All right, then, let us take a particularly thorny test case — America’s use of atomic bombs on Japan near the end of the Second World War. Does that measure up to just war standards? If so, why? If not, why not?
The answer I would give is “of course not,” but I am aware that it is not a simple question, and it is complicated greatly by the Church’s compromise on other, more important, antecedent questions. Allow me to ‘splain.
In situations like that one, we often want to do snapshot ethics instead of narratival ethics. We postulate a fairly fixed situation, and then ask what the right thing to do is. The snapshot ethical dilemma, as it is usually stated, goes like this. The United States had to weigh the loss of life in these two Japanese cities against the loss of life on both sides that was almost certain to occur in the event of a conventional invasion. That estimate, I have read, is around five million dead, and I have no reason to doubt it. When you consider the ferocity with which the Japanese defended Okinawa, what would they have done for their mainland? Furthermore, we only had two bombs total, and we weren’t even sure they were going to work. The tenacity of the Japanese could be seen in the fact that they did not surrender after one of their cities had been leveled, and so on. You are Truman. What do you do? And while I have often seen Christians come down in favor of Truman’s final decision, there is a narrative missing here.
But first a brief disclaimer about all that. Narrative is all the rage in hep-cat theology circles these days, and so I always want to put some distance between that and what I am arguing for. Narratival ethics is most necessary, but if we if are in The Guns of Navarone and all the emergent johnnies think we are in Bride of Smythwick Castle, in which the heroine is emerging from her bedroom in a filmy nightgown and guttering candle in order to find some objective truth in the creaky north tower but it isn’t there because who’s to say where it is anyhow, and sometimes your metaphors slip the leash . . . anyway, the emergent johnnies are in the wrong book, that’s their problem.
But here is how a real scriptural narrative shapes this particular ethical dilemma. In Scripture, we frequently find situations where guidance on the right thing to do is unavailable because of wrong choices made earlier which are still unrepented. For example, Saul desperately wanted guidance from the Lord before his last battle at Gilboa, and the Lord had clammed right up (1 Sam. 28:6). Saul wanted righteous guidance, but by that point in the story, he couldn’t have it. Because of that, he sought out alternative guidance from the witch at Endor (1 Sam. 28:7).
Ethical dilemmas are often made very tangled and difficult because we are plonked down in the middle of one without the antecedent resources from the earlier narrative to enable us to solve it. Put another way, there is a whole class of ethical dilemmas that cannot be solved in media res. Many Christians have experienced this when non-Christian neighbors in the midst of a marriage meltdown come for advice on “the right thing to do” this afternoon marriage wise, and the Christians know that what this couple needs is not good advice, but good news. They want to talk about marriage, and what they need to hear about is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Rigging the ethical dilemma so that we have to solve it within truncated boundaries always creates impossibilities, and we find, within those truncated boundaries, that there actually is no way of escape. The only way out is to change the subject entirely and talk about something else entirely — like the gospel. If someone says, “Hey, padre, I’ve got a situation for you. Suppose a guy has sex with two hookers, and then it turns out he only has enough money for one of ‘em. What’s the right thing to do? Happened to a friend of mine once,” the principle I am arguing for here becomes abundantly clear.
Now, when the United States was faced with the dilemma of dropping those bombs, we had already walked away from the authority of Jesus Christ about a century before. So what’s the point of asking what Jesus wants us to do? Why do we care? We care because we bought into the myth of neutrality, and we had come to believe (Christians included) that “the right thing to do” is a floaty thing that does not have to be grounded in the will of the true and triune God. The only problem is, that’s false.
There was enough biblical residue in our culture to make our anguish over the whole thing real and the problem acute. But Saul’s anguish was real, and God still didn’t tell him anything. We tried to ameliorate that anguish by pointing out the lack of viable alternatives and our humane gestures of leafleting the cities beforehand, telling folks to get out. Israel, stuck in a similar kind of jam now, has used the same kind of (helpless) gesture. But at the end of the day, our use of those bombs did not meet the historic Christian definition of jus in bello.
But Christians were in no position to say anything about that because Christians had long before bought into the right of our secular state to exist as a secular state. That meant, because we could not bring the authority of the Lord Jesus to bear on the problem, that we either had to shut up about it, or analyze the whole problem within the limits established by Truman. The latter option is what we by and large decided to do. Within those confines, I appreciate how difficult the dilemma was, and how intractable and evil the Japanese leaders were. But then again, I often feel sorry for Saul.
But to this day, Reformed Christians will maintain solemnly that Jesus Christ has no opinions about the political issues of the day, including this kind of issue. The walls between their two kingdoms is sound-proofed with heavy-duty Klinean batting, and virtually the entire Reformed world can’t hear the bombs going off on the other side. This world is not my home; I’m just passing through. Sweet.
So what is the way out? The way out is always the gospel — the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. That resurrection, incidentally, was God’s declaration of Christ’s universal authority over all the nations. The resurrection was not the point where Christ looked at the anguish of the nations and recused Himself.
When our repentance is complete, and the gospel issue is settled, then and only then would it be possible to talk about what a godly magistrate could possibly have done to avoid dropping the bomb on those two cities. But I am in the highest degree confident that a Christian nation would not have had to choose between intolerables.