Are weapons inherently evil?

Wed, 26/04/2017 - 11:22 -- James Oakley
Are weapons inherently evil?
Image Credit: ARTS_fox1fire

A few weeks back, I found myself in a group where we were discussing whether weapons are intrinsically evil.

One person suggested that weapons cause war. In particular, the British government should outlaw British firms selling arms to foreign nations. It is sometimes suggested that there is no benefit in doing so — those nations simply source their weapons elsewhere. In fact, there's a great deal to lose. Looking at it from a purely mercenary perspective, Britain would lose a great deal of income if the trade went elsewhere. However this person felt those arguments were purely pragmatic, and driven by a selfish desire for money. The fact remains that weapons cause war.

I've been reflecting on this, and I'll share my reflections here in case they're helpful. The short version is: This is all a lot more complicated than you might first assume.

Let's look at this issue:

Weapons are a feature of a fallen world

The first thing to say is that weapons are a feature of a fallen world. As Christians, we're waiting with eager expectation for the day when Jesus returns. That will be a day when, for all of God's people, all pain, suffering, sickness, sin and death will end.

Death does not belong in this world. When God created the world, and declared all that he had made “very good”, there was no death in the world. Death entered the world through sin (Romans 5:12); it's alien, and doesn't belong here. One day it will be gone for good (Revelation 20:14). Sometimes, when someone dies at a younger than average age, people say that they were too young to die. The truth is: We are all too young to die. There is no age at which death is the right thing to happen. Death is always wrong, always tragic.

Which means that weapons are not good, and do not belong here. The purpose of a weapon is to kill, or to injure. When Jesus returns and death dies, weapons will no longer exist. As Christians, we long and work for the day when there will be no more weaponry.

But does that mean that weapons are intrinsically evil, in the further sense that we should abolish them all immediately?

Weapons are not intrinsically evil

Consider these two scenarios — one theoretical, one not.

An armed robber enters a bank. He holds 5 members of staff, and 15 members of the public, hostage. His demand: To be allowed to leave the bank with all the money held in the branch, without arrest or fear of reprisals. Unless he's given this, he will kill all 20 hostages. He has a deadline: He will kill at midday. All 20 will be dead by 12.05pm. There is nothing in his manner, his state of mind, his competence, or the kind of weapon he's brought into the branch, to suggest that he will not carry through the threat.

The best negotiators in the land are brought in, but they fail to secure the release of a single hostage. Armed police are brought in. It's 11:58am. The most skilled police marksman in the country reports that he has a clear line of sight to the bandit, that he could take a shot and there was effectively zero risk that any of the hostages would be hurt. Would it be morally wrong for him to pull the trigger, or for one of his superiors to give the order to pull the trigger?

Now a not so theoretical scenario: A man arms himself with a knife, climbs into a car, and drives across Westminster Bridge. He accelerates to 70mph, and ploughs into pedestrians on the pavement, intent on causing as much injury and panic as possible. If he manages to kill one or several of them, so much the better. He then leaves his vehicle, and heads for the Houses of Parliament. He intends to kill or injure as many people as he can, ideally several high-ranking members of government, until he is physically stopped. An armed plain-clothes policeman is in a nearby car, waiting to escort a member of government to his next appointment. He sees what his unfolding, and gets out of the car, weapon drawn. Would it be morally wrong for him to discharge his weapon?

Those scenarios need little comment.

Clearly, it would be most unwise for all law-abiding British officials to be disarmed. The fact we live in a fallen world, which is we have weaponry at all, also means we live in a world that needs policing.

Both of those scenarios were domestic. The morality of assessing whether it's right to go to war in any particular occasion is more complex, but we may conclude that there are instances when a nation has to go to war, or defend itself against invasion.

But what if there we no weapons?

Someone might reply that this only applies if our security officers voluntarily disarm.

Suppose, theoretically, that the bank robber and the police marksman had identical models of weapon, made by the same British manufacturer. If that firm did not make weapons, neither would have had a weapon, and the hideous dilemma would never have occurred. If we shut down the entire arms industry, there would be no weapons.

The problem with that is that we have no way to shut down a global arms industry. Even if we outlawed gun manufacture in Britain, and even if we were able to police that with 100% effectiveness, we'd never get every nation to follow suit.

Which means that criminals would find ways to obtain firearms. Which means that we need to equip our police and military to counter such threats.

