Is Murder Always Murder? A Response to Dr. Munson by Dr. Hector Avalos, Iowa State University

Prof. Henry Munson

Writing book reviews is no facile task.  A reviewer must be familiar with the subject matter, and also show some familiarity with the ancillary issues that a book might raise, especially those that are outside of one’s immediate field. That is why I am usually very grateful that someone even deigns to read one of my books. 

Dr. Henry Munson, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Maine, reviewed my latest book, The Reality of Religious Violence: From Biblical to Modern Times (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019) in the prestigious Journal of the American Academy of Religion 88, no. 3 (September, 2020): 900–902. 

Dr. Munson is generally accurate and fair about my viewpoint on the relationship between religion and violence, but he clearly is unfamiliar with the Bible and with ethical reasoning. Despite being a trained anthropologist (as am I), he is not self-aware of his ethical or cultural terminology. 
As a principal example, I will focus on his critique of my view of killing for religious and for secular reasons. Munson begins with an accurate statement of my definition of religion: 
Avalos defines religion as “a mode of life and thought which presupposes the existence of, and relationship with, unverifiable forces and/or beings’ (3). These unverifiable forces and beings are conventionally referred to as “supernatural.” Avalos sees belief in supernatural forces or beings as “an essential component” of religion (17). He argues that “the lack of verifiability in religious belief differentiates ethically the violence attributed to religion from the violence attributed to non-religious factors” (8). 
Munson also is generally accurate in this description of my main argument:
This in turn leads to what he describes as his main argument, which is that “religious violence is always ethically objectionable, while the same cannot be said of non-religious violence (8).
He attempts to substantiate this remarkable argument by comparing two cases: “I must kill you with my gun because you are threatening to kill me with your gun” and “I must kill a gay person because God wants me to kill persons who are gay” (27). 
Avalos claims that “verifiability/ falsifiability” is the key distinction between the two cases. In the first case, he argues, “I can verify or falsify that someone has a gun and is threatening me,” whereas in the second case, “no one can verify or falsify that God has told anyone to kill people who are gay (27).”
So far so good. But then Munson diverges into ethical reasoning that is inexplicable: 
Avalos’s argument is clearly fallacious. The first case involves self-defense, whereas the second one involves the intentional murder of someone because of their sexual orientation. 
In other words, the second case involves what is now often referred to as a “hate crime.” Killing a gay person for being gay is murder and a hate crime regardless of whether the murder is justified in religious or secular terms. 
One who kills a gay person because one believes that  homosexuality is "unnatural" and "perverted" is no less culpable than one who kills a gay person because one believes that "God wants me to kill persons who are gay." The unverifiability of religious claims about supernatural beings is irrelevant in this case. 
Munson’s objection clearly does not recognize the difference between a value judgment and an empirical judgment in ethics.  
Indeed, there has been a substantive discussion in both legal and anthropological literature about the rationales that might classify an act as “murder” in one socio-cultural context, but not in another (see Hatch; Herskovits; Hinton; Levy; Shapiro; Wong; Xiao and Huang—a contrary, but superficial popular argument, is given by Merritt). 
Consider the concept of “self-defense.” Why does Munson think that destroying an alternate form (“the Other”) of “sexual orientation” does not constitute a case of “self-defense” for the killer? It is the threat of homosexuality to a society that prompts such killings for some. In fact, we have two words we can distinguish:  
Killing: The taking of a life, which is an empirical judgment. 
Murder: The taking of a life in an “unlawful” manner, which is a value judgment. Murder is simply a killing that is unauthorized by the system in power. Abortion is considered “murder” by some in our society but not by others.
Our law code has the following definition: “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.”  (“18 U.S. Code § 1111.Murder” Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute: 
Note that one key word here is “unlawful” because any state or culture can declare a killing to be “lawful” or “unlawful.” If tomorrow the Supreme Court deems all abortion as murder or as a hate crime against the unborn, then that is what our legal system will follow. 
