Hauerwas and Willimon, stepping on our toes again!

February 10, 2011

As we look at the fifth commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” this Sunday, I’ll explore the following sentiment in more depth and with what I hope is a great deal of care and sensitivity, but sometimes it’s also good to get slapped upside the head with an obvious truth.

In saying that God’s people are not to take life, the commandments put us at odds with every government on earth. Governments put themselves in the place of God and kill to defend themselves and their vaunted claims of sovereignty. With God’s people, it is not to be so. Rather than ponder how we might skillfully reinterpret this command to suit present circumstances, our time might be better spent wondering how we might change the church to be the sort of place that produces and supports nonviolent people.

Jesus is no help in attempts to soften the force of this commandment. Indeed, in Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus expands the scope of the commandment to encompass even verbal abuse and angry outbursts against another… Perhaps we ought to take Jesus’ method of interpretation in Matthew 5:21-26 as a model for our interpretation—in Jesus the commandments are intensified, extended, expanded.

I haven’t done this in a while in Vinebranch, but I think I’ll have the congregation text questions on this topic. What questions do we have about this commandment?

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 80.

4 Responses to “Hauerwas and Willimon, stepping on our toes again!”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I think it is necessary to distinguish between two things; that is, the different roles of government versus individual persons in their own right. Thus, Paul tells us that the governing authorities do not “bear the sword for nothing.” Romans 13:4 (post-Christ). Further, the same Mosaic law that says not to kill also enjoins killing on people committing various particular crimes, including especially murder. God ordered the Israelite army to kill the infidels in Canaan (post-Mosaic law). God instituted governments to maintain order and to protect its citizens, and clearly authorizes “force” and even killing to that end.

    As to individual persons, the Mosaic law also authorizes force or even killing for protection of oneself and his family from assault. However, Jesus clearly points out that harming or killing others out of ANGER is sinful; thus, Jesus “gets at the heart of the matter” by pointing out that such killings are due to a defective “heart condition” (which is itself sinful even without action). Without recognizing this “limitation” of the bar against killing to anger (or, perhaps some others), condemning ALL “killing” can lead to serious error.

    Tom Harkins 02/10/2011

    • brentwhite Says:


      One idea I’m exploring, which I’ve never thought much about before, is that all rightful killing in the OT, whether through war or capital punishment, is authorized by God using human agency. In other words, life belongs to God, and only God can rightly take it. This is true even though God uses human agents. Ancient Israel is a true theocracy, though, so perhaps the ambiguity of state-sanctioned killing is minimized.

      Paul’s words in Romans 13 surely don’t imply that might makes right—and because God institutes governments in general to maintain justice, etc., that anything the government does is just. Jesus is a victim of the worst miscarriage of justice in history. Regardless, the principle from the OT still holds: only God has the right to take a life. When a state kills today, they are standing in for God. That being the case, the circumstances under which the state should kill should at least be severely limited.

      It’s not clear that anything you’ve said disagrees with the excerpt I quoted. What is it about these words from Hauerwas and Willimon that you find troubling?

      I worry that the church and Christians mostly just go along with whatever their favorite party or politician supports without thinking through consequences very much. If “my guy” leads us into war, then of course the cause is just! If not, then we’re suspicious. We ought to always be suspicious of our leaders’ motivations for war and extremely reluctant to kill.

      I’m not a pacifist, but Hauerwas is. When challenged about the practicality of that approach, Hauerwas says, “What’s the worst that’s going to happen? We get killed? We’re Christians! There are worse things than dying.”

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, you ask, “What was troubling?” It’s how the excerpt started: “In saying that God’s people are not to take life, the commandments put us at odds with every government on earth. Governments put themselves in the place of God and kill to defend themselves and their vaunted claims of sovereignty.” Good governments at as God’s “agents,” as opposed to “putting themselves in the place of God,” as Paul points out. I do agree that various governments at various times fail to live up to those responsibilities (such as with Christ), and that, for example, we should not have the attitude of, “America, do or die,” if our government commits atrocities. But just because governments “kill” in the execution of the responsibilities does not make governments bad–it’s how and why and when they do so. That was my consideration.

    • brentwhite Says:

      This is one excerpt in a lengthy chapter, so I’m not providing the entire context. But the fact remains that the Christian tradition of “just war theory,” to which many American evangelical Christians subscribe, greatly limits the circumstances under which we assume this agency to act in God’s stead. Once we enter a war under those circumstances, it constrains the way we fight the war as well.

      What modern state is truly being faithful to those principles? None that I know of. War may be the lesser of two evils, as a last resort to restrain evil, but make no mistake: there’s still plenty of evil in it, even if we think we’re on the side of the angels. Also, if we followed the principles that Hauerwas and Willimon discuss in the book, if we the church became a more peaceful and peace-loving people, we might avoid bringing so many confrontations to the brink of war in the first place. The world needs the church’s witness on this matter—to say, “Here’s what it looks like to live as a peaceful people; to control our anger and desire for vengeance; to trust God with the future instead of always taking the future into our own hands; to ‘turn the other cheek,’ even when doing so is very costly.”

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