The Complexities of What is Right and Wrong

So far we've established this: Unless every nation destroys every weapon, outlaws the production of more, polices that law with total effectiveness, and we as a race forget how to make weapons that kill — there will need to be weapons in the world, and we in Britain will need to use them. That probably translates into "needs to make them" as well.

When it comes to which nations British companies may export weapons to, that's a whole other more complex question.

We can tackle an extreme case first: If we knew that a country was going to commit atrocities with a weapon we sold to them, I take it we wouldn't want it sold. There are ways to ensure that — embargo lists and suchlike.

Maybe there are countries at the other extreme: We know that their use will be acceptable. Actually, I'm not sure there are. When it's right to discharge a weapon is immensely complex. There's no guarantee that even British authorised agents will get it right.

So mostly there are middle-ground cases. We, as a nation, may not approve of the human rights record of a given nation, but are we so certain of their intentions that we refuse to sell to them? Or whilst we approve of their human rights record broadly, are we certain enough of how these weapons will be used that we can take the risk to sell them? That's even more tricky than deciding whether a particular war is just, or whether we should join in a particular conflict.

It's tempting to fall back and refuse to sell arms to no other nation. That creates a number of problems, however.

1. To develop a British arms industry that produces quality weapons that do their job accurately and well, we need sizeable investment. There's a question of scale: If any given model is only going to be made for the British market, that will drastically reduce the funds available for research and development.

2. Militarily, we need allies. Few nations attempt to survive without military and political relationships. We need other nations where we will look after one another's interests. If you refuse to sell arms to a nation you're allied with, you're signalling you don't trust them to use those weapons correctly. That, in turn, signals a general lack of trust, and the alliance would become unworkable.

So we fall back on this key premise: When we sell a weapon, we cannot be responsible for how that weapon is used. The problem with weapons is not that they are made, but how they are used. We've already seen that there are bad uses (the bank robber) and good uses (the policeman attending the bank robbery). We can never be 100% certain how any given weapon, or consignment of weapons, will be used, and it isn't our responsibility anyway.

This is not a tidy position. We will be selling arms to other nations, and it's never going to be possible to be 100% certain that they'll be used in ways we approve. But it's the only workable position. If we refused to sell to a particular nation, they'd buy them from elsewhere. We don't then argue that we may as well have the income from the sale: That's the mercenary argument I rejected earlier. Rather, the next step in the argument is to say that they will do the things they wish – whether or not we sell to them. We have a basic responsibility to scrutinise, but beyond that we are not responsible for exactly what will happen to arms we sell, because we cannot determine that in advance.

What is a Christian Approach to Arms Reduction?

Rather than treating this complex issue in an overly simplistic way, let's ask what a distinctively Christian approach would be to seeing the world disarmed. We need to be Christian, not only in the wish to see a world free of arms, but in how we seek to pursue that wish.

We start with Isaiah 2:3-5

In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.’
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war any more.

 Come, descendants of Jacob,
    let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Our great hope includes the hope that one day all war will end, and therefore the machinery of war will end.

This will happen as the word of the Lord streams out to the nations, and (attracted to God and his ways) the nations stream in to be taught by God's word. The mountain that will one day be tallest in the world has echoes of Daniel 2:35. In its New Testament fulfilment, this clearly speaks of the rule of King Jesus, who's kingdom will one day fill the whole earth. It's when he returns, and the "last days" climaxes in the "last day", that death and therefore warfare will cease.

This does not mean our role, in the here and now, is only to wait rather passively for the Great Day. Not at all. We can do two things. 2 Peter 3:12 speaks of the possibility of speeding along the return of Jesus. The parables of Matthew 13 explain the delay as giving more people time to repent and trust Jesus. So we can speed his coming by spreading the good news of Jesus, inviting more people to become Christians.

Second, Isaiah 5:5 calls on the people of God to walk in the light of God and his purposes. We are ruled by the Prince of Peace. As we live in the light of this, the global future (of a world free from conflict) will start to work itself out in our own relationships. We'll experience a real foretaste of what will one day be universal.

As we help more and more people to become followers of Jesus, and as those of us who do follow him live in the light of our new standing with God, so the reign of the Prince of Peace will spread. We'll be doing our bit to bring an end to war.

We may also find that some of us have practical influence: holding political position, the opportunity to work for good in government, shaping thinking in academia, or affecting policy in the armed forces. Christians should use their influence in these spheres. But we ned to be careful. Ever since the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), we've sought to achieve for ourselves what only God can give us. We should use what influence we have, whilst never forgetting that ultimately Jesus Christ is the one to bring peace to the earth, rather than any human alliances.

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