Does the value of human life depend on where you live?

War cemetery

Terrorism has become an unfortunate fact of life in first world countries over the past decade or two. The Twin Towers in the US in 2001, the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings which affected many western tourists, Spain’s train bombings in 2004, the 2005 London transport bombings and now the several recent terrorist actions in France (and more besides) have all understandably generated outrage.

I have been pondering these matters for a while. Here’s a few of my thoughts, ending with 4 lessons I think first world christians can learn.

Evil deeds, innocent victims

In most of these cases, we instinctively feel that the victims had done little to merit the attacks and didn’t deserve to die. Their basic human rights were taken from them. We feel the actions were evil, and many label the perpetrators as evil.

The closer we are to the situation, the more we may feel for the victims. It could have been us. We can identify with a child who lost a parent, a mother whose child has been taken from her or a young man in the prime of life taken before his time.

Christians can readily agree that such killing is evil and cannot be condoned.

Out of sight, out of mind?

But of course, these well-reported incidents are not the only ones. Nigeria and adjacent countries have become a nightmare of abducted schoolgirls, fire-ravaged churches and wanton killing. The IS militants have behaved similarly in the Middle East. Sudan has seen human rights atrocities for decades. Parts of Pakistan seem as dangerous as a war zone, the civil war may have ended in Sri Lanka but atrocities and persecution allegedly continue, and fundamentalist Hindus have committed many terrorist actions in India. Again, to name just a few examples.

The sheer numbers of these atrocities probably exceed what the western world has experienced, but somehow these deaths are too far away and less seen on TV, so somehow they don’t seem to matter to us so much.

Who is the terrorist?

But as an Australian, I need to remember and acknowledge that “my side” (the US and its allies, mainly Britain and Australia) has been responsible for many deaths too.

  • The 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified by claims of the terrorism threat of alleged “weapons of mass destruction” (which turned out to be illusory) and was largely catalysed by the World Trade Centre attacks. Almost 3000 people died in those attacks, but something like a hundred times this number, many of them civilians, died in the war (estimates vary from about 150,000 to 1 million).
  • US drone strikes and covert actions have killed something like three thousand people in Pakistan, a thousand in Yemen and a hundred in Somalia. Most of these were probably terrorists, but many were civilians, including women and children.

Were these lives less valuable than any of those killed in the first world terrorist attacks?

A colonial legacy?

In the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, Western European countries colonised and exploited much of Africa, Asia and the Americas. In most cases they controlled the indigenous populations, sometimes virtually enslaving them, and took out vast resources to enrich their own wealth (and thereby impoverish the indigenous people).

In some cases (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some parts of South America) the European settlers became the dominant ethnic group and the indigenous people became marginalised and often reduced in population due to disease and fighting.

It happened in the Middle East too

Middle Eastern history over the past few centuries is very complex, but after World War 1 the old Ottoman Empire was broken up, new countries with illogical borders were set up, and the various European powers controlled them as “protectorates”. And, of course, they extracted resources where they could.

But after WW2, the same European powers could no longer afford to control their Middle Eastern protectorates, and so they left, leaving authoritarian regimes in place and much of the instability we see today.

Revenge works both ways, and it’s always ugly

The Iraq and Afghanistan invasions were ostensibly about reducing terror threats against the west, but it is hard not to think that revenge was a factor. But have we thought whether our “opponents” might feel the same way?

I’m not saying that we can equate western aggression, war and killing with Muslim war and terrorism. I’m not making any judgment on that. But if western countries can feel affronted and want revenge when we are attacked, surely we can expect that Muslim people might feel the same about being colonised, exploited or attacked?

Jesus calls us to love our enemies, and Paul warns us against taking revenge. It seems christian people, including christian Presidents and Governments containing christians, are willing to go against their Saviour and their Bible when it comes to revenge. So can we expect Muslims or others affected by murderous first world forays into their countries to feel any different?

Jesus and peacefulness

So what should we christians make of Jesus’ commands to non-violence?

Some christians take his teachings to heart and become complete pacifists. While sympathetic to this view, I can’t be quite so absolute. I think there are some situations where violence may be the loving thing – for example, police or international peace-keepers may find themselves in situations when keeping the peace and protecting innocent life may necessitate the use of force.

