The Murder of Laci Peterson
Why did the story of the murder of Laci Peterson catch the nation’s interest a decade ago? I think it had to do with the fact that they were nice looking, white, middle class, educated people and there is a sense that murder only really happens where there is political chaos or poverty or in communities where there are gangs or drug trafficking. This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen to “normal people” (again think race, class, etc.).
When we hear of a murder on TV we instinctively and unconsciously look for a reason why we are safe from being either the perpetrator or the victim. It was because of this person’s race, a mental disorder, a poor family, born to a difficult circumstance, etc.
Tim Keller in his book on Suffering notes that we do this for all sorts of sufferings we see around us.
When we hear of a tragedy , there is a deep-seated psychological defense mechanism that goes to work. We think to ourselves that such things happen to other people , to poor people, or to people who do not take precautions. Or we tell ourselves that if only we get the right people into office and get our social systems right, nothing like this will happen again.
Keller, Timothy (2013-10-01). Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (p. 2). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
Scott Peterson, who continues to sit on death row as his appeals make their way through the system, looked like a nice young man who had a bright future ahead of him. We can find no motive for the killing beyond the simple fact that having a wife and a son seemed to be an intrusion on the kind of life he wished to lead. He didn’t seem to want anything more than just about anyone else wants, he was just more rational and less moral in its pursuit.
There is an ethos in our culture that spurs us on to maximize our personal fulfillment. The demands of fidelity to a marriage and sacrifice for a child naturally impinges upon a person’s freedom. What we see in Scott Peterson’s case is an extreme example of the current values of personal freedom and expressive fulfillment found in our culture as a whole. Young people marry later, have fewer children, divorce or break up more frequently and desire to be unrestricted by the kinds of natural constraints that enduring relationships like spouses and children demand. If your goal is to maximize the kinds of enjoyments that can be best enjoyed by an affluent, single lifestyle then Scott Peterson’s choices seem absolutely rational.
To divorce Laci Peterson would have involved a financial setback. To allow his unborn son to come into the world would have similarly involved money and a loss of status and image if he decided to ignore or disown his own son. He had taken out a life insurance policy on his wife and so he turned a lose/lose into a win/win if he could have in fact gotten away with it.
If you look at the case there is a surprisingly small amount of hard physical evidence to his guilt. He was clearly careful and cautious about most things. What convicted him with the certainty to award him the death penalty was in fact the circumstantial case against him. He wasn’t a very consistent liar. He didn’t create for himself a sufficiently compelling alibi. All of the elements of the case simply pointed to what seemed to be most consistent in his character. He enjoyed a single lifestyle that his looks and personality afforded him and he did what seemed utterly reasonable to allow him to continue to enjoy it as long as he could. Laci and their unborn son were simply obstacles that he disposed of nearly as cleanly as possible.
The Problem of Other Selves
The obstacle in Scott Peterson’s pursuit of the life he always wanted was that he lived in this world with other selves. He enjoyed others persons to the degree that they gave him what he wanted. Given his string of romances both before and after his marriage to Laci he clearly liked women, but he wanted them to enhance his life by making him seem to himself to be the kind of self he valued and cherished. Again, this is not unique to Scott Peterson, this is true of all of us. Our selves are reflected selves and we derive our sense of self to a degree based on how others see us and treat us.
To the degree that Laci Peterson, their son and her family and friends would not go along with the program Scott Peterson had for his idealized life they became obstacles to his desire and he tried to use the power and opportunity he had to eliminate those obstacles. In this case too a third element called “the law” was present that required that Scott NOT simply dispose of other, inconvenient selves demanding that Scott MUST respect those other selves and not use force or power against them. It is that law which now incarcerates him, greatly limits his freedom and may eventually take his life.
Cain and Abel
The first and one of the most famous murders in the Bible and all of human history was of course the Genesis story of Cain murdering his brother Abel.
In the case of Cain and Abel the conflict in question wasn’t even that Abel was standing in Cain’s way. It was, in a sense, a love triangle between Cain, Abel and God. Cain saw that Abel’s sacrifice was more greatly esteemed than his own and this became for him an injury to his self-image.
Abel has not in any way injured Cain. Abel’s sacrifice had nothing to do with Cain. Cain was infuriated with Abel over nothing Abel had done to him. Cain felt his reflected-self threatened and his natural response was anger.
God approached Cain and confronted him about his anger.
Genesis 4:6–7 (NET)
6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why is your expression downcast? 7 Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.”
This one of the most haunting and evocative images of the Bible. “Sin”, expressed in Cain’s anger is imaged as a while animal waiting for Cain to enter unaware to become its prey. Cain is told that HE must subdue this threat or it will consume him, which it in fact will do.
You Shall Not Kill
The command is often translated “you shall not murder” which is apt but a bit less than the scope of the word in Hebrew.
The Hebrew word translated “murder” in the NIV (raṣaḥ) is a common one in the Old Testament. It is a restricted term, generally referring to the killing of someone who is not an “enemy” of the people. In other words, it is not used in contexts of war or just punishment for a crime. It can, however, refer to unintentional killing (e.g., Deut. 4:41–43), a circumstance in which “murder” is not an appropriate term. Thus, perhaps, murder is not as straightforward a translation as might be assumed. If the circularity is not too frustrating, at the very least we can state that there is legitimate and illegitimate killing in the Old Testament and that this commandment refers to any type of killing that God disallows.
Enns, P. (2000). Exodus (p. 422). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
The word emphasizes God’s claim over life. Life is a gift from God. It must be respected and God’s claim upon it must also be respected by the community.