Biblical translations that substitute “kill” for “murder” are precisely based on the claim that killing and murder can be used differently depending on one’s own religious orientation. The biblical scholar, Wilma Ann Bailey, remarks: “Most killing throughout history has taken place within the context of what is legal (e.g., war, capital punishment) and therefore exempt from this commandment in the minds of many people” (see also Crouch; Kelley). 
What are called “honor killings,” which impose the death penalty on members of a family thought to be violating some religious or cultural rule would be examples where “self defense” could be invoked by the killers. Note these comments by John Allan Cohan, a legal analyst:
It is difficult for proponents to argue that the cultural defense should be allowed in some cases but not others where a reasonable person of the defendant's culture would excuse or justify the conduct in question. The cultural defense is still in a tentative stage, and appears to be a growing component in jurisprudence.  
First, Munson is using his own terminology (“hate crime”) that is relative to the modern culture whose ethical values he endorses. Frankly, it is astounding that a trained anthropologist would not have encountered some literature about cultural or moral relativism in the case of “murder.” 
I also would regard killing gay people as a hate crime, but I would not say that all cultures do so, especially in pre-modern times. This observation is an empirical one, and not a value judgment. 
Second, Munson does not seem to realize that some authors in the Bible espouse the killing of male who lies with another male. Leviticus 20:13 states: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” 
Committing “an abomination” (תּוֹעֵבָ֥ה) constitutes a lethal transgression that can threaten an entire society. Killing gay people can become, therefore, a case of self-defense for those in power in that society. 
And does Munson think that Leviticus is advocating a “hate crime” or “murder”? If so, that makes my point stronger: Hatred against gay people originates mainly with religious texts, not secular ones.  
Deuteronomy 7:4 provides a self-defense rationale for killings of people with different religious or cultural practices: “For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.”  
The irony is that Munson himself thinks that religion can cause violence, as he does in his review of religion and violence:
Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions do so out of moral outrage provoked by their conviction that abortion is murder. Similarly, ultra-Orthodox Jews who throw rocks at Jews who drive on the Sabbath also evince moral outrage provoked by the violation of religious belief. 
Religion does not serve as a mere marker of identity in these cases. But if we look at the ‘religious conflicts’ in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, India and Sri Lanka, religion does indeed serve primarily as a marker. In all of these cases religion also provides useful demonizing myths to legitimate the slaughter of the Other. But to insist that these cases are primarily religious is as misleading as the assertion that they have nothing to do with religion. 
So, does Munson not think those who regard abortion as “murder” are automatically correct or ethically justified if they are killing some doctors to defend the unborn? 
Third, seeing a gun pointed at me is not the same as the claim that some invisible being told me to kill a gay person. In the case of the gun being pointed at me, others can see the firearm. In the case of the claim about God, others may not detect any supernatural entity communicating with me.  
There is an enormous ethical difference in killing for a reason that is clearly visible (a gun pointed at me) instead of for one that is not (God speaking to me). How would that be irrelevant ethically? 
In a subsequent section, Munson attempts to diminish what I see as very rational arguments. 
In general, however, the strong arguments Avalos makes are outnumbered and overshadowed by the weak ones—some of which are preposterous. He argues, for example, that “just as we should reject all of Mein Kampf for its racist or genocidal policies, we should reject the Bible for any genocidal policies it ever endorsed” (408).  
He acknowledges that “both genocide and peacemaking exist in the Hebrew Bible,” but he argues that “as long as one holds any part of any scripture commanding or condoning genocide as sacred or authoritative, then any of the positive parts of the larger work do not matter” (131). 
Note that, for Munson, positive ideas outweigh genocidal ones when evaluating a literary corpus that contains both. 
The fact is that one can find dozens of references to “peace” and “peaceful” to describe Nazi policy or culture in Mein Kampf. One example is: 
It torments those whom it fills and denies them contentment and happiness until the gates of their father’s house open, and in the common Reich, common blood gains peace and tranquility (Manheim edition, pp. 124-125).