Other christians justify war and self defence, using the hallowed christian just war theory (see note below). I think this pays too little heed to the teachings of Jesus, but I understand there are good christians who take this view.

But few of our recent wars, drone strikes or covert operations meet the requirements of “just war”. So-called christian countries and christian leaders are bringing shame on the name of Jesus and harming the cause of his kingdom. I don’t see how we can support them.

The value of a human life?

Muslim and other terrorists have shown callous disregard for human life, bringing discredit to the God they say they worship. But western countries have equally shown callous disregard for human life when it isn’t from the first world. Collateral damage is a terrible euphemism for fathers, daughters and grandmothers who no more deserve a violent death than do workers in the World Trade Centre, tourists in a Bali nightclub or journalists in a Paris office.

Once we truly believe that all people are created in God’s image and precious in his sight, we will find we cannot support actions by our countries that don’t reflect this.

In the Old Testament, “an eye for an eye” was designed to limit revenge killing to one for one. Jesus’ teaching on loving enemies is designed to stop that killing altogether. But the Iraq war showed the western allies extracting 50 or 100 times in return for the Twin Towers attacks. We seem to have gone back to pre Old Testament “ethics”!

Smarter foreign policy

I know nothing about foreign policy, but it seems like western rhetoric is aimed at breaking down opposition by threat backed up by use of force.

But Islamic culture is built around honour and shame, and many Muslims would rather lose their life than their honour. Subduing them by force (if that was possible) is likely to leave the problem to break out at a more opportune time, and revenge killing will almost certainly lead to revenge killing in return.

I don’t pretend that we can be idealistic in our foreign policy, but there has to be a better way than what we are doing now.

Four lessons I learn from all this

  1. Terrorism and indiscriminate killing is an offence against God and humanity.
  2. Western nations, Middle Eastern people and third world nations have all been guilty of indiscriminate killing.
  3. As long as we flout other nations’ sovereignty and over-use force to defeat alleged terrorists, we can expect revenge attacks.
  4. Jesus offers those of us who believe in him a better way.
Note: Just war principles:

The BBC lists nine factors that make a war just (Wikipedia and others list these principles, but not so succinctly):

  1. The war must be for a just cause.
  2. The war must be lawfully declared by a lawful authority.
  3. The intention behind the war must be good.
  4. All other ways of resolving the problem should have been tried first.
  5. There must be a reasonable chance of success.
  6. The means used must be in proportion to the end that the war seeks to achieve.
  7. Innocent people and non-combatants should not be harmed.
  8. Only appropriate force should be used.
  9. Internationally agreed conventions regulating war must be obeyed.

Photo: Tyne Cot war cemetery in Ypres, by nicksarebi via Compfight cc

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18 thoughts on “Does the value of human life depend on where you live?

  1. btg5885 says:

    Thanks for this piece. I am here courtesy of George Dowdell’s reblog. I would also add in the US, we are also having an issue where young men of color are being killed by law enforcement officers. While officers have a tough job, there seems to be a predisposition to act when someone of color is involved. So, right now, we have many in my country who feel there life is deemed less worthy.

    Back to the issue of your post, terrorism is not the answer to any problem. Nor is the use of military force without good reason and exhausted other means. On the latter, I believe if a country is going to commit its young men and women to die, they better have good reason and made darn sure there is no other option.

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  2. unkleE says:

    Yes I have read a little about the issue of black people and police in the US. I think the prevalence of guns in the US is a major part of the problem, because police cannot know when a person is armed or not. But it does seem, from this distance, to be an example of valuing lives differently.

    And yes, committing troops to fight, knowing some or many will die, is a very serious matter – one which politicians seem to not take seriously enough.

    Thanks for the comment.

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  3. btg5885 says:

    Unkle E, you are astute with your observation that the gun prevalence is part of the problem in the US. It is also poverty, education, drugs, and entertainment violence issue but it is definitely a guns issue and profiling of young black men issue. BTG

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  4. Jonathan de Assis says:

    One problem that we may face now is that Christians and Western aren’t the same anymore.
    It’s hard to define what makes us Western now, since everyday people avoid absolute definitions and make many things relatives. So, they can make violence relative with double-standards as well.

