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War, Conscience and Killing with 'Absolute Certainty'

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The guest piece below was written by a colleague, Rev. Craig M. Watts, who is Co-Moderator of the Executive Committee of Disciples Peace Fellowship and minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Fla. I thought Huffington Post readers would appreciate this critique of outrageous comments by Llario Pantano.

At the CPAC conference in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 10, failed North Carolina congressional candidate Llario Pantano blamed diversity and tolerance -- what he called "political correctness" -- for making our military troops question what they're doing and sending them home morally damaged. "The military is hurt by political correctness because the young men and women that we send out to go find that bad guy and kill him have to be grounded in an intense state of absolute certainty," he told the crowd. "There can't be gray ... if you take away the certainty of absolute Biblical truths, you leave them nothing."

Apparently, Pantano, who was accused of murdering two Iraqi civilians during his marine deployment in 2004, hasn't actually read the Bible enough to notice that biblical truth itself can make some soldiers sensitive to killing in war. A pillar of biblical faith is refusing to grant "absolute certainly" to any human authority, whether it be civilian or military. Yet in the name of opposing "diversity and tolerance [that] weakens the spirit of troops," Pantano wants soldiers to refuse to entertain the possibility that the will of God in war might be something other than the will of the U.S. government or the will of its commanding officers. He also seems to think that the capacity for moral discernment weakens the spirit.

"Fundamentally this is a Christian nation, and that has been denied," Pantano insisted. We don't talk about it. We don't want to offend because we have to be tolerant, we have to accept everybody else's worldview. It's time to start offending. It's time to start standing for something."

I'm perfectly willing to offend when offending is necessary and I, too, believe we need to stand for something. But not what Pantano stands for, which is a morally bankrupt military based on absolute human authority. Not even all conservative Christians would agree with him, since they don't trust government interference in religion, but perhaps Pantano thought he could speak for Christians, since most of the rightwing Christian groups boycotted this year's CPAC event.

Neither the U.S. nor its military is Christian. The very notion of a "Christian nation" is biblically and theologically untenable. But in the name of this dubious idea Pantano wants soldiers to dismiss their pangs of conscience and offer unquestioning obedience to their very human commanders. VA research on moral injury as a wound of war indicates the actual experience of war can shatter unquestioning and morally unexamined behavior no matter how certain a soldier may have been at the time.

Apparently Pantano thinks if the nation were "Christian," soldiers would never need to ask whether or not a war is truly just. Soldiers can fight with the assurance that leaders in a "Christian nation" do what God would have them do. They would certainly not have to reflect on the teachings of Jesus, such as "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek." Instead, they are free to "go find that bad guy and kill him ... in an intense state of absolute certainty," as if it were always obvious who the bad guy is. Any independent ethical reflection confuses matters and compromises resolve. The important thing is for soldiers to offer loyalty without limits and to kill without doubting. That is the way to make sure soldiers don't "come back broken" from war, according Pantano. All they have to do is dispense with their conscience altogether.

Absolute certainty can lead to behaviors that are absolutely wrong. Prior to his conversion the apostle Paul was absolutely certain he was right to persecute Christians. He later spoke of a "zeal that is not according to knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). Absolute certainty has been in the heart of many a suicide bomber. The religious nationalism promoted by people like Pantano and his Tea Party supporters both harms and insults the military, which teaches ethical thinking and principles about the moral conduct of war in the military academies and basic training. It appears Pantana wasn't paying attention during that phase of his training. He also defames the conscientious Christian soldiers who do their best to serve God and country.

Rather than calling for "absolute certainty" from soldiers, we need to encourage them to develop a strong, informed and discerning conscience of the sort that will lead them to resist any action that violates teachings about the moral conduct of war, even if this means disobeying a direct order. Moral responsibility does not stop where the demands of those in authority begin. Whether one is a pacifist or an adherent of the just war tradition, unquestioning obedience based on absolute certainty is not something that should be given to those who command wars.

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