Protect Which Innocent?

I heard someone on a radio program ask, “Why doesn’t the United States go and do something about all the civilians being killed in Syria?” It strikes me that there are far too many people who seem to be concerned about saving lives by the use of armed force but who seem largely unconcerned about saving lives through providing food, medical care and development aid. Are peoples’ lives more valuable when they are being threatened by the hostility of an enemy than they are when threatened by famine or disease? Do we think that saving lives is significant only when the lives of those in some belligerent group are taken in the process?

Military interventions are tremendously expensive in terms of both dollars and human costs. Even when some are saved, untold damage takes place along the way, much of it endured by people who are innocent. Far more people can be saved at far less cost if attention is turned to the masses whose adversaries are not primarily those who bear weapons. There are millions whose enemies are in the form of the lack of clean water, inadequate shelter, viruses and insufficient food. What is the justification for pursuing armed interventions supposedly to save people when it is possible to save many more innocent people without taking lives or expending nearly the resources needed for military action?

When my friends who say they believe in “just wars” suggest that pacifists allow the innocent to die by not taking up arms and serving in the military, they see the world from too narrow a perspective. They neglect the great host of innocent sufferers who can be and are being served by those who use no violence. They discount the unarmed compassionate efforts that are being made far from the battlefield on behalf of those who are endangered. In fact an even greater number of people who are in jeopardy could be helped if funds in military budgets were redirected to fight the nonmilitary threats faced by millions.

Maybe it is a fact that “war is a force that gives us meaning” to use Chris Hedges’ book title and so it seems that helping those in war-torn regions is more meaningful than helping those where crops have withered and wells have run dry. Many people are left vulnerable to unbearably harsh more who die each year from problems that bullets and bombs cannot solve. Poor nutrition plays a role in at least five million child deaths each year. Diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia, and measles are also causes for millions of deaths annually. If greater attention were given to protecting the vulnerable from nonmilitary deadly threats, perhaps the goodwill inspired by wise benevolent service would lessen the likelihood of social unrest and international hostility. However, by continuing to funnel expensive military equipment and trained personnel toward armed conflicts in the name of protecting the innocent, many more of the innocent are allowed to die.

My point is not that the needs of those who are in places where human violence is the primary concern ought to be neglected. Rather it is to question the values and priorities that allow some to think that if we don’t support war we are contributing to the deaths of the vulnerable yet we can without guilt fail to support crucial efforts to help the many more whose survival is in question because of hunger, disease and homelessness. It might sound trite but I still think it important to ask, “What would Jesus do?” and further ask, “What must we do to follow him?”

Craig M. Watts is minister of Royal Palm Christian Church, Coral Springs, Florida. He is also Co-Moderator Disciples Peace Fellowship and author of Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (2005).

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