We’ve looked at biblical positions on helping the poor, capital punishment, and supporting abortion. There’s one other issue that people see as a moral concern when deciding how to vote – war – and it can become very complex.
To narrow the focus, I’m going to look at this issue simply from the perspective of a voter – not that of a politician or a solider. When war is an issue, who can we vote for?
Many Christians both today and throughout history have believed that Christians shouldn’t kill under any circumstances. This typically extends to rejecting military service – some reject combat roles, and some reject even support roles as still tainted by bloodshed.
Some modern Christians have extended this to the political realm saying that they cannot support a politician who supports war in any form. They honestly feel that annihilation is preferable to killing another human being.
If this describes your attitude toward war, I’m not going to argue with you here. If you’re convinced that all war is immoral and one candidate supports war (specifically or generally) and the other does not, vote for him. But if the only other candidate supports something else that is immoral – abortion rights, for example – you have no one for whom you can vote. Stay home. Maybe you can run for office next time.
Is It a Just War?
If you’re not a strict pacifist, you should subscribe to some kind of just war theory. The NT really says nothing about war, and much of what the OT says applied specifically to ancient Israel. Over the centuries Christian theologians and philosophers, taking what they could extract from the scriptures and other philosophers, have given us criteria with which to judge whether military violence is justifiable.
In brief, just war theory says that war can only be fought as a last resort and for a just cause (some saying only self-defense, some including liberation of others or pre-emptive self-defense), with reasonable hope of success and with costs proportionate to the expected gains, and declared by legitimate authorities. A just war is waged in such a way that peace is possible afterwards, that soldiers are not killed unnecessarily or with unnecessary suffering, and that harm (an intentionally broad term) to noncombatants is avoided if at all possible (Feinberg & Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, p362-7).
If the candidate in question is a pacifist, that’s not an immoral position even if it’s an imprudent one. If the candidate believes there are no rules or that any war is “just,” I think that could be called a blatantly immoral or perhaps amoral position and should preclude voting for that person. Of course, if you both agree, there’s no problem.
What if They Think It’s Just?
What if a candidate thinks a war is just and you don’t? If someone has a much broader view of which wars are justifiable than you, this might be reason to withhold your support, but the question is of the candidate’s wisdom or philosophy not morality.
A Just War Gone Wrong
What happens when a just war loses its bearings – when objectives change or methods push the envelope? Perhaps our leaders have different views of “proportional” than we do. Or good people do bad things during the stress of a war.
At that point we’re stuck. We can tell our leaders we want better, and we can vote for other people at the next election, but beyond that we can’t do much.
New Wars vs Existing Wars
The current situation isn’t the first time that the US has changed leaders during a war. This complicates things in unexpected ways.
A temptation that arises when changing administrations during war is to promise to end the war immediately and “bring our boys home.” If a prerequisite for a just war is “costs proportionate to the expected gains,” and we abandon any possible gains, the costs careen out of proportion. Another way of expressing it is that we throw away all the lives that have been lost – instead of dying for a cause, they died for nothing. Does this make that action unjust?
Another requirement for a just war is minimizing the impact on noncombatants – not only trying not to hurt or kill them but also trying not to damage crops or infrastructure. What will likely happen if troops are removed from the region? Will the situation for the locals improve or degrade? Vietnam exemplifies what can go wrong when troops suddenly withdraw – the northern troops overran the south with massive bloodshed and destruction. Is removing troops in such a situation unjust?
How about the opposite case? Can an unjust war become just when new leadership changes tactics or objectives? For that matter, can the original leadership change things so that a war becomes just?
These hypothetical examples are difficult questions; real situations are harder, especially since we don’t know for sure how thing will work out. But these are things we have to discuss, pray about, and then make decisions on.
Reckless Warmonger or Simply Wrong?
The ugliest situation is also the easiest; a reckless warmonger, someone who has no problem spending countless lives on his ideology or objectives, is easy to identify and easy to oppose. He also doesn’t exist in the west. People like that don’t rise to power in our society.
We have the harder task of sorting through potential leaders with different views of what constitutes a just war – e.g., varying views of what is self-defense or what constitutes “proportionate” harm to civilians. We have the responsibility to hold our leaders accountable. We are also obligated to discern questions of character from questions of philosophy – and to not denigrate good people who simply take a different view.
How Should We Vote?
Let’s refocus on the question at hand. Does the candidate take a blatantly immoral view of war? We can’t vote for him. Does he have a different philosophy of just war? That does not automatically disqualify him; instead it should become a factor we weigh in choosing the best candidate to support.
In the next installment I’m going to compare issues head to head.