Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Lesser Evil Is Still Evil

I find Doug Wilson, who blogs at the cleverly named Blog and Mablog, to be, in spite of some puzzling positions on issues like baptism and ecclesiology, one of the finest minds in the church today. Even when I disagree with his position I usually find his clearly thought out arguments to be refreshing in a day and age when dialogue often devolves into online shouting matches and one-upmanship. I found myself reading an interesting essay he wrote the other day, Santorum, Just War, and False Equivalence. Doug is disturbed by the questions some people, like me, raise when it comes to “Christian politicians” who claim the title “pro-life” based on opposition to abortion but simultaneously are quite comfortable and rarely challenged regarding their enthusiasm for war. His concern is that we are making a (false in his opinion) equivalence between support for abortion and support for war.
Equivalent what? I am speaking of the civilian casualties of war, what is sometimes infelicitously called "collateral damage," and the fatalities that result from abortion-on-demand. When these two are placed on the same moral plane in the heat of debate, it is an understandable mistake. Just as there is a fog of war, so also there is a fog of debate. But a studied, steadfast refusal to distinguish them is in reality a moral failing and we really need to be done with it.

Let me set this alongside a comparable moral failing -- the refusal to acknowledge a distinction between a deliberate targeting of civilians (as when Hamas blows up a pizza joint full of teenagers) and when one of our units targets combatants who place themselves in close proximity to civilians, so that the civilians might get caught in the crossfire. If the rules of engagement instruct our troops to do whatever is possible to protect the lives of such civilians, then this is completely different from the first scenario. These are two military actions which result in the deaths of civilians, but they nevertheless occupy two different moral universes.
At the outset let me say how troubling I find it when Doug, and the vast majority of other Christians, refer to American soldiers as “our troops”. They are not “my troops”, not in any sense. I am not interested in God blessing our troops as they vanquish the foes of America. When “our troops” are bombing someone else, whether they are targeting civilians or military targets, they are not doing so on my behalf. My political, economic and even religious freedoms are not really all that important and the presence or lack of them does not change my calling as a minister and evangelist of the King. It was by God’s providential hand that I was born and live in America but it was also His providential hand that placed Japanese children in Hiroshima and Dresden, Germany. Our fascination and admiration for the military is unbecoming for followers of the Lamb who was slain.

As far as the war=abortion equivalence, I have made that connection as well, speaking not specifically about politics but rather how Christians view political issues, in relation to candidates who espouse “our values”. There is a serious disconnect between issues where we take seriously that all people, including unborn children, are made imago dei , in the image of God, and other places where we tacitly reject that notion when the image bearer in question is wearing the wrong uniform or living in the wrong country. I have run into far too many people who claim to be Christians that see nothing wrong with defending as a necessary evil (if they even see it as evil) the killing of Japanese children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki while expressing outrage over the murder of unborn children in the womb.

However, I recognize that Doug has a point. The loss of innocent life in war is not precisely the same thing as the willful murder of a child in the womb. The intent is different, the circumstance are different just as a child in the womb killed by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting is a different setting than the cold clinical setting of an abortion clinic. That is simply reality.

That reality does not in any way make one acceptable in some circumstances and the other not acceptable under any circumstances, especially for a follower of Christ. Jesus speaks directly to this when He talks about things like adultery as an act and lusting after a woman in your heart or the act of murdering someone versus hating someone in your heart. Far from creating a “sin hierarchy” where adultery in lust is lower than adultery in fact, Jesus creates an “equivalence” between the two. Likewise with murder and hatred. Jesus was not known for His nuanced positions. You will look in vain to Christ for an exposition of “just war theory”. Jesus didn’t say that murder was bad when it was an innocent child in the womb but potentially OK in a military action, especially if it is done on behalf of a free republic founded on “Judeo-Christian” values. If anything Jesus is drastically expanding what is unacceptable for God’s people or rather pointing out what was always the case. It was never OK to hate someone as long as you didn’t kill them. It was never OK to lust after a woman even if you never consummated the act. I think we would say that hating someone in your heart is “not as bad” as actually taking the life of another but that doesn’t mean that we should assume that in the eyes of God the two are in different moral universes.

In war, innocents die. That is simply the way of war, even in this day and age. An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities will result in civilian deaths and the resulting backlash will result in untold more. Simply assuming that if America is the one dropping the bombs that it is somehow more justified than another country is comforting to those who live under the stars and stripes but that is probably less than comforting to a Christian in Iran or North Korea. Whether we admit it or not, and often it is not only admitted but trumpeted, Christians in America view our military as distinct from the armed forces of any other country. When “our troops” kill innocent civilians in a military strike, it is a tragic but unavoidable situation. When the opposite happens and the aggressor is one of our “enemies”, it is a war crime.

This truth alone should dissuade Christians from blithely supporting someone as “pro-life” who advocates for war, especially pre-emptive strikes on a nation that has not threatened America and that we are not at war with, even though that candidate is adamantly anti-abortion. That is not to suggest that Christians should only vote for one candidate or another. Whoever becomes President (or is re-elected) will be in a position where national interests likely will demand a decision that leads to killing. As such we should find ourselves removed more and more from the political process and the governing of a state.

Aborting a child is a horrible thing. It places a mother in the most unnatural possible position, a position where the one person who cares for and protects their child more than anyone else finds herself ending her child’s life. Seeing the results of “collateral damage” in the broken and burned body of a child is likewise horrible. The end result is the same regardless of the circumstances: a child is dead.

I appreciate the nuance that Doug is putting out there and the thought that he puts into his argument, flawed though I find it. It is perhaps a sign of the political times that we live in that we tend to make moral equivalences in places where they may not be appropriate but it is also a sign of the enormous influence of American culture on Christians who live here that permits us to compartmentalize certain types of evil as “necessary in some circumstances” and others as “unnecessary under any circumstances”. Our calling as Christians, if we are indeed Christians, trumps political considerations, economic and religious freedom and our “rights” to self-defense and self-determination. We may be called to lay down our lives but we will never be called to take the life of another, or to actively support actions that lead to that result. Abortion is evil and wrong. Killing a child (or an adult for that matter) in a war between nations or ideologies is also evil and wrong.

A lesser evil is still an evil.

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