Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Dying for One’s Country?

With the U.S. celebration of Independence Day (4 July 1776) just around the corner, I note that Australian Ben Myers has posted the following quote by Alasdair MacIntyre:

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

Alasdair MacIntyre, “A Partial Response to My Critics,” in After MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 303.

I have some sypathy for this view, but I find KILLING for one’s country far more problematic for Christians. And, usually, in America, when we urge someone to be willing to die for his or her country, we actually mean “be willing to KILL and/or BE KILLED for your country” (as long as that country is the U.S.A. or an “ally of the moment.”).

I said this in the comments on Ben’s site:

For Christians, “dying for one’s country” is, indeed, problematic–though my reasons for saying so are far more anabaptist than MacIntyre’s. However, FAR more problematic is the ideology of being willing to KILL for one’s country.

People who die for their country in nonviolent revolution or nonviolent defense against invasion or nonviolent defense of a nation-state’s stated values (e.g., democracy, human rights, the rule of law, etc.) against erosions and usurpations of the same are all morally admirable. Depending on the context, there may even be good, gospel-based, reasons for Christians to be willing to die in these kind of contexts–in some senses to die for their country.

However, there is zero justification for Christians to be willing to kill other human beings (persons made in God’s image; persons for whom Christ died) “in defense of their country” or anything else. To kill is to betray the gospel.

Discuss.

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June 22, 2008 - Posted by | Christianity, church-state separation, discipleship, nonviolence, pacifism, theology

28 Comments

  1. I was wondering. Is it just one’s willingness to kill that is a betrayal of the Gospel, or does one also betray the Gospel if one is willing to do some lesser form of harm to other human beings?

    Comment by Dan Hollander | June 22, 2008

  2. How do you deal with police officers who must kill in the line of duty to protect innocent life? Wouldn’t we want moral Christ-centered police officers, rather than those with no particular moral compass?

    I might could understand this in light of a war that is unjust or even thought to be unjust, but what about WWI and WWII or even the Civil War? Would you say that Christians who fought in the Civil War (even for the North) were betraying the Gospel? Or the Revolutionary War? Or WWI or WWII?

    Comment by D.R. Randle | June 22, 2008

  3. Dan, I would also call torture a betrayal of the gospel.

    D.R., as you well know, I consider the Just War Theory to be a 4th C. heresy that has plagued the Church Universal ever since.

    To say that, however, is not to say that Christians involved in, say, WWII were not trying to do the best they could with what seemed to them to be limited options. Most of them never heard of Christian pacifism, never mind organized nonviolent direct action.

    Police officers should have non-lethal weapons.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 22, 2008

  4. I don’t believe the fourth century creation reflects Jesus in any way. I don’t believe police should never be armed except with things that stun.

    Comment by steph | June 23, 2008

  5. “To say that, however, is not to say that Christians involved in, say, WWII were not trying to do the best they could with what seemed to them to be limited options. Most of them never heard of Christian pacifism, never mind organized nonviolent direct action.”

    This is historically preposterous. Christians at the time were quite aware of pacifism. They just thought it was wrong. Or, if they were pacifists, many of them just changed their minds. A lot of pacifists changed their minds because they knew that you couldn’t stop Hitler through “non-violence.”

    Now, you say that police officers should only be armed with stun guns. Of course, that raises the question: is using a stun gun a “betrayal of the Gospel.” After all, it is using “violence” Anyone using a stun gun means to harm another person through a violent act.

    And it also raises a question about your commitment to non-violence. It seems that you really aren’t committed to non-violence. It seems you are only committed to opposition to lethal non-violence. Since you claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, then that means that Jesus is in favor of violence, just not in favor of lethal violence.

    Dude–that’s just weird.

    Comment by Roger Pace | June 23, 2008

  6. “People who die for … a nation-state’s stated values (e.g., democracy, human rights, the rule of law, etc.) against erosions and usurpations of the same are all morally admirable. Depending on the context, there may even be good, gospel-based, reasons for Christians to be willing to die in these kind of contexts … .”

