Saturday, October 22, 2005

Don't Kill the Egyptian

The young Moses was full of zeal (the kind that St Paul would later call “unenlightened”). He had been brought up in Pharaoh’s house, but he knew he was a Hebrew by birth. So “he went out to his people and looked on their burdens” (Exodus 2:11), with a desire to help them. He saw one of his people being beaten by an Egyptian and was filled with indignation. Seeing no one in the area, he took justice into his own hands and killed the Egyptian (though it was not really justice, for he took much more than “an eye for an eye”). Convinced now that he could right all wrongs, he discovered two Hebrews fighting and tried to get the one who started it to see his error, on the grounds of their common blood and heritage. What he got in reply was this: “Who made you a prince and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (2:14). As soon as Pharaoh got wind of it, he sought to kill Moses, who then fled in fear.

The first lesson here is that killing only begets more killing. Moses thought he was solving a problem (eliminating an aggressor) by doing something worse than the aggressor was doing. It is wrong to beat; it is more wrong to kill. Moses killed; the other Hebrew was then in fear of being killed; then Pharaoh threatened to kill, so Moses was afraid of being killed. Thus turns the vicious circle of aggression, murder and fear.

Some people think it is in the best interests of our country to kill people in other countries, especially if they are doing something wrong, or are a perceived threat (in this context we'll prescind from the baser motives of economic advantage or international hegemony). We tend to do that by more or less indiscriminately blowing up cities. (It’s true that we then drop down food and medicine to minimally help with recovery, though that’s rather like beating someone up and then handing him some aspirin and band-aids. Thanks, but I’d have been much better off it you hadn’t beat me up in the first place.)

Other people think that it is in their personal best interests to kill little defenseless people in their own wombs, who may be perceived as a threat to their economic well-being, or who would tend to cast a wet blanket (or diaper) on their self-centered lifestyle.

In the short term, all of these people might feel a little relief. Good, we’ve killed some terrorists (sorry about the women and children; it’s the price of “freedom”), and thus we’ve rid the world of their pestilence. Good, I’m not pregnant anymore, so I can toss all those worries out the window. But killing begets killing. Because we’ve killed some terrorists, the remaining terrorists are angry and will kill some of us. Then we’ll get really mad and kill more of them, the whole lot of them! And the world will be safe and democracy will flourish—until another train or plane or skyscraper or customer in a restaurant unexpectedly blows up; it will not end. And since many have succeeded in killing their unborn (or partially-born) children, others will think that’s a good solution—though they don’t yet know about the psychiatrist’s bills and valium prescriptions and nightmares.

Much of this has to do with utilizing bad means to attain (perceived) good ends. National security and prosperity is good—how low shall we descend to insure it? Personal autonomy and freedom is good—how many babies have to die to preserve it? The Catholic Church has always taught that it is immoral to use bad means to achieve good ends (those mentioned above are only relative goods, anyway).

That is actually what I meant to write about in the first place. Moses thought that killing the Egyptian was the way to vindicate his compatriot. Pharaoh thought that killing Moses was the way to vindicate Moses’ killing of the Egyptian. The reading of salvation history—to be sure, it was a painfully gradual enlightenment—shows that it doesn’t work that way, and Jesus’ own teaching seals the issue.

We also have to look at ourselves and see which Egyptians we are killing in order to get the job done and achieve the desired outcome. Do we think, for example, that character assassinations must accompany the proclamation of the truth? We see a lot of that in both political and religious debates. Explain the issue; point out what is right and what is wrong; but don’t kill the Egyptian. You only compound the problem. We may wish to help people who need it, but do we deliberately hurt others in the process?

Think about whatever values you wish to maintain and whatever goals you wish to achieve. Then think about the means you employ (or perhaps the moral compromises you tolerate) in order to secure them. Is it worth it? What price will you have to pay tomorrow for killing the Egyptian today? It is not only literal killing that begets killing. Sin begets sin. Dishonesty begets dishonesty. But love begets love, and that should be where we come in.

There are many powers at work in the world that are beyond our control. That may be frustrating, but we are called to act within the counsels of the Gospel. We have to stand before God with a clear conscience, unwilling to be co-conspirators in the unraveling of the moral fabric of human society. God will have the last word; through repentance let us wash the blood off our hands and stand with Him in purity of heart and intention, speaking the truth in love. It is ours to testify; it is his to pass judgment. And He will.