A Response to ‘Drones, Foreign Policy, and Christian Ethics’

August 8, 2014

Let me begin by stating that I am a Christian pacifist, meaning that I believe that Jesus really meant what he said about loving enemies, about being a peacemaking prophet like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, and about the alternative better way that he describes in the Sermon on the Mount.

As his authorities in an article with “Christian Ethics” as part of the title, Brandon James Smith cites the US Constitution, the UN Charter, and a quote from C.S. Lewis denouncing pacifism. His only citation of Jesus is to dismiss his command to love one’s neighbor as naïve or impossible in a fallen world. To quote Jesus once, then say that he can’t have really meant what he said in that quote, does not warrant the title “Christian” ethics.

I recognize that the US or any government cannot be held to the same standards as those who have committed to following Jesus. Nevertheless, Christians should bear witness to our governments in a way that urges them toward the kind of peacemaking that Jesus commanded and away from bloodshed. For this reason, I see the just war theory as a potential tool in limiting violence. In other words, war within limits is preferable to war without limits. On this point Smith and I are in agreement.

While I support the idea of limiting war through just war principles, along with John Howard Yoder I question whether the theory has historically performed the task for which it was designed. Most often, governments act as they please in war (cloaking it in language of self defense) and only attempt to justify their actions after the fact.

Nevertheless, even a mostly ineffective just war theory has some value. The question then is how just war relates to the uses of drones. I see two reasons why the use of drones as they are presently employed cannot be justified under a just war framework.

First, the just war theory assumes that the only proper actor in war is the state, which is given the authority to make decisions about the use of violence. When the enemy is not another state, therefore, the conflict cannot be called a war, and one’s opponents cannot be held to just war standards. We can use terms like crime and policing. But to take a framework designed for states and apply it to an individual or an organization is to enter a game in which the rules apply to one side and not to the other. In such a game, how likely is the former to continue playing by its own rules and to make itself accountable to them? If we more consistently called the current use of drones policing rather than war, would the ratio of civilian deaths to combatants be acceptable?

I also question the forthrightness of Smith’s numbers. His only stated statistic is that “in 2011, the United Nations reported that less than 5 percent of casualties reported with drone strikes were civilians.” The whole picture is much bleaker; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism states that between 2004 and January 2014, 381 drones strikes in Pakistan resulted in civilian casualties closer to 20 percent:

Total reported killed: 2,537-3,646
Civilians reported killed: 416-951
Children reported killed: 168-200
Total reported injured: 1,128-1,557

Second, Smith appears to be looking for a moral line that cannot be crossed, and in the absence of such a line assumes that any technological advancement in weaponry is a positive or neutral one. Yet he begins by acknowledging that drones raise ethical questions because “their use represents a cold, calculated, and often disconnected act of taking the life of an enemy.” His use of the word disconnected is appropriate, rightly seeing that killing a human with a keypad from the safety of a chair is a different sort of thing from facing him on the battlefield.

The very risk of war and what it could entail – one’s own death or injury or that of one’s compatriots – should serve as a strong incentive to pursue peace rather than violence. When that risk is removed, so also is the incentive to seek alternatives.

The result is that people are making decisions about whom to kill from a very great distance away, with significant amounts of risk-free guesswork. In the words of Smith, from their remote situations “pilots and commanders are required to make decisions as to who is a valid target. This is complicated in counterterrorism conflicts because of the ability of terrorist groups to act and look like civilians.” He concludes, “Nevertheless, terrorist enemy combatants are fair targets both ethically and under the law of war because of their actions.”

The calling of every Christian, and of the church, is to be a peacemaker, imagining different sorts of possibilities from the sword that Jesus shunned, and seeing even enemies as loved by God and as potential friends. To dismiss such a calling as naïve is to box in the transformation that God can bring about.

Furthermore, there are concrete examples of such transformation when people meet face to face, with openness to something better than violence. I commend Jonathan Larson’s Making Friends Among the Taliban and Ahmed Haile’s Teatime in Mogadishu as examples of peacemaking set in the very regions where drones buzz through the sky, bringing death from above. There is an alternative to doing nothing, if we are willing to engage the enemy through just peacemaking practices as Jesus taught us.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

Peter Sensenig
Peter Sensenig holds a PhD in Christian Ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary. Formerly the associate director of the Just Peacemaking Initiative, he will teach peace and conflict studies at the University of Hargeisa, Somaliland, beginning in February 2015.