War, Conscience and Absolute Certainty

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington DC Feb. 10, this year North Carolina politician and failed congressional candidate Llario Pantano said “political correctness” that promotes moral relativism by favoring diversity and tolerance weakens the spirit of troops by making them question what they’re doing and that is why they come home morally damaged. “The military is hurt by political correctness because the young men and women that we send out to go find that bad guy and kill him have to be grounded in an intense state of absolute certainty,” he told the crowd of conservative political activists. “There can’t be gray … if you take way the certainty of absolute Biblical truths, you leave them nothing.”
It apparently it never occurred to Pantano – who was accused of murdering two Iraqi civilians during his deployment in 2004- that it is not moral relativism but biblical truth itself that has made some soldiers’ consciences sensitive to the killing they have been commanded to do. A truly biblical faith is not willing to grant “absolute certainly” to any human authority, whether it be civilian or the military command structure. Yet in the name of opposing “diversity and tolerance [that] weakens the spirit of troops,” Pantano wants soldiers to refuse to entertain the possibility that the will of God might be something other than the will of the U.S. government –at least insofar as war is concerned- or the will of their commanding officer.
“Fundamentally this is a Christian nation, and that has been denied,” Pantano insisted, “We don’t talk about it. We don’t want to offend because we have to be tolerant, we have to accept everybody else’s worldview. It’s time to start offending. It’s time to start standing for something.” I’m perfectly willing to offend when offending is necessary and I, too, believe we need to stand for something… but not what Pantano stands for. I deny that the U.S. is a Christian nation and if he and others who share his viewpoint think otherwise, I question their definition of “Christian.” The very notion of a “Christian nation” is biblically and theologically untenable. But it is in the name of this dubious idea that he wants soldiers to dismiss the pangs of conscious in order to offer unquestioning obedience.
Apparently Pantano thinks because the nation is “Christian,” American soldiers need never ask whether a war is truly just or perhaps even to reflect on the teaching of Jesus. Instead they are simply to “go find that bad guy and kill him… in an intense state of absolute certainty.” Soldiers can just quell their conscience and unreservedly fight with the assurance that leaders in a “Christian nation” will surely point them in the direction God would have them go. Any independent ethical reflection will only confuse matters and compromise resolve. The important thing is for soldiers to offer loyalty without limits and to kill without doubting. That is the way to make sure soldiers don’t “come back broken” from war, according Pantano. All they have to do is dispense with their conscience altogether.
Absolute certainty can lead to behaviors that are absolutely wrong. Prior to his conversion the apostle Paul was absolutely certain he was right as he persecuted the first Christians. He later spoke of a “zeal that is not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). Absolute certainty has been in the heart of many a suicide bomber. The religious nationalism promoted by people like this politician is detrimental to the military, the conscientious soldiers and any church that seeks to be faithful to Jesus as Lord. Rather than calling for “absolute certainty” from soldiers, we need to encourage them to develop a strong, informed and discerning conscience of the sort that will lead them to resist any action that is not for the good of all, even if this means disobeying a direct order. Moral responsibility does not stop where the demands of those in authority begin. Whether one is a pacifist or an adherent of the just war tradition, absolute certainty is not something that should be given to those who call for war.
Craig M. Watts is Co-Moderator of the Executive Committee of Disciples Peace Fellowship and minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida.

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