The President, Christian Ethics, and the Rhetoric of “Total Destruction”

There is a long history of Christian thought about war. Since the beginning of the Church, many Christians have concluded that all forms of violence are unacceptable. In fact, in the Church’s earliest days, maybe a majority of Christ-followers were pacifists. More often, however, thoughtful Christians have concluded that war is regrettably necessary sometimes, albeit rarely. They have concluded that sometimes war-making is the responsible outgrowth of our calling to love our neighbors and to be good stewards of the world with which we are entrusted.

Thus, as loving stewards, some Christians have sometimes concluded that they “should” defend innocent persons and populations, and that they “should” sometimes utilize force, even violence, when required to stop the wrongful aggressions of others. After all, if evil regimes are not stopped by someone, innocent people suffer and die.

And that, in a nutshell, is justification for some war-making. To SOME Christians. Maybe you feel the same way.

But the long history of Christian thought also has a wealth of wisdom about the limits of “acceptable” war-making. For thoughtful Christians who, regrettably, conclude that war is sometimes justified, there are right and ethical ways to conduct war. And there are also wrong ways, unethical ways, evil ways.

In particular, Christian thinkers since Augustine (354-430 A.D.) have consistently expressed this one conclusion: it is unethical to wage war with reckless disregard for innocent lives and unethical to intentionally kill innocent non-combatants. Historically, this principle has been called “discrimination” (i.e., “distinguishing,” discriminating in a good way, as in “discriminating between combatants and non-combatants”).

Further, a chorus of Christian theologians throughout history have concluded that war must only be waged in a way that refrains from “over-reaction” – we do not kill millions in response to the random wrongful acts of some foreign dictator who, e.g., hacks the computers of large corporations. Such a response would be, to say the least, disproportionate. This principle requires that, if we must respond to defend ourselves or others, we respond as necessary to confront the threat, but we do not use force gratuitously. Historically, this principle has been called “proportionality.”

And always, always, these voices of Christian history insist that war may never, ever be waged except as a “last resort.”

Together, these principles of discrimination, proportionality and last resort have been known as “just war theory.”  There are a variety of expressions of just war theory, but they generally hold these principles in common.

Although the giants of Christian history who developed just war theory haven’t always spelled out this next principle, all of them share this value that they assume all Christians share. They don’t always mention it because they figure it’s so obvious that everyone already understands this: All of the just war principles are based on our fundamental commitment to viewing every human being as God’s child, as someone created in the image of God. You can easily see how that idea shapes the principle of discrimination – non-combatants aren’t targeted because, after all, they are human beings. But the idea also shapes our treatment of enemy combatants (soldiers and insurgents), when we commit ourselves to show respect to war prisoners – even when our enemies don’t return the favor. I’ll call this the principle of sacred human worth – the idea that every person deserves respect and dignity.

I’m personally an advocate of the ideas that form just war theory. At least I agree with the principles described above. Do you? Do you think it’s fair to say that no war can be called “just” or “ethical” if that war fails to honor these principles that have been held by Christians for most of Christian history?

Enter Donald Trump.

The current President is not a supporter of just war theory. He might not know it, but the ideas he has expressed in recent years demonstrate that he holds ideas that are contrary to the principles of just war:

We know, for example, that Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in the principle of non-discrimination. Remember when he said that America should kill the innocent families of Islamic terrorists?

And now, following Mr. Trump’s first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, we know that he would find it acceptable to “totally destroy” all of North Korea if “we are forced to defend” ourselves or our allies. In other words, he doesn’t believe in the principle of proportionality. In just war theory, it would never be acceptable to kill an entire population, even while conducting self-defense. While it may be acceptable (and consistent with just war) to respond with force that overwhelms an aggressor and that “totally destroys” the enemy’s war-making capabilities, it can never be just to respond by annihilating innocent civilians alongside enemy combatants. Pursuing “total destruction” would violate both the principle of proportionality and the principle of discrimination, so no war that pursues total destruction, as Mr. Trump threatens, could be ethical in the view of Christians.

Sadly, while it’s a little less clear, it also appears that the President fails to consider war a last resort. We know he asked his advisors, on multiple occasions, why we could not use nuclear weapons. Traditionally, the U.S. has always considered nukes strictly a last resort. But he doesn’t want to see our arsenal that way. “Why even have such weapons if we can’t use them,” he asked. And more recently his rhetoric threatened annihilation of North Korea if the North Koreans merely threaten the U.S., even if they never undertake aggressive military actions. He appears ready to make war, even when it’s not the only remaining option – even if not a last resort.

