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Just War, Bad Policy

To the Law and to the testimonies?

Recently the deans of twelve prominent schools of public health sent a letter to President Obama, asking him to “direct all U.S. military and intelligence agencies to refrain from using a medical or humanitarian cover to achieve their objectives.”

As reported in Scientific American (May 2013), the CIA used a sham humanitarian effort to obtain DNA samples in the vicinity of the residence of Osama ben Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, as part of its effort to discover the  whereabouts of America’s number one enemy. Already negative consequences are resulting, with tribal and political leaders in places like Nigeria and Pakistan resisting vaccination efforts and, in some cases, murdering humanitarian workers.

The editors of Scientific American point out a number of additional problems arising from this political decision. Besides setting back the pace of eradication of such diseases as polio, the CIA project led humanitarian workers to compromise their own ethical codes and introduces a measure of uncertainty into the prospects of “future humanitarian endeavors, global stability and U.S. national security”.

The project, which the Administration does not deny, raises important ethical questions concerning a Christian view of government. Most evangelical and conservative Catholic leaders had already christened the effort to “get ben Laden” as part of a just war struggle against international terrorism. They had also, if only passively, endorsed the “whatever it takes” methodology adopted by the Bush Administration and continued under President Obama.

The overall national mindset concerning this effort, including among the members of the Christian community, was, the sooner Ben Laden was brought to justice, the better. Few voices were raised expressing anything in the way of caveats or conditions, even among Christian leaders.

Christians will have no difficulty endorsing government use of deception to achieve military objectives in a just war. But since such wars, in the modern world, are engaged, at least ostensibly, for larger humanitarian ends, one might agree with the editors of Scientific American in thinking that, in this case, the cost of winning a particular battle has set back the larger progress of the “war.”

Further, Christians should be very concerned whenever “national interest” is invoked on those whose occupations require them to affirm certain ethical codes. The editors are right to object against such professionals being engaged – knowingly or otherwise – in acts of military deception for primarily political ends. Christians should especially be concerned in this case, precisely because politics was the driving force. What if instead of humanitarian workers the CIA had used missionaries or local Pakistani pastors?

Christians should learn to think about government and public policy matters from a more long-range and principled vantage point, rather than the short-term and pragmatic perspective which seems to have directed this particular project, as well as much of contemporary political life.

In our day government and the policies it pursues are led more by political considerations than the larger moral and ethical perspectives such as would be required in an economy founded on divine Law. The situation is only getting worse as the American people continue to go along with the mistaken notion that government should exercise increasing power in all areas of American life, there being no other social institutions capable of caring for the needs of the people.

No amount of “just war” rhetoric can justify bad policies. The absence of thoughtful and Biblical Christian voices in the arena of public policy-making means that political considerations alone –  both partisan and personal – will continue to be the deciding factor in a wide range of areas and  issues affecting American life.

But until Christians take more seriously the ancient prophetic call, “To the Law and the testimonies, O Israel,” it is unlikely that our community will produce any thinkers or leaders capable of working in the public policy arena as effective ambassadors of the Kingdom of Christ and His shalom.

Conversation starter: Talk with some church leaders. What does your church to prepare its members to act intelligently and Biblically in the arena of public policy?

Order your copy of T. M.’s latest book, Satan Bound: A Theology of Evil, from our online store.


T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
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