Many people were upset when Bashar al-Assad indiscriminately killed civilians, including children and babies, with chemical weapons. In contrast, we have become numb and insensitive to six years of civil war in Syria and to the killing and maiming of at least 470 thousand people with guns, cluster bombs, thermobaric bombs, barrel bombs, illness, and malnutrition. I don’t think I’d be less distraught if my child were killed by a bullet or bomb or lack of food than by a chemical agent. Is one method of killing more humane than another? Are “rules” for war an oxymoron?
In our own country, Arkansas is rushing to kill seven prison inmates with a chemical before the state’s supply of the chemical runs out. We no longer kill prisoners by hanging, firing squad, gas chamber, or electric chair, but we still use lethal injections IF the injections kill quickly enough and do not cause physical reactions that are disturbing to witnesses. Our society continues to search for methods of killing people that are “comfortable” for the general population. I’ve never understood the logic that deliberately killing someone is so heinous a crime that society must deliberately kill the killer.
Then by coincidence many people this week are celebrating two religious traditions that also involve killing. Jews celebrate Passover, which commemorates the mythological story of their ancestors being spared death by killing lambs and smearing blood on their doors while the god they worshiped killed the oldest child in every family of an entire nation. According to Hebrew scripture, this same god slaughtered many tribes of people, including children, so the Israelites could take over their land. These mass killings make the sacred rule against killing found in several versions of commandments seem hypocritical.
Christians celebrate the killing of Jesus and use the symbol of his crucifixion as the primary logo of Christianity. This symbolic torture device is worn and displayed proudly. According to Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, for centuries god required killing animals to forgive human sin, but then he had his son killed as a final ultimate sacrifice. Even this torture and killing of Jesus did not eliminate sin, it only forgave it. Wouldn’t forgiving sin make sin more likely because the spiritual consequences are easily cancelled. Belief in this mythology is required to get into heaven. The killing of one person to “save” others is idolized.
The third Abrahamic religion, Islam, is feared and denigrated by many non-Muslims because some Islamic scriptures advocate killing infidels. Although some radical, fundamentalist Muslims are brutally violent, the Koran seems to be no more or less violent than the Bible. All three Abrahamic religions condone killing in the name of god.
The Catholic Church has a very long history of torture and killing, including church officials inventing extremely horrific torture devices and creative rationalizations for killing. So few people have strictly adhered to pacifism and nonviolence that they are considered odd and sometimes unacceptable. Conscience objectors to American military service have been punished and considered unpatriotic. A much larger group of people advocate the right of all citizens to be armed in the name of self-defense and safety. Some even revere carrying a lethal weapon at all times.
While we humans struggle with how to reduce violence and killing, we have a very long way to go to minimize killing. It is ingrained in our history, religions, and cultures. It will take much creativity and effort to change our violent human nature. We could start by not idolizing violent gods and impulsive, belligerent political leaders and by not so easily justifying violence and killing. We could replace revenge, retribution and punishment with rehabilitation and restorative justice. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”