No, Mr Trump neither believes in the principle of last resort, nor the principle of non-combatant discrimination, nor the principle of proportionality, so he does not support the idea of just war. But this shouldn’t surprise us. As pointed out above, there is a single principle underlying all those ideas – the principle of sacred human worth. Mr. Trump doesn’t embrace any of the just war principles because he is not committed to their foundation: By his long history of words and deeds he has shown that he does not believe the principle of sacred human worth.  Remember when he advocated that we should torture prisoners, even torturing them worse than the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the Bush administration had authorized following 9/11?  In Mr. Trump’s eyes, it is not the case that “all men are created equal.”  In his mind, not every human deserves equal dignity and respect. They are not all his brothers and sisters, children of the One God.

No, in Donald Trump’s eyes, some people are “less than” and less valuable. As his words and deeds demonstrate, people do not have value merely because they are human. Instead they have value only insofar are they are useful to him. Those whom he doesn’t value can be mocked, groped, cheated, or manipulated. I don’t think I’m exaggerating or rushing to these conclusions. The evidence is weighty and continues to accumulate.

In reality, surely none of those values repeatedly demonstrated by President Trump are consistent with Christian ethics as articulated in our sacred Bible and throughout Christian history. But ironically, his personal ethics are an awful lot like the ethics that large portions of American Christianity have demonstrated by electing him. They saw in Trump potential value, not because he embodied or practiced traditional Christian ethical principles, like the principle of sacred human worth, but instead because they could use him. Like he uses others in his business life and personal life (and now his political life), much of American evangelicalism was willing to look the other way and ignore his contra-Christian ethics if only he would be their tool to accomplish a few things on their behalf. He could be a creepy misogynist, but who cares if he appoints an anti-abortion justice to the Supreme Court? He could demonstrate racial biases and could even fuel the fervor of white supremacists, but who cares if he lets evangelicals refrain from baking wedding cakes for gay people? He could destroy healthcare for millions of Americans, but who cares if he bans those infidel Muslims? He could rip innocent immigrant children away from their undocumented parents, but who cares if he helps perpetuate the misguided, mis-informed, pernicious myth that America is destined to be a white, Christian nation? No, to so many evangelicals, the devil could be embraced if they could make a deal that reassured them that their worst human impulses were perfectly fine. And “The Donald” was willing to make the deal, because, to him, those evangelicals whom he manipulated were useful for their votes.

Today we stand closer to nuclear war than any time since the end of the Cold War. Not because the world is more dangerous – it is, but that’s not the reason we’re closer to war. The threat of nuclear war is greater because the American President is more dangerous. And he is more dangerous because he does not share the values of just war that I’ve described above. And there’s no mystery why so many Christians have embraced his vision for the world so inconsistent with Christian ethics. It’s because, no matter what label they give themselves, like Trump they have no idea what Christian ethics are, and they don’t care. So long as they can fool themselves into thinking that their own biases are God’s, an unethical and dangerous man can be President, and the world can only hope he doesn’t push the button.


P.S. I don’t know whether you, the person reading this, consider yourself an “evangelical” or something similar. I want to assure you I’m not painting ALL evangelicals with the same brush – I’m not arguing that ALL evangelical Christians are guilty of giving the President a pass for this particular unethical aspect of his worldview (i.e., his poorly conceived ideas about war, his failure to reflect the principles of just war). In truth, by many measures I, too, am “evangelical,” because I believe there is good news for the world in the message and life of Christ about the possibility for redeemed lives and a redeemed world. But far too often we in the Church are indeed guilty of focusing on “our issues” while neglecting the big picture. What you consider “our issues” (wedding cakes for LGBTQ persons?) might not be the same issues that I’d identify (equality for all, care for the least among us, pursuit of peace ), but that’s beside the point. Just consider this: What good is having one more conservative on the Supreme Court if nuclear war destroys millions of people?!

Why were so many (so many Christians!) so willing to risk so much (nuclear war), to get the unlikely assistance of an unreliable and unethical man like Mr. Trump? In recent months my friends have protested that Mr. Trump’s behavior and ethics weren’t foreseeable. I think we all know that isn’t true. Others have argued that his behavior and ethics aren’t that bad. Well, you can apply your standard of ethics if you wish, and maybe that’s different than mine, but when it comes to the ethics of war, I choose to apply the historical Christian approach of just war theory. And by that measure, the President falls short.

If you are still in Mr. Trump’s camp, and if you consider yourself Christian, he needs to hear from you. He needs to know that his supporters expect ethical decisions regarding war. Will you let him hear your ethical voice? Will you join me in insisting that, at least in this instance, America will act in a manner consistent with the ethics of our historic Christian faith? If you claim to be fighting for your beliefs, this is a call to exercise a faithful witness to Mr. Trump. Christians do not believe in unjust wars. Do you?



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