Like many of us perhaps, I frequently encounter a steady stream of conspiracy theories about those among us who “don’t deserve to live.” The categories listed seem to expand every time I see it: liberals, Hollywood and political elites, people of color, LGTBQ+ folks, and, of course, everyone who had the misfortune of being born outside of our borders. The list goes on, I am sure.
I (and virtually everyone I know) will one day be on that list. Those who do this killing (theoretically or otherwise) have gone by many names over time: lynch mob, death squad, vigilantes, and more. What do they often have in common? They kill in the name of God, cause, or country. Many justify their blood-taking by the Bible.
“Thou shall not kill,” as many pastors including my own insist, has an asterisk beside it—an all-purpose disclaimer that allows or even justifies killing for any cause required by the party or the faith. But if that Commandment allows exceptions, why not any of the others?
Could any of us even begin to imagine a community or even an individual life where the Commandments – without exception – were followed? Where killing of fellow creatures – not behavior or beliefs – is what was not tolerated or excused?
Killing in the name of God should be the ultimate oxymoron – the most extreme self-canceling, obvious-to-all contradiction. And yet it is the one “philosophical exception” most of us hold to and defend passionately. It is the one “right” that we protect so dearly that it almost defines us. In fact, most of us have a working list of those we would be “better off without.”
We rarely speak of or even acknowledge such a list; we even more rarely act on it. But acting on it is always, in most cases, justified—or so it seems. Whether it is revenge, patriotism, or defending a way of life, killing seems to be always an option (maybe even the preferred option) among us. This primary belief, though few of us recognize it, surges through our conspiracy theories, our national anthems, and our personal philosophies. From Cain to the latest mass shooting in our headlines, murder – its action or its justification – hangs over us like a spirit of our own creation, a specter of death and destruction. We might mistakenly, almost romantically, call it power.
History, God, and even our own consciences might consider it a paltry power, but this power to take life in the name of our own cause is a distorting and potent elixir. It’s not just a surging lynch mob or murderous group of vigilantes, it is us: we humans who love blood and will do anything to preserve our right to take it.
The question remains, though: who among us is worthy?
The irony in this reality is that the philosophy is half true. The Bible clearly tells us (and I think, in our hearts, we all know) that no one is righteous, no one is perfect, no one of us deserves the fragile, beautiful, and wondrous gift of life. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all premised on the belief that life is an incomprehensible miracle, one that no person or belief system can fully comprehend or control.
Life and community—like peace—pass our understanding. We are created in the living image of a being, a presence, a power we could not even begin to explain or comprehend. Our humility, as well as our grandeur, is beyond us. That’s the half that is true.
The half that is not true is the presumption that followers in any particular belief system are exempt from any “list” of who “doesn’t deserve to live.” And, further into the falsehood, is the belief that they or someone in their name is authorized to ensure that those who “don’t deserve to live” are actively persecuted. The Holocaust, pogroms, persecutions, slavery, and even bullying would not exist without people like this.
Murder is only possible if one presumes that others “don’t deserve to live”.
To put together such a list is a direct contradiction of anything remotely resembling any ‘Gospel’ as well as a declaration against humanity – against being human.
Virtually every faith tradition calls us to welcome, to heal, to restore, and forgive – to celebrate even – those who are outside of our traditions and our ways.
It is real work to do that, of course.
And we’d rather not. Sometimes.
Even when we are willing, it is often a sacrifice – but usually a sacrifice with rewards we cannot begin to define. God, as always, calls us to a larger vision—one that gives and advocates for life. There are those who claim to act in God’s name, who use faith to reduce life, to cut us off from what would restore and redeem us. To condemn those who we could, if we were humble and teachable, actually learn from. Our faith could grow deeper and our compassion and humility more grounded and fruitful were we to posture ourselves with curiosity over condemnation.
Wishing people death—or nodding in agreement with others who do—will not bring us life, freedom, or satisfaction. Bullies, from the schoolyard to the boardroom to the halls of power, operate on the assumption that some people, some human beings created in the image of the living God, are expendable and disposable. But they forget that God has his eye on the fragile and dispossessed (as well as on those who take unfair advantage of them). Justice might feel far away, and it often is, but it is never absent.
As we should have learned from the Holocaust, death is never satisfied. Death, like every fire, is never quenched by feeding it more. The “list” is never complete until no one – or everyone – is on it.