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  5. btg5885 says:

    We have some westerners here who claim only the geography, but are not first world in thought and perspective. On the flip side, there are some third world folks who are far more first world in ideas. languages spoken, etc. So, maybe we should use the geographic terms for simplicity.

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  6. John A. C. Kelley says:

    I agree with almost everything that you have said, but in terms of pacifism and enemy love, I see a bit of a paradox. We are to love everyone, even our enemies; so when you say it is more loving to protect innocent lives, it seems that you are dodging the fact that doing such a thing would mean not loving our enemies, or at least not loving them as much as we love innocent lives. Christ calls us the love everyone the same and that means being ready to sacrifice ourselves so that the innocents can get away and the enemies rage is distracted with us. This is the self-sacrificial love that both Jesus and Paul speak of often in the NT.

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  7. unkleE says:

    I agree with you John, and I think pacifism should be the default. I’m not sure if a christian can ever justify killing in self defence. But if a police officer, for example, is put in the situation of either using force against a person threatening someone else with a gun, or allowing the attacker to use his gun, it is hard to see how he shouldn’t use force to defend the innocent – not because he doesn’t love his enemy, but because he is charged with defending the innocent.

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  8. unkleE says:

    Hi Jonathan, I think that is a question each person has to answer for themselves (if it becomes relevant for them).

    Australia had compulsory conscription for some people (selected randomly) during the Vietnam War, and I was one of those conscripted. I was a young christian and I had been taught we needed to fight the communists, so I wasn’t a conscientious objector. I served two years, but I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to go overseas or serve in a combatant role (fortunately I wasn’t selected for that, for refusal would have meant a term in military prison).

    I served the two years as well as I could, but came out of the army with the same almost pacifist position I hold today. So my personal view is that I would find it very difficult to serve in the armed forces, though I recognise some wars will be justified in some sense.

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  9. John A. C. Kelley says:

    That is a difficult situation; however, I would argue that in such an incident, one would be tasked to step in the middle of the conflict and offer themselves up for death rather than the victim by jumping in front of the bullet or some other way. I don’t think that there are only two options in the scenario that you presented and to limit it to only two options breaks from the reality of our world. The officer could negotiate with the attacker and try to talk him out of it (if the US [where I live] would train all of its officers in negotiating instead of making it a specialized officer’s job), jump in front of the bullet, pull the victim into cover, etc. There are always more options and in order to love both the wrongdoer and the victim, we must seek nonviolent alternatives in every approach. We also have yet another, arguably more powerful, tool at our disposal as Christians; prayer.

    These are just my convictions and beliefs, I am in no way saying you have to abide by these convictions or agree with my beliefs; I am just tossing in my two cents.

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  10. unkleE says:

    Hi John, thanks for that. I appreciate hearing about your convictions, regardless of whether i agree with them or not. But in this case I pretty much agree with you. I agree there are always more than 2 options, and I agree that someone following Jesus should be willing to give up there own life to avoid taking another. And I agree we should always seek non-violent approaches.

    But I also don’t believe in legalistically applying any “rule” and I recognise that in the real world giving up our own lives may not always save another. In some cases in this less than ideal world, a person may take many lives if they are allowed to. So I think we have to allow some freedom here.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an example of someone who might have preferred to be a pacifist, but who joined a plot to kill Hitler in the belief that it would save lives. Had they succeeded, it would almost certainly have saved millions of lives. Who can say they were wrong?

    So my position is very similar to yours – the default position, especially when I am acting as an individual, is pacifism, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of there being situations where more direct action may be right.

    How do you feel about that?

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  11. John A. C. Kelley says:

    I appreciate your views as well and I think your views are very respectable and reasonable.

    I have to take solace in believing that by sacrificing myself, I am giving the other a chance to get away. Will they get away? Possibly, but maybe not. I don’t know, but is it worth killing someone made in the image of our God? The only time we see Jesus in this situation is when the woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned. Jesus did not take action against the persecuting party, but offered Himself up in place of the woman and tried to reason with the people. He did so successfully. Is this a one-size-fits-all story? Maybe not, but it influences me (among many other words and actions of Christ) to believe as I do. Of course, this specific story was likely not even in the original manuscripts and was almost certainly added at a later date. Is it true and was it just forgotten and someone put it in under inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Was it added to make Jesus seem more forgiving? Who knows? I believe that it holds some sort of weight because I believe in the inspiration of the scriptures. I agree mostly with C.S. Lewis on the topic of inspiration and myth in scripture, but I also think that inspiration means being inspired, not being dictated.