    It is interesting to ponder the “context.” A favorite trick of modern nation-states is to cloak geopolitical or economic interests in “stated values,” but it seems to me this is a case of Caesar asking for that which belongs to God. Consider: a common form of moral relativism is shifting the focus from acts to actors. If, for example, we say that torture is wrong, we state a moral absolute. The act of torture is always wrong. If we say that torture is wrong in circumstance A but acceptable in circumstance B, we MIGHT be stating an absoute if, by that, we mean the act of torture always is wrong in circumstance A and always is acceptable in circumstance B. (I would argue this is contextualism, but not necessarily relativism.) But if we state that torture is acceptable when used by the United States but unacceptable when used by the United States’ enemies, we are clearly guilty of moral relativism. No longer is morality attached to the act but rather the actor. It is as if America owns morality and can redefine it at will.

    Yet no modern state admits to doing this. They always describe their military adventures as efforts to “spread democracy,” “defend freedom” or stand up for some other culturally-appropriate value. They deliberately confuse act and actor in an effort to make us think that dying for the actor is the same thing as dying for the act. Not only is this cloaking relativism in the language of absolutism, but it is a deliberate obfuscation of the ways in which a nation-state’s “stated values” are eroded or usurped by national interests. In the example above, we are led to believe that dying for the United States is the same thing as dying for “freedom,” but they are not the same. In some ways, the United States represents freedom, but it has never represented freedom for everyone (just ask Indians, blacks, and people chafing under dictators propped up by the U.S.), and, as any Civil War historian can tell you, Americans have never agreed on what freedom means.

    “Dying for one’s country,” from my perspective, is a tragic bargain: it is sacrificing something God-given (life) for something man-made (a nation-state). “Stated values” in the mouth of Caesar are whitewash. They are tricks political leaders use to lure people — often people with limited educations, incomes, or career options — to make this tragic bargain. Civil religion — the idea that Caesar is god, or what is perilously close to the same thing, that one’s own nation-state has been chosen by God — is a crasser version of the same thing. And yet, I do not dispute that those who die for their country generally are “morally admirable.” War does not belng to the kingdom of God, but these men and women count among the fallen world’s victims, not its villains.

    Comment by Anthony | June 23, 2008

  7. “I might could understand this in light of a war that is unjust or even thought to be unjust, but what about WWI and WWII or even the Civil War? Would you say that Christians who fought in the Civil War (even for the North) were betraying the Gospel? Or the Revolutionary War? Or WWI or WWII?”

    D.R. Randle: These are excellent questions, and I don’t presume to have the answers. I will offer a note of caution in using historical analogies, however. History is a constantly flowing stream, and where we dip our toe into it influences what we find. Often historical arguments justifying this or that war, or war in general, are constructed in such as a way as to produce the desired result. The narrative begins just at the point everything is hopeless and war is the only answer. But this is an arbitrary decision made by the historian.

    In the case of World War II, for example, if we begin our narrative in 1939, it is not hard to build a case for Christian involvement. If we begin it in 1919, a different picture emerges. What if Christians in the U.S., Britain, France, and elsewhere had stood up against the short-sighted, punitive demands of the Treaty of Versailles? Would Germany have descended into the economic maelstrom that radicalized its politics and made Hitler possible? Lunatics are not rare, but they generally only seize power in times of total social collapse, such as Germany in the 1920s or Russia in the autumn of 1917. Could Germany’s total social collapse have been avoided? It was after 1945.

    I would not go so far as to say “you can prove anything from history” because I don’t think that’s true, but in analyzing arguments for war from history, it is helpful to be mindful of editorial decisions made by the historian.

    Comment by Anthony | June 23, 2008

  8. “Police officers should have non-lethal weapons.”

    Michael, I could write a whole blog post on the naivete of that one statement. As the son of a 35-year veteran of the Memphis, TN police department, let me just say that to only equip the police with non-legal means would be to usher in an “open season” on police officers nationwide. And that would indeed be cruel (and would unleash chaos and anarchy as well). I guess for now you will have to sit in your home blessed by the sacrifice of others for the safety and well-being you and your family enjoys.

    I do find it telling how you can so disregard a legitimate critique of your position (though it seems to be getting common with you these days). I know your more thoughtful than that (or at least I thought so).