Sie qüalt die von ihr Erfassten und verweigert ihnen Zufridenheit und Glüd so lange, bis die Tore des Vaterhauses sie öffnen und im gemeinsamen Reiche das Gemeinsame Blut Frieden und Ruhe wiederfindet (Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 136; for a critical textual edition of Mein Kampf consult Hartmann, et al.,).         
Does Munson now think that the numerous mentions of “peace” renders Mein Kampf an acceptable authority on ethics? 
In fact, Mein Kampf does not have anything as explicit as what one finds in Deuteronomy 7:1-2: 
When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. 
So, what is so “preposterous,” about the argument that the endorsement of genocide should disqualify a collection of texts from serving as a moral authority despite having references to “peace,” which often is simply another term for what is acceptable to those using that word? 
I don’t envy reviewers who are not competent in the fields of other scholars. In this case, Munson is clearly not familiar with ethics or biblical studies. He does not seem familiar with Mein Kampf or Nazi literature in general.  Munson was chosen to write this review perhaps because of his extensive work on violence.  Otherwise, this is not the most optimal review. 
1. Does every culture define all acts (e.g., abortion, capital punishment) as “murder” in the same way? 
2. Why is it “preposterous” to argue that any collection of texts that endorses genocide should ever serve as a moral authority even if they endorse other actions that we might call “good”? 
3. Do you believe that it is self-defense or “irrelevant” to kill someone for an act in which the threat is detectable (e.g., a pointed gun) regardless of religious views as opposed to a threat (e.g., God speaking to me) that is detectable only for those who share the same religious views? 
NOTE: Unless noted otherwise, all of our biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version, adapted (e.g., diacritics are removed from all words) from Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). 
Bailey, Wilma Ann, "You Shall Not Kill" or "You Shall Not Murder"?": The Assault on a Biblical Text (Collegeville, MN:Michael Glazier, 2005), p.   viii. 
Cohan, John Allan, “Honor Killings and the Cultural Defense,” California Western International Law Journal 40, no. 2 (Spring, 2010), pp. 177-252; quote at p. 252. 
Crouch, C. L. War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military        Violence in the Light of Cosmology and History (Berlin: DeGruyter, 2009). 
González-Ruibal, Alfredo, “Ethics of Archaeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 47 (October 2018), pp. 345-360. 
Hartmann, Christian, Othmar Plöckinger, Roman Töppel, Thomas Vordermayer, and Edith Raim, Hitler, Mein Kampf: Eine kritische Edition (2 vols.; Munich: Institut für Zeitgeschichte, 2016). 
Hatch, Elvin, Culture and Morality: The Relativity of Values in Anthropology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). 
Herskovits, Melville J., Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism (New York: Vintage, 1973). 
Hinton, Alexander Laban, ed., Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide (Berkeley: University of California, 2002). 
Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf (München: Müller, 1938). 
Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf  (trans. Ralph Manheim; Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1971). 
Kelley, Shawn, Genocide, the Bible, and Biblical Scholarship (Leiden: Brill, 2016). 
Levy, Neil, Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction (London:Oneworld, 2002). 
Merritt, Jonathan, “The Death of Moral Relativism,” The Atlantic (March 25, 2016) at     moral-relativism/475221/ 
Munson, Henry, “Religion and Violence: A Review Essay,” Religion 35, no. 4 (October 2005), pp. 223-246. My quote is on p. 237. 
Shapiro, Scott J., Legality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University   Press, 2011), especially pp. 62-65. 
Wong, David B.  Moral Relativism (Berkeley: University of California, 1984).
Xiao, Yang and Yong Huang eds., Moral Relativism and Chinese Philosophy: David Wong and His Critics (SUNY series in    Chinese Philosophy and Culture; Albany, NY: SUNY, 2015).