6.

    Ensign, Oct. 1987, pp. 7–8.

  7.   7.

    Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), p. 771.