September 18, 2014

Just war and justly pro-life

Heavily armed RCMP officers enter a residence during manhunt
 for shooting suspect in Moncton (New Brunswick),
 Thursday, June 5, 2014. (Andrew Vaughan/ THE CANADIAN PRESS)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, September 18, 2014

Just war and justly pro-life

A friend asked me the following question to challenge my non-pacifist, just war position: How can you be consistently pro-life without also being against the use of lethal force to resolve conflict?

Here's how: by simultaneously applying two distinctions: (1) absolute vs. prima facie; (2) innocent life vs. life that's forfeited the right to life.

Human life has great worth, but the prohibition against its destruction isn't absolute. Sometimes, say, when a murderer is engaged in a shooting spree in a school, a police officer may have to kill the murderer—and this killing is just.

Yes, the shooter has the right to life, but it's a prima facie right, not an absolute right.

“Prima facie” is Latin for first appearance. In ethics it means duty X is what apparently ought to be done, unless a more pressing duty Y outweighs it. For example, I have a duty to keep my promise to Morgan to meet him for lunch, unless I must save Patricia from drowning while on my way to meet Morgan.

Also, police officers have the duty to protect school shooters, but the duty to innocent students being shot outweighs the duty to the murderer. If lethal force—killing the shooter—is required to defend the lives of innocents, then the shooter forfeits his right to life.

Biblical history provides ample evidence of people who engaged in activities that forfeit their right to life. There are occasions when people are justly killed by God either by natural means (e.g., flood, pestilence) or by human agents of God's wrath (e.g., the sword of government).

In other words, humans are made in God's image and thus have great worth, but they aren't God and thus don't have absolute worth.

Sadly, if we allow evil aggressors (who require lethal force to be stopped) to murder innocents, that is, if we preclude all lethal police/ military interventions, then we sacrifice innocent lives—people who haven't forfeited their right to life—to evil forces. This is neither pro-life nor just.

But wait: what about abortionists who kill innocent children? Should I apply lethal force to the abortionists? My answer: No.

There is still some reasonable debate or doubt about whether the unborn in the early stages is an actual human being or person (though the reasonableness of this doubt is shrinking as more science and careful thinking are done), and there are still peaceful means that have promise of success to enable the protection of the unborn (e.g., education, law reform, crisis pregnancy centres).

But in the case of, say, ISIS, there is no reasonable doubt that innocent human persons are being murdered. And there is no reasonable doubt that there aren't any wholly peaceful means which will actually enable the urgent protection of the men, women, and children who are presently being murdered and targeted for murder. Also, ISIS is clear that the only "peace" it wants is a peace in which all opposition is destroyed.

Unlike the abortion situation, then, with ISIS we have a case in which killers are clearly on a murderous rampage—a rampage whose explicit murderous intent, brutal track record, and dangerous growth make it not at all amenable to being stopped by a non-lethal force.

But how does the just war view relate to the pro-life view on euthanasia? I think that here we have to keep in mind that whereas ISIS has engaged in acts which forfeit their right to life, the elderly and disabled and terminally ill haven't engaged in acts that forfeit their right to life.

Thus, by making two careful distinctions—absolute vs. prima facie, and innocent life vs. life that's forfeited the right to life—one can be consistently pro-life and pro-just-war.

Surely it's reasonable and good—and pro-life—to favour the judicious, wise use of lethal force to protect innocent lives—especially the weak and vulnerable—from murderous aggressors. That's why we arm police officers.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)


Unknown said...

Hey Dr.VDB. I'm not sure I completely follow your logic on how murderers have forfeited their right to life. In my mind this doesn't line up with how Christ enacts grace and forgiveness. Who makes the judgement call that they have given up their "right"? Who says life is necessarily our right to begin with? Ultimately does God not hold sovereign right over life and death? It is his decision to make not ours. Saul/Paul's acts against Christians (pre-conversion) were arguably just as bad as the things ISIS has done/is doing. Yet we know what happens to the end of that story.
What I'm getting at is that Jesus died to take away the penalty of sin, that penalty which says "because of your sin you deserve death" (forfeited your right to life). Is Murder the one exception to that forgiveness?

