Chicken or the Egg: “Thou Shalt not Kill” or “Close the Wealth Gap”
by Dr. Robert Dickson Crane
This morning, August 27th, 2007, the poor in New Mexico are staging a demonstration against President Bush’s visit there in this quintessential swing-state to garner campaign funds from among the rich. My wife is helping to lead the demonstration with her hurriedly drafted sign, “Thou shalt not kill.” I urged her to carry a large sign reading, “Close the Wealth Gap.” Why the difference?
The problem today is not merely the crimes in Iraq that started there three years ago with the American strategy of “shock and awe”. It applies to about a hundred other such aggressions around the world that the U.S. military has committed in defense of “freedom.” Since in President Bush’s eyes America’s identity is based on freedom, the justification of self-defense requires that we defend freedom all over the world, regardless of how many people must die in the process. In Iraq “freedom” is a synonym for the “collateral damage” of “chaos” in an attempted rape of Iraq’s natural resources. The Arabic word they use is hiraba, which is brigandage designed to destroy society and most simply can be translated as “terrorism”. This, however, is not the real crime.
The real crime lies in ignoring the long-run causes of instability and chaos and in addressing only the short-term effects. The real threat to America is neither the terrorism of Osama bin Laden nor the terroristic counter-terrorism of the Neo-Cons, because they are both primarily an effect of global injustices. The word justice does not exist in President Bush’s vocabulary except as a synonym for revenge (though some speech writers have on at least four occasion during the past six years inserted it in one or another of his speeches as something related to morality).
Should “Thou shalt not kill” take priority over “Close the wealth gap”? This is a matter also of definition. Most pacifists accept the exception of self-defense, as when one cannot afford to risk using merely a “minimum amount of force in self-defense” against someone who is about to kill your child or mother. The concept and movement of absolute pacifism has resulted, in part, because of the misuse of the term “self-defense”.
Anyone can manipulate the self-defense argument to justify aggression and even genocide. The die-hard NeoCons still insist that they must conquor the world, regardless of what it costs in human lives, in order to maintain global stability and prevent global chaos, because otherwise they will lose control, which is why they must conquor the world even though they create global chaos in the attempt, which is why they must conquor the world, etc. A great circular argument.
How do pacifists deal with “Thou shalt not kill” in the context of a court order for execution designed for punishment or for deterrence of capital crimes? Isn’t this necessary for society’s self-defense? Again, who is going to define what is necessary? In Egypt it is a capital crime publically to call for regime change. And when President Ahmadinejad called for regime change in Israel and America this was grossly mistranslated as calling for the elimination of Israel and for an attack on America, which obviously requires us to bomb Iran back to the stone age or, as one presidential candidate extrapolated, might require us to defend America by bombing Mecca as a necessary strategy of shock and awe.
Absolute pacifism, the total renunciation of force in human affairs, would make sense if self-defense is based in practice on absolute standards of justice. Unfortunately, although there is such a thing as a just society in theory, we’ve never seen one yet.
Many classical Islamic scholars contend that the hadd of cutting off hands for theft is valid only in a just society, and even then is not permissible if the thief repents before he is apprehended. The Caliph Umar canceled the hadd punishment when people were going hungry, which shows that the various hudud are conditional upon circumstances. This is in accord with the Islamic legal system which weighs competing priorities among universal principles of human rights, so that no hadd will be applied out of a universal context
All this goes to show that the general rule to be applied today and always must be the fifth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” which Muslims are to accept as part of the divine law revealed to all the prophets throughout human history. The law of ‘urf , known in most legal systems as “common law” or “customary law”, is accepted by Islamic law on the principle that whatever does not contradict revealed law is valid. It is perhaps unique in Islamic law that each religion has the right to apply its own standards for application to its own adherents as part of its own ‘urf, so long as they do not contradict the consensus of society’s leaders.
Furthermore, in a country that bans religion from political power, like the United States, we have what is known as “civil law,” which is a society-wide consensus on the universal principles that emerge from all religions and from natural law. This is a fundamental principle of the Islamic shari’ah, because any “religious state,” where a single religion has a political monopoy, by definition must violate the right to freedom of religion.
Freedom of religion, haqq al din, is the very first principle of the maqasid al shari’ah, which are the universal purposes and principles of revealed law as developed by classical Islamic scholars. This set of universal principles or kulliyat form the most sophisticated code of human responsibilities and rights ever devised. They define the meaning of justice.
Of course, Christendom and Islamdom, in their actual practice of these universal principles, have spotty records in all areas human rights, which is why America’s founders in the Preamble to the Constitution listed justice first among the purposes of the Great American Experiment and freedom last as an effect or product of justice.
People of different religions and denominations even argue which commandment forbids killing human beings. My wife’s sign cites the sixth commandment, whereas some Catholics will die for their contention that it is the fifth. It is the fifth commandment for Catholics and Lutherans, who combine the first two, but the sixth for Jews, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestant denominations. The original Jewish list totalled twenty-one.
The Catholics also combine coveting thy neighbor’s goods with coveting his wife, which might indicate that his wife is property. Some Muslims, in effect, would combine murder and adultery because they consider them to be equally offensive against God. I would agree in this, but I still think they should be kept separate. And I do not support capital punishment for either crime, simply because the justice that might result is too great. In fact, as a matter of fundamental principle the state has no business punishing people for any sexual immorality other than rape, which has little to do with sex.
The conclusion must be that all of the ten or more commandments are interdependent. If one calls for one, one is calling for them all, because justice is indivisible.
This highlights the requirement in justice to perfect our existing institutions in order to “Close the Wealth Gap”. This is a call to respect human life, because the economic inequities created by our our current institutions of money and credit have helped to create the chaos that allegedly requires mass murder in self-defense. As I put it in my last column, on August 24th, 2007, we must recognize that Islamic economics or any other economics must be a total revolution in order to pursue justice. Only then can we make headway in pursuing the universal law embodied in “Thou shalt not kill.”