    I also have come across scholars who disagree and claim that Bonhoeffer was not involved in the assassination plots.
    Here is a link that goes over the topic with a scholar that also links more information on the matter at the end of the post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/no-dietrich-bonhoeffer-didnt-try-to-kill-adolph-hitler/

    I did a 180 about a year ago. I used to be deep in the right wing and a near carbon-copy of Bill O’Reilly as my father was (I’m only 19 at the moment), but I have always had questions and doubts. I came across a minister who was deep into the grace movement one day about two and a half years ago and he led me to others who captured my attention. These others would lead me to even more who could show me what they believed. I was enthralled with this new world of Christianity that I had never known. I began research and through careful study, I believe this route to be the best that I have come across. Over the course of following these men, they shared a deal on a free book by a man that I had not heard of, but that they recommended whole-heatedly. I downloaded the free book deal only for that day and began reading it. In reading this book, my whole world turned upside down and I thought there was no way for it to be true, but through diligent study, I found it to be the most logical progression from the Biblical narrative. This book was “A Farewell to Mars” by Brian Zahnd. Then I found Benjamin L. Corey (the author of the blog I linked) and over the course of the past year, I have found this to be the best possible belief for me for the time being.

    I am a very self-sacrificial person and I hope I stay this way. Everyone bears the image of God and everyone deserves to live as long as possible. I actually am a Philosophy minor (I added it too late to be a major and stay out of major debt haha) and I have been studying Plato and have some amazing things to share about God’s image and how the Bible is heavily influenced by Plato’s writings (in cultural, not inspirational ways). It’s awe striking and I would love to share it with you if you are interested.

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  12. unkleE says:

    Hi John, I would never have guessed you were “only” 19 – your attitude is way more mature than mine was at that age!

    I think we are agreed about Jesus and non-violence, and I like the look of the Zahnd book. Our only disagreement is that I think there is no fixed “law” in the new covenant, and we must be guided by the Spirit, so I would not make a rule about non-violence either.

    I too have seen the Corey post on Bonhoeffer (I follow Corey’s blog) but it was an example only (consider it a hypothetical if you like), so the point remains whichever was the case.

    I agree with you about CS Lewis and inspiration too.

    I would be interested to hear what you have to say about Plato, and what you are learning in Philosophy. You could post a brief summary as a comment, and/or send me an email using the link in the top menu.

    Thanks.

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  13. John A. C. Kelley says:

    Unklee,

    Thank you for the compliment. I try to be as rational as possible. I was gifted with an amazing mother who has passed down her wisdom to me.

    I agree. I do think that there are “laws” in the New Covenant, but that they are simple: love God and your neighbor as yourself and to believe in Christ. These are the laws that Jesus gave to us and are repeated throughout the New Testament. One instance that legalists love to point to is 1 John 3. The issue; however is that the 23rd verse of chapter 3 tells us that the author’s definition of sin was not about the Old Testament law, but explicitly says, “This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.” This is the only law that we must abide by.

    That’s fine, I can agree with that. I love Ben Corey’s blogs and have found the Hellbound? blog by Kevin Miller to be awesome as well! I absolutely love Brian Zahnd’s book and highly recommend it. Phil Drysdale is an interesting character as well, though he is more focused on grace and what that means exactly than the others; he is found at phildrysdale.com

    I think Lewis has such amazing things to say about it! I really enjoyed your post about him as well as your review of his new biography.

    I think I’ll email it to you so as not to blow up your comments on this post if a discussion ensues.

    Thank you for the discussion! I really enjoy discussing minor (even major) differences with others who have an appreciation for critical thought and reflection of both other’s beliefs as well as their own. Heck, just two and a half years ago I was a Bill O’Reilly carbon copy who never questioned a thing Fox News said.

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