From time to time I see again before me the scene I came across at a small street corner one summer afternoon. It looked innocuous enough; a group of teenagers were standing around in a circle. But in the centre, on the pavement, was a bleeding hedgehog and they were stoning it to death. Its back was already broken and the blood was seeping out beneath the crushed crust of spikes. The teens weren’t upset; they were laughing. The hedgehog was dying, slowly.
Of course it’s not the same when it’s people who are being killed. I don’t know if it’s true that we’re now living in a time of renewed barbarism. Perhaps it has always been there, only more out of sight. We are all guilty of letting others die, of hunger, from curable illness, as ‘collateral damage’ in conflict.
But the beheadings by Isis, the burning alive, the ‘suicide’ murders, the culture of killing, – these are terrifying demonstrations of calculated savagery, and they are not far away from us now. One can see in them, only writ far larger, the same the contempt for life, the same creation of comradeship through rituals of cruelty, the same disdain for anyone who might attempt to call the perpetrators to account, that I saw in embryo that summer afternoon.
This week we read from the Ten Commandments in the Torah. The sixth says simply ‘Thou shalt not murder’, – in Hebrew it’s just two words, Lo tirtsach. The great commentator Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo son of Isaac, (11th century France), has nothing to say about them: the meaning of the injunction is surely obvious.
Rabbi Moses son of Nachman (c13th Spain and Israel) does choose to elaborate:
- I have commanded you to acknowledge in thought and deed that I created all things. Take heed, therefore, lest you destroy the work of my hands and shed the blood of human beings whom I created…
His words, ‘the blood of human beings,’ offer an important indication. To the Nazis the Jews were first reclassified as sub-human then murdered. The Hutus said the same of the Tutsis in Rwanda: they were snakes. The ‘believers’ in Isis say the same of the ‘non- believers’, who therefore apparently deserve to die. Dan Pagis understood this issue well when he wrote of the Nazis in Testimony
No, no: they definitely were / human beings: uniforms, boots.
How to explain? They were / created in the image.
I was a shade. / A different creator made me…
We all have our ‘others’, our potential ‘shades’. As Jacques Derrida wrote, identity cannot be established without alterity, without at the same time forming, if only by implication, the group of those who do not belong. Most of us seek identity; we see belonging as a great good and the stronger the group the better.
It therefore behoves us to be extremely careful to accord to our ‘others’, whoever they may, exactly and precisely the same dignity and prerogatives we claim for ourselves. Are we not all ‘created in the image’? Samson Raphael Hirsch, writing in mid-nineteenth century Germany just as Jews gained full citizenship, commented on the 6th commandment in precisely these terms:
- Your fellow human beings have been placed next to you by God. Their rights are sanctified by God, their life, their honour, their freedom, their happiness…
Without stating it explicitly, he was clearly addressing an essential feature of the emerging modern world: identity is multiple and complex. Though heritage and allegiances may differentiate us in some ways (she is Muslim; I am Jewish) deeper bonds unite us. If we’re British, or French, or Canadian, we’re all citizens of the same country. Wherever we are, we’re certainly all citizens of the same imperilled world. We all share the basic needs of flesh and blood. We are all live and breathe by grace of the one God, the one vitality, which animates all existence.