    Comment by D.R. Randle | June 23, 2008

  9. Related to the American Revolutionary War, absolutely it was wrong. To begin with it was a war of rebellion against the authorities established by God. The war was also not in compliance with the Sermon of the Mount.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 23, 2008

  10. D. R., if you would read the following essay by Yoder, it would help you have a signficant conversation with Michael about the subject you raise:

    http://home.carolina.rr.com/pastormarlowe/Yoder.htm

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | June 23, 2008

  11. We have unarmed police and we don’t have an “open season” on police officers nationwide.

    Comment by steph | June 23, 2008

  12. [...] the hunting for a clue category, at Levellers Mr Westmoreland-White writes: However, there is zero justification for Christians to be willing to [...]

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  13. I would much prefer to hear from Mr. W-W than read quotes from Yoder. I want Mr. W-W to respond to the original question. Does he believe that the Gospel permits doing violent harm to other people (with stun guns) or does the Gospel only forbid violent harm to other people that is lethal (guns).

    D.R. Randle–I think you have to take Mr. W-W more seriously. It doesn’t really matter to him if disarming police officers would result in a greater amount of crime, or that criminals who would be willing to use lethal force would overwhelm the policy. Mr. W-W’s position is more absolutist than than. what matters is ONLY faithfulness to the Gospel, regardless of the results. To carry a lethal weapon is to “betray the Gospel” and NOT REASON WHATSOEVER can override obedience to the Gospel. So, your father “betrayed the Gospel” for 35 years. Simple as that.

    Comment by Dan Hollander | June 24, 2008

  14. A country with unarmed police does not have a higher crime rate than America. It probably has less people shot and killed.

    Comment by steph | June 24, 2008

  15. Steph,

    What country are you talking about? Canada? Where basically no one can own a hand gun, or England, where the laws are so strict that even the Olympic athletes participating in gun related events must train outside of the country? And even in both those countries many policemen are armed (and they certainly have weapons caches).

    The problem is that you are comparing apples to oranges. Michael’s proposition only works in a country where weaponry is controlled by the gov’t, causing a loss of freedom to individual citizens.

    If you want to advocate that position, then fine – do so. But strictly speaking you cannot suggest policemen in the U.S. be disarmed in a society where criminals (or even regular citizens) would be armed more severely than they. That indeed would bring about an “open season” and anarchy would indeed reign. Pandora’s Box has already been opened. We can only now deal with solutions, not idealistic notions of a utopian society that surely will not come to pass (and thus only serve as talking points and no true solutions – or in this case the means to accuse Bible-believing and Christ-centered men and women of betraying the Gospel).

    Comment by D.R. Randle | June 24, 2008

  16. Jonathan,

    I read through the Yoder article. I found nothing in it that specifically deals with police forces using force. In fact, Yoder frames the question in such a way as to disallow anything other than the consideration of a broad and ill-informed question, i.e., “what would you (in this instance, an unskilled, uninformed civilian) do if someone was threatening to kill (not considering if killing had already occurred, thus bringing the possibility of future killing to a higher degree) your mother, brother, etc (not hundreds or thousands of innocent people (to which the idea of a one to one life exchange does not work)?

    Certainly Yoder is correct to attack the question, especially if it indeed is worded so poorly. However, Yoder never really considers a better worded question or a more reasonable situation. In essence, Yoder’s entire article is scripted as a straw-man argument. He builds an easy to knock down question, without considering much broader possibilities. And then he applies these to war (not at all to domestic situations) with the same idea that there is an inherent lack of knowledge in what could happen.

    Finally, he suggest as Michael does above, the possibility that outcomes could be different if a pacifistic model were adopted prior to the situation. Unfortunately, neither he, nor anyone else, could know if that model would have worked, thus placing rendering that possibility no more probable than the resultant situation.

    So, while I appreciate Yoder’s approach, it is a straw-man that doesn’t account for all the situations he claims it does.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | June 24, 2008

  17. The issue of nonviolent policing is too complex to go into in blog comments. It would require a different post.

    Gun ownership in Canada, Switzerland, and elsewhere is nearly as easy as in the U.S.–and they have much less violent crime. But D.R., Steph is not writing from Canada since the Mounties are armed.

    Since Steph has not chosen to identify her country, I assume she has reasons for this and will not disclose it.

    However, many countries have unarmed police or police armed with less than lethal weapons. For the ways these might or might not be compatible with gospel nonviolence, see Tobias Winwright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers” in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder (Eerdmans, 2005).

