Among the treasures kept in the sacred ark of the covenant during the time of ancient Israel were two stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. The first four of these commandments deal with our relationship with God, the fifth with our relationship to our parents. Traditionally, the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13), is thought to have 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 eludes us in a world where killing is often an instrument of political strategy or personal gain. We seem to need a modern Sinai from whose exalted heights God might thunder down again: “Thou shalt not kill!”
A Worldwide Problem
World War I was called the war to end all wars. After World War II, many thought horrors such as the Holocaust, in which so many people were exterminated, could never happen again while civilized nations looked on. Yet in the years since, mass exterminations have taken place in locations from Southeast Asia to Africa to Eastern Europe.
The sixth commandment is also violated by serial killers and mass murderers in nations large and small. Death is almost epidemic in gang warfare, punctuated with knifings and shootings and other senseless acts of violence. This wanton killing brings untold misery to families who lose loved ones, and it brings fear to those whose cities, villages, and neighborhoods suffer the violence.
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 places today.
The Most Grievous Sin
We know that the Atonement is effective for all who repent except for those who commit 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 committed. The murderer, by terminating an individual’s earthly experience, sins grievously against the person he or she 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 murder that the Prophet Joseph Smith said murderers “cannot be forgiven, until they have paid the last farthing.” 1
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 Lord’s addition 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, 2 mercy killing, toxic pollution, knowing transmittal of AIDS, and more.
A Constant Vigil
The violence that currently characterizes our society tells us much about ourselves and what 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 traits are often the root of violence. As the Lord explained in the Sermon on the Mount, demeaning others or expressing anger toward them can escalate to more serious offenses—even murder (seeMatt. 5:21–22). Selfishness and pride underlie most angry and violent behavior.
Most often our anger arises when things are not going the way we want or when others do not act as we would have them act. If we are in a position of authority or power, anger can emerge in a variety of forms of “unrighteous dominion” (see D&C 121:34–46). If we are not in a position of power, anger emerges more commonly as smoldering hatred and resentment sometimes released on innocent parties. King Benjamin apparently worried about this possibility 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 (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 with death and violence. We watch killing reenacted over and over—often in slow motion—in cinema and on television. At times, violence in sports and other competitive activities is applauded. The graphic portrayal of violence becomes a type of violence itself perpetrated upon the audience.
I have always been intrigued by a lesson the Prophet Joseph Smith gave to the brethren who marched with Zion’s Camp. That group, organized through revelation, was prepared to face armed conflict with the persecutors of Church members 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.” 3
Certainly if society comes to value the sacredness of life, in all of its forms, with this reverence, far fewer will violate the sixth commandment.
Living in a Violent World
But what are we to do in a world full of violence? How are we to respond to problems associated with violations 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. Through knowing the nature of our God, we find strength to face our world. Because of 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.” 4
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 brought on by the loss of a life precious to us, we can receive his 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 his punishments are “more awful” than we 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 in 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 mistakenly believe that the world is no good and no one is to be trusted. We need to counterbalance this idea, especially in our family discussions, by emphasizing that we are living in the fulness of times when some of the most extraordinary events the world has ever witnessed are occurring—including the spread of the gospel of peace. We need to teach our children to be wise and cautious; nevertheless, our message should be one of hope in the face of pessimism. The Apostle Paul reminds us that despite sin and depravity in the world, the fruits of the Spirit can include love, joy, and peace in our lives (see Gal. 5:22–23).
Charity in the midst of a violent world. As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we can curb the effects of violence in our own lives and homes. We can avoid making unrighteous judgments about others; we will thus avoid bringing pain to them and their families by spreading uninformed opinions and speculation. Second, we can eliminate any expressions of violence in our lives and in our homes. And third, we might look for opportunities to relieve suffering wherever possible—especially in the lives of those who have been affected by violations of the sixth commandment.
When we fall into the error of judging others, we may tend to condemn 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 Apostles, in writing about suicide, raised issues that seem to apply also to other transgressions of the sixth commandment:
“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. … I feel that the Lord recognizes differences in intent and circumstances.” 5
Elder Ballard also suggests 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 Apostles 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.” 6
Some similar considerations may apply in cases of abortion and physical abuse. Our responsibilities are to be as compassionate as possible in all cases, to leave judgment to the Lord, and to reach out in love every way we can. Sometimes our response may be restricted to prayers in behalf of those who grieve; at times these prayers are 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 particular scriptural text 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).
For me, that single passage reaches out and draws in entire clusters of related 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 the Savior’s mission. Everyone whose heart he touched received from that contact a more abundant life.
“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 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 neighbors. These principles are key elements of charity, 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 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 fellow beings than the love that makes this abundant life possible?
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 189.
Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles 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” (“Covenants,” Ensign, November 1990, 85).
“Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not,” Tambuli, March 1988, 18.
Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition (1966), 771.