When it comes to this commandments, most people think of themselves as scot free regarding the fifth.
“I never killed anyone!”
And to be sure most of us (I pray) are not murderers.
But this commandment goes beyond the mere act of killing. Yes, most of us will not willfully take an innocent human life. And a lot of ink has already been spilled on issues of abortion and euthanasia. These are incredibly pressing and important topics, but I would like to spend time on something a little closer to home.
But do we kill people with our anger?
Let me be clear, there is nothing sinful about anger speaking purely about it as an emotional reaction. We may not have control over our immediate emotional response. If someone steps on our toes or cuts us off in traffic, we may feel the made flush of anger rise up in us. This is not a sin, it is only a feeling.
And to go further, not all anger is bad. Jesus never sinned. But if you look at the Gospels, Jesus got angry quite a lot. Anger at sin and injustice can be a positive force that can fuel the fire for positive change in the world. Abolitionists were angry about the dehumanization of slavery. Pro-lifers are angry about the murder of the unborn.
CS Lewis wrote, “Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery We ought to hate them… But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry the man should have done such things, and hoping… he can be cured and made human again.” (Mere Christianity Book III, Ch. 7, Paragraph 6)
Yet nurturing unjust anger and wrath can be a sin against the 5th commandment. If a man steps on my foot I may feel anger. But my reason allows me the choice about forgiving him or not. My emotions may push towards confrontation. But my reason tells me to offer forgiveness. If I do not listen to reason and allow my anger to be uncontrolled, this may lead me to sin.
We are getting into a bit of a murky area because we each have to work out in our consciences what would be an appropriate response. It is possible that yelling at the man who steps on our toes for his carelessness may be justified and even be an act of charity in that it helps the man be more careful. But we have all had those moments where, even if our anger is justified, we use our anger as an excuse to release more venom than is necessary. The danger with letting anger be your driving force is that it often seeks satisfaction in injuring another.
And this sin can occur if we nurture the anger against another person rather than move towards forgiveness. Suppose that after the man stepped on my toes I fixed in my mind a desire for his ill. If the man came to mind at some later date, I would intentionally mentally stoke that anger and hatred of him. Perhaps I would plot some kind of revenge.
This is where anger can be sinful. If I think about this man at a later date, I may feel the rising red tide of anger. But my calling in that moment is to make the willful choice to forgive him and wish not for his ill but for his good. We often speak of the phrase, “Forgive and forget.” This is difficult when our emotional response remains potent. But this simply means that we are required to continually set our will to the disposition of forgiveness even when we do not feel like it.
Because anger can injure people deeply. We are told that sticks and stones will break our bones but words will never hurt us. And yet aren’t some of the most lasting scars on us the words people have said? Can you not still remember some of the most hurtful words slung at you and doesn’t the sting of it still feel raw? I can engage in some kind activity like writing and even if 100 people say positive things, I find myself obsessing about the 1 mean remark someone has made.
And the words people say can destroy us. As I high school teacher I can see the way that others use words as weapons. How many young people embrace self-hatred because people dehumanize them with their words? And in the online age, people tend to be more free with their hatred when they are entrenched behind internet anonymity
And we really do kill people’s spirits with our words. The 5th commandments makes us take stock of how we speak to others and if we are trying to help or injure our brothers and sisters.
I have spent a good deal of time talking about words because this is an often overlooked part of the commandment. But physical harm is also covered here. We are not talking about playful rough-housing or strain of appropriate sports. We are also not talking about self-defense, appropriate police or military violence, or even acceptable corporal punishment of children. Here we are talking about those who physically assault another with the intent to cause real harm.
This is also the case when we harm ourselves. We are speaking of general stoic self-denial, but of intentional inflicting of pain on the self, like cutting. Usually self-harm is the effect of some deeper emotional or psychological issue. But we must recognize our value and how this injury is wrong.
In addition, when we abuse drugs or alcohol we harm ourselves. In addition, when we put ourselves into an intoxicated state, we place not only ourselves in danger, but we place anyone around in danger as well. That is because intoxication removes or blunts the rational part of our mind and may prevent us from making poor decisions that can have deadly consequences, such as drinking and driving. This is why intentional intoxication is considered a mortal sin. Thomas Aquinas made this point clear in his Summa Theologiae (II.2.150.2).
Above all the commandment calls us to recognize the great gift that is each human life. We all have value as children of God. And beyond that, Christ died to redeem each of us. In God’s eyes, the life of each man and woman was worth the life of His only Son.
And we must recognize this value in others with our thoughts, words, and actions.
© W.L. Grayson, 2017