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 24, 2008

  18. While I appreciate Anthony’s questions about the way that governments distort their “stated values,” and I want Christians to question these things, I do not believe that there are no penultimate values worth dying for–just not killing for (or torturing for, etc.).

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 24, 2008

  19. DR,

    Of course disarming the police goes with disarming the public. In my country “weaponry” is controlled by the gov’t – and so it should be in all countries.

    Comment by steph | June 24, 2008

  20. Michael,

    Your statement, “Gun ownership in Canada, Switzerland, and elsewhere is nearly as easy as in the U.S.–and they have much less violent crime” is completely false.

    If you want to prove your point, please do so by appealing to truth, not lies. Here is just one article by a gun control advocate which refutes your claims. If you need more, let me know. There are plenty out there.

    Having said that, you still haven’t dealt with the reality that non-lethal weapons would be a bad idea in a society where criminals have already shown the willingness to go to combat with armed police. And this lack of willingness seems to suggest that your position is indeed much more naive than you would like to admit.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | June 25, 2008

  21. D.R., your link proves MW-W correct. 26% of homes in Canada have firearms. In Switzerland, 27+% of homes have firearms and there is no restriction on the type of firearms owned there. In Canada you can’t buy assault rifles, about the same in the States.

    Your accusations of naivety aside, perhaps you should think through your entire argument more thoroughly. Why would it be “open season” on officers? Are people going about their business every day only restrained because the cops have guns? That’s silly. Crime is high in this country regardless of how many guns cops have. Nobody actually thinks through what might happen to them when they engage in violent crimes.

    If someone wanted to kill a cop they’d just do it. It doesn’t matter if the cop has a gun when he’s already dead.

    Maybe you might be naive to think guns actually quell violence.

    By the way, my brother is a cop right now, so the whole relationship to an officer argument is silly.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 25, 2008

  22. I forgot to post this link: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1447364

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 25, 2008

  23. [...] reading these two blogs (here and here), which discuss whether or not fighting for your country in WWII was the right thing to do, made me [...]

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  24. Steven,

    I’m not sure you are paying close attention to the discussion going on and in doing so you missed my point and Michael’s. His original statement was,

    “Gun ownership in Canada, Switzerland, and elsewhere is nearly as easy as in the U.S.–and they have much less violent crime.”

    My point was that the gun ownership requirements were MUCH tighter in England and considerably tighter in Canada (in order to make the point that giving police only non-lethal weapons would be a disaster). The article clearly noted that. I don’t disagree with the second half of Michaels’ sentence, but simply doing a study on the percentage of gun ownership to violent crime doesn’t prove correlation (and that is not my point anyway – though, there could be a host of other variables and to pin down violent crime to being specifically about the percentage of gun ownership is an illogical conclusion).

    Now, to prove Michael’s point about gun ownership being “nearly as easy” as the U.S., I posted the article you said proved Michael’s point. It did not. Here is the quote I based it upon (my emphasis):

    “In the U.K. all gun owners must be licensed and all guns must be registered. Handguns are prohibited for civilians. The law makes no exceptions. Overall, four percent of households keep firearms.”

    As you can see Michael was incorrect in stating that gun laws were basically identical in England. Switzerland, yes, but England no.

    Also, I was not trying to argue that crime is lower because the police have guns, but rather to restrain the police from having the same weaponry as any common criminal would produce chaos. And that is not hard to figure. Go ask your brother if he would like to exchange his gun for a non-lethal weapon when he goes into crime riddened areas and report back what he says. I know what my father would say.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | June 26, 2008

  25. I don’t know why you are accusing me of not “paying close attention” when you have confused Canada for England.

    “Gun ownership in Canada, Switzerland, and elsewhere is nearly as easy as in the U.S.–and they have much less violent crime.”

    And your response:

    “As you can see Michael was incorrect in stating that gun laws were basically identical in England. Switzerland, yes, but England no.”

    The article, as I mentioned in my previous post, had Switzerland and Canada at almost equal on percentage of homes with guns.

    So if you do in fact admit that Michael was correct in stating (in your words) “gun laws were basically identical in” Switzerland, that would most certainly correlate to Canada as well.