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Cody Turnbull,

Thanks for your comment. Here is my response.

Re: The right to life and forfeiting the right to life.

I believe that the right to life comes from the God who is revealed to us in Christ. We are made in God's image and thus our lives have great worth. But we are not God, so we don't have absolute worth. Also, the God of the Bible tells us that murder is wrong. From these points we can tease out the implication that we have a God-given right to life.

Now, keeping in mind the distinctions between absolute and prima facie regarding this right to life, we can tease out from Scripture (via cumulative case argument) the implication that the God-given right to life can be forfeited. Consider the following. Jesus commended—without reservation—the faith of a Roman Centurion, a commanding officer of 100 soldiers, i.e., 100 professional warriors/ killers. Jesus' having such high regard for a soldier strongly suggests that there is such a thing as morally good soldiering and thus the moral appropriateness of sometimes, under appropriate circumstances, taking human life. John the Baptist advised soldiers—professional warriors/ killers—not to quit their jobs but be content with their pay. David—a man after God's heart—used violent force to kill Goliath. God in the Old Testament often used lethal force (flood, pestilence, war) to deal with evil aggressors. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is "a time to kill" and "a time for war" (which seems to have a prescriptive element in it). The apostle Paul in the New Testament says the state bears the sword—a lethal instrument—as an agent of God's wrath (1 Peter 2:14 confirms the government's role in punishing wrongdoers). And in Revelation, when Jesus returns, Jesus uses violent force to deal with—destroy/ kill—evil people. So, yes, God does hold sovereign right over life and death: God informs us that we have the right to life and that under some circumstances it can be forfeited.

Re: Saul/Paul's pre-conversion acts against (his murders of) Christians vis-à-vis his ongoing life of service.

Permit me to repeat a similar comment from another critic (on Facebook) plus repeat my response here. Here's the comment from another critic: "Guess the Apostle Paul would have forfeited his life according to van der Breggen." Here's my response: "No, according to van der Breggen, the Apostle Paul would have forfeited his RIGHT to life, not his life per se. … It seems to me that God can exact His due when God deems appropriate. Typically, a forfeiting of the right to life means a just death (e.g., via flood, pestilence, David's killing of Goliath, the sword of a just government), whereas in the case of Paul, who had murdered innocents and thus had forfeited his right to life, it meant a life of hard service to God. Why? Because he is a special case, as his Damascus Road experience shows. From what I read in the New Testament, Paul was specially chosen by God for a special purpose (to be achieved after he repented). In the case of Paul, the prima facie general principle of death as a consequence of forfeited right to life was suspended/ outweighed by a more pressing (weightier) matter, i.e., God's higher purpose in this particular case."


Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Re: Your claim and question: "Jesus died to take away the penalty of sin, that penalty which says 'because of your sin you deserve death' (forfeited your right to life). Is Murder the one exception to that forgiveness?"

No, murder isn't an exception. And, yes, Jesus' death on the cross does take away the penalty of sin which is death. But I believe that the death penalty under discussion has to do with the final judgment when we are all resurrected and Jesus separates the sheep and the goats. That is, the death penalty in question has to do with the second death. At the final judgment, some of us receive the blessing of eternal life, and some of us receive the penalty of eternal death. Jesus' death takes the penalty of eternal death away from those who have put their faith in—and served—Jesus Christ the Lord.

(For more on the sheep and goats, see my column for December 13, 2013: "Thinking about the Sheep and the Goats".)

Anyways, that's how it seems to me. Thanks again for your comment. Blessings to you!

Unknown said...

Thanks for your answer!
You have given me a lot to think about. Perhaps more of this conversation will pop up in our ethics class. I have to write a paper on war and peace in the Bible in another class, so I would be interested to talk to you more on this subject sometime.

In Christ,