A Response to Jan Edmiston
Editor’s Note: A few months ago, Presbyterian blogger Jan Edmiston wrote a post on her blog, achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com, entitled “Denominational Political Stands (& Who Really Cares?).” Edmiston raised an honest and important question, one that is perhaps especially on our mind as we move toward another General Assembly: Why do we as a church create, discuss, and adopt positions on certain issues of social witness when we know that they have the potential to be divisive – and that our political leaders are not exactly waiting with bated breath to hear what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has to say?
Several members of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP for short), the committee that is tasked with interpreting the social witness policy of the PC(USA) and whose members serve as advisors to Unbound, took it upon themselves to thoughtfully and prayerfully provide an answer. Even aside from perhaps the more practical answer – that it is this policy which serves as the General Assembly mandate for the work of everything from the Presbyterian Hunger Program to the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness (and many more!), allowing for and directing the work these programs will do – ACSWP sought to reflect on the deeper, more theologically and ethically based reasons why we do what we do. The following article, along with this response from Rachael Eggebeen, seeks to answer Edmiston’s question.
Let’s start with the second question first: Why take a stand on drones (or anything, for that matter!) when we know ahead of time that we aren’t going to agree?
The possibility that the whole church will agree about anything but the most banal platitudes (even apple pie as Edmiston notes!) stretches the imagination. The early church certainly did not agree about circumcision, even after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).
So of course we will disagree. We are bound to disagree because Christian ethical thinking hardly ever moves in a neat, straight line from clear scriptural command to practical application. It necessarily involves other elements of moral reasoning: an interpretation of circumstances, assumptions about human nature, and a weighing of moral norms and proximate loyalties (In the case of drones, how important is national security? How should we weigh it against other important values?). All of this is leavened by theological insight.
We are bound to disagree because we believe that Christ alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from the commands of sinful, finite human beings, even those that meet in “councils” and pass recommendations about drones.
We are bound to disagree because some of us are proud sinners who are too sure of our own points of view and because others of us are weak sinners who lack courage to speak against the immoral assumptions of our communities.
However, if we fail to have such discussions are we not saying, in effect, that our faith does not touch on the most important questions we face? If so, I would ask, who needs that faith?
Maybe agreement about drone policy is not the greatest expression of faithfulness or unity in the Spirit. In fact, premature agreement may be a way of avoiding hard questions or reflect a church culture that stifles dissent. A much better sign of spiritual unity might be the way our common loyalty to Christ holds us together despite disagreements over issues of faith and conscience.
Now to the first question, which concerns the question of audience and effectiveness: Why talk about drones if no one cares?
Will an overture from the PC(USA) on drones have an immediate effect on public policy? Maybe. Probably not. We know that most moral change is a slow boring into hard wood. Consider that William Wilberforce spent his whole life working to end the slave trade and abolish slavery (in the face of considerable opposition from within the church). Or consider how Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement prepared the ground for legislation that would come in the 1960s. As Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in one life-time.” Immediate social change is not, of itself, an immutable measure of effectiveness, much less faithfulness.
Policy changes often take decades (consider how long it took for nations to decide to outlaw chemical weapons), but in the meantime there are more immediate benefits of a good discussion about drones. For one thing, a good discussion can clear up misunderstandings. For example, in Edmiston’s blog, she notes that at the presbytery meeting in question, “Some people pointed out that drones cause so much collateral damage that they are immoral.” I would argue that a healthy, informed discussion could clear up this and other misconceptions or over-generalizations.
Drones are able to linger over their targets, allowing drone operators to watch the comings and goings on the ground. This enables them to better isolate their targets, chose a blast trajectory, and use lower yield weapons. In fact, drones cause considerably less collateral damage than some of their alternatives (invading a country, sending in a SEAL team, or an F16 strike). Their capacity to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants (an important tenant of just war theory, which was developed by the church and has considerable valence in today’s military) is what tempts military and civilian leaders to use drones more than perhaps they should.
As Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in one life-time.” Immediate social change is not, of itself, an immutable measure of effectiveness, much less faithfulness.
This leads us to what in fact is morally troubling about drones. Many examples come to mind, such as when the CIA uses them in violation of International Law. Or when they are used against citizens without public trial. Or when they are used in “signature strikes” (when drone operators respond to what appears to be warlike behavior). Or when they stir up local opposition, undermining the strategic goal of winning the hearts and minds. Or the way they do not allow the public to evaluate their strategic effectiveness or understand the blowback.
We should also be weighing the impact of drones on operators. They become familiar with their targets and, after they strike, do damage assessment. This means that they sometimes watch their targets and other human beings slowly bleed to death, see that they killed non-combatants, and watch grief being expressed by loved ones. Drone operators suffer unusually high rates of a form of PTSD called “moral harm,” the sense that they have done something terrible. We might also consider what drones portend for robot weapons that select targets and “decide” to fire without human input. Especially since, historically, new weapon systems are almost always deployed before moral considerations have been thought through (chemical weapons, the saturation bombings of WWII, atomic weapons, etc.).
Good, honest conversations in which people seek the mind of Christ can be avenues through which the Holy Spirit leads us, the church, into greater faithfulness.
These are issues of considerable moral consequence. I understand how some may consider a conversation in which faithful people express vigorous disagreement about issues related to questions of life and death as a futile exercise if we cannot reach agreement. However, if we fail to have such discussions are we not saying, in effect, that our faith does not touch on the most important questions we face? If so, I would ask, who needs that faith?
Yes, these issues are complex. But that is the very reason we should be discussing them! Good, honest conversations in which people seek the mind of Christ can be avenues through which the Holy Spirit leads us, the church, into greater faithfulness. And I believe this can happen even when we do not immediately change each other’s minds.
AUTHOR BIO: Raymond R. Roberts has a Ph.D. from Union Presbyterian Seminary. He is the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Westfield and author of the book, Whose Kids Are They Anyway? Religion and Morality in America’s Public Schools.
Read more articles from The Road to Detroit: Issues of Social Justice Before the 221st General Assembly!