    I also don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to law enforcement in the past couple decades or so, but they’re putting a lot of effort into making less-than-lethal weaponry. Even the military is working on less-than-lethal weapons. Several countries are attempting to move to non-lethal weapons for their regular police staff, even in countries with high-crime rates.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 27, 2008

  26. Steven,

    You’re still not paying close attention because you are not following the discussion. You are just commenting without context. My original statement to Steph was the following:

    What country are you talking about? Canada? Where basically no one can own a hand gun, or England, where the laws are so strict that even the Olympic athletes participating in gun related events must train outside of the country? And even in both those countries many policemen are armed (and they certainly have weapons caches).

    Michael responded,

    Gun ownership in Canada, Switzerland, and elsewhere is nearly as easy as in the U.S.–and they have much less violent crime.

    Since I brought up England (and not Switzerland), I logically took his “elsewhere” to include England, despite his direct mention of it. That was simply a logical conclusion on my part. Ignoring that though, on your part, is a problem, especially since you think I am confusing Canada with England. Had you followed the entire conversation, you wouldn’t have missed that.

    As for your argument that “gun laws were basically identical in” Switzerland, that would most certainly correlate to Canada as well” based on the idea that they are “equal on percentage of homes with guns” – that is bad logic. Simply because an equal percentage exists, does not mean that the laws are the same. One could have much stricter laws and yet have an equal percentage of guns. For instance, in Canada, hunting is much more prominent than it is in Switzerland. And hunting rifles are allowed. Handgun laws, however, in Canada, are strictly enforced, whereas they are much looser in Switzerland. And according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 86% of all crime was committed by handguns.

    Thus, we can say that your argument that gun laws in Canada and Switzerland are identical simply based upon the percentage of guns per citizen is false. Countries like Canada have much stricter gun laws, yet the percentages with Switzerland are similar. So Michael’s argument does not stand, and neither does your logic.

    As for non-lethal weapons, did you hear back from your brother as to whether or not he would be willing to give up his gun when entering a hostile environment?

    Comment by D.R. Randle | June 28, 2008

  27. AIUI most gun crimes are committed with handguns, it being risky to plan a mugging with a rifle. So statistics about homes with “firearms” are nearly meaningless (though might have relevance to criminals contemplating whether they’d get shot within a home) compared to prevalence of handguns (for both crime and for out-of-home defense.)

    As for not arming police with guns… first, from what I’ve read, there’s hardly any such thing as mature non-lethal weapons, just less-lethal ones. Electric stun weapons and tranquilizer darts still have a chance of killing, thanks to variations in circumstances and physiologies. Rubbet bullets can cause internal injuries or damage an eye. Lasers for temporary blindness might be permanent in some case. Though there’s probably work on immobilizing goop weapons, and research in microwave skin-pain weapons, and non-harmful but horrifyingly nauseous chemicals.

    Still, I find it possible to imagine where a police force is armed with such less-lethal weapons, stunners and and darts goops and nets and such. To make up for power differences, they might need more body armor — not just a light duty Kevlar vest, but helmets and shields in the trunk of the patrol car. And larger patrols, to increase chances of overwhelming a violent criminal. All this would increase monetary expense and perhaps risk of dead cops. OTOH, it should reduce the deaths of people shot by cops, whether deliberately in the line of duty, accidentally, or in corruption. It’s hardly obvious to me that such expense would be unaffordable in absolute terms, i.e. being so expensive that society breaks down in other ways, so it’s a matter of choosing to preserve life at some cost. And then there’s the possibility that the moral example of such a police force would reduce inclinations to violence in the general population, though not being a hopeful pacifist I feel entirely agnostic about the probability of that.

    As for non-lethal weapons, did you hear back from your brother as to whether or not he would be willing to give up his gun when entering a hostile environment?

    Another question would be if he would be so willing given better bodily protection, effective less-lethal weapons, and more backup.

    (It’s a funny world where permanently blinding weapons are illegal in warfare, but it’s okay to kill people with bullets and bombs.)

    Comment by Damien R. S. | June 29, 2008

  28. THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT POLICE, AS I HAVE SAID. Anyone wishing to continue that conversation is invited to blog on it at their own sites and invite others, including myself, to join you. Quit hijacking posts on other topics.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 29, 2008


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