Broader Than Biology
While the commandment address the extreme assault upon life, Jesus and the Christian church after him has seen the commandment as a call to respect the broad liberality that God gives us with biological life.
Jesus famously expands the commandment in the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5:21–22 (NET)
21 “You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell.
Similarly the Heidelberg Catechism sees a gratitude based faithfulness to the commandment in much broader terms than simply prohibiting the ending of biological life.
LORD’S DAY 40
105 Q. What is God’s will for you
in the sixth commandment?
A. I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor–
not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture,
and certainly not by actual deeds–
and I am not to be party to this in others;
rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge.
I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either.
Prevention of murder is also why
government is armed with the sword.
106 Q. Does this commandment refer only to killing?
A. By forbidding murder God teaches us
that he hates the root of murder:
envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness.
In God’s sight all such are murder.
107 Q. Is it enough then
that we do not kill our neighbor
in any such way?
By condemning envy, hatred, and anger
God tells us
to love our neighbors as ourselves,
to be patient, peace-loving, gentle,
merciful, and friendly to them,
to protect them from harm as much as we can,
and to do good even to our enemies.
Reversal of Cain
The commandment expresses the heart of God for the flourishing of life and the use of power for that flourishing.
Cain’s self was reflected and fragile. Instead of being able to celebrate with God the offering of Abel’s good sacrifice Cain saw it as a threat. Cain then moved to snuff out the source of that threat leaving only himself. God’s generosity works in exactly the opposite direction. God creates life for flourishing and wants to see the flourishing continue to expand.
We are naturally predisposed to be small, fragile and threatened and to use power as a means of pursuing “my well-being at your expense”. God works exactly in the opposite direction: “your well-being at my expense” and it is at his expense that we live and flourish.
The Ten Commandments in the Heidelberg Catechism
That quote from the Heidelberg Catechism is one of assertive manifestos of Christian love that exhibits our failure to live up to God’s example and command. I remind people that the Catechism, a document for instructing new Christians in the faith is constructed under three subheadings: misery, deliverance and gratitude. Its treatment of the Ten Commandment falls not under misery nor deliverance but gratitude. Our failure to love is in fact our source of misery but if our deliverance were premised upon our ability to comply we would continue in our misery. This expansion of the commandment falls under gratitude. This is a gift we give back to God after receiving the gift he gives to us.
Options for Addressing the Problem of Other Selves
Scott Peterson: Scott Peterson’s approach (and Cain’s) for addressing the problem of other selves was logical and straightforward. Use power to eliminate the threat, the obstacle or the annoyance so that my self can dominate. This is the most natural, straight forward and practiced approach in human history. It is often curtailed by pesky things like the law but as human beings we prove ourselves to be ingenious in the ways we pursue it.
CS Lewis in the Screwtape letters nicely shows how this approach is completely opposite that of the creator God. Here one demon addresses another.
To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself –creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him, but still distinct.
Screwtape letters, pg. 46
While we can rightly look in horror at Scott Peterson, we should recognize that difference between him and ourselves is simply a matter of degree. Scott rightly saw that to love in this world brings pain and loss. For Scott to rightly love his wife Laci and his unborn son Connor mean that he would have to lose some of himself. He would lose his freedom to pursue other women. He would lose a degree of control over his time, over his money, over his very limited life. Even to divorce his wife would mean compromise, one that he was unwilling to embrace, so he tried to take their lives and to do so without consequence. In this he failed now to his own misery.
Yet is misery is our own. To love is to lose in the age of decay.
The Double Bind of Obedience
Let’s imagine we contemplate the high standard Jesus and the catechism set, that we seek to establish ourselves as the kind of pure lovers described by the catechism. If we do so out of pride, a desire to try to improve ourselves and elevate ourselves in the eyes of our God and our neighbors we will fail yet another test. Once we have established ourselves as great lovers of humanity we will naturally despise all those who have failed to reach our level in our own estimation. We will then be filled with our own self-righteousness, no longer imagining we need God or our neighbors, our power of love will be self-sufficient we imagine. So even in this we fail.
Jesus comes to us realizing our inevitable loss, as Scott Peterson knows, and our small fragility, as Cain sees, and says “you cannot do for yourself, I will do it for you.” Jesus comes to release us from the penalty of our failure to love by his sacrifice and from the fear of the loss that death inevitably brings by his resurrection. This now places us in a completely different space.
Now we are free to love on two counts. We are free to accept the kind of life limiting love that Scott Peterson was unwilling to accept. Yes, to love is to lose but it is only this life within the age of decay that we lose, a life we cannot hold onto anyway. So we take love with the loss, accepting the loss, the compromises together with the joys and glories that even life in this age has to offer. We let go of the desire to use power to secure our liberty and freedom at the expense of others.
We are also freed by knowing that just as Jesus, who gave us pardon at the cost of his life was restored to life with a body that does not decay. This is also our destiny.
I’m just returning from a vacation back east to visit my family where we spent some time looking at pictures of loved ones who have since departed. Many of the pictures were taking early in the 20th century and I reflected on how short a lifetime is. Looking back on those pictures I reflect on just a few of the joys and sorrows they knew. Life was precious and short, with moments of joy and pleasure but also pain and sorrow. Reverberating throughout the stories of these lives of my ancestors is the question on living and love. What will we spend ourselves for? Will we use our power for the flourishing of others? Will we spend our lives on the half-measures of tiny murders as we cut down the freedom and living of others to prioritize our own agendas?
Jesus’ invitation is to be an extravagant lover. To enter into love-motivated-self-denial from a position of gratitude-based-self-security given by the resurrection.