Citizenship Confusion: Christian Ethics in Air Force Training and the Authority of the Bible

Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

A report was recently released by TruthOut.org and picked up by other news outlets which revealed that an ethics course for Nuclear Missile Officers at Vandenberg Air Force Base taught Christian Just War theory. According to the PowerPoint released by the Air Force, the course used Just War theory and scriptural support to make the case that war can be just and that a Christian can ethical participate in nuclear warfare. After an organization complained to the Air Force about the use of Christian teaching, the course was removed.

Naturally, many Christians were distraught over the course’s cancellation. Don’t we desperately need soldiers to be taught biblical ethics? Yes, but a look at the course’s content and message raises challenging questions about the efficacy of biblical ethics in a secular environment and the potential abuse of Scripture to support the State.

First, this was a mandatory course, which meant that non-Christian officers had to sit through a class on Christian war ethics. I cannot see how forcing non-Christians to learn about Christian ethics could possibly be constitutional in this situation. Wasn’t this course establishing a state-sponsored ethic that was explicitly based on the Bible?

Even if this course was constitutional, I have a hard time believing that it was effective. If your argument is that nuclear warfare can be ethical because Augustine and the Bible teach Just War theory, why should I care if I’m not a Christian? The course presupposes a belief in the authority of the Bible. If you do not share that presupposition, then why accept the conclusion that launching nuclear missiles can be ethical?

Most important, I worry that this course could not give the Bible it’s proper authority in a State institution. The Word of God does provide standards by which we can and should judge right action. However, the Word of God can only provide a standard if it is outside of the authority of the State. From the released PowerPoint, there is no indication that alternative interpretations of how Christians should respond to war was presented. And even if there were, there is a great danger that the chaplains teaching this course would not submit the actions of their country to the standards of God and encourage these Nuclear Missile Officers to do the same, but would instead use the word of God to validate the State’s actions. Would the chaplains even be allowed to teach that it could be sinful to obey a presidential order to launch a missile under certain circumstances? If the State cannot allow itself to be judged by God’s Word, it is very dangerous for it to evoke God’s Word.

I am glad that this course was cancelled because it seems to clearly infringe on these soldiers’ rights, it is based on a presupposition that many soldiers will not accept, but most importantly, because it gives the State the tremendously attractive opportunity to justify its actions according to the Bible without submitting itself to God.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://thecrossandthecontroller.com Benjamin Wallis

    The real shame here is that we need ethical conversations about war, including religious perspectives, in military academies. It is sad that this was handled so poorly. If we’re going to be conducting war, let us at least discuss how we might do so justly.

    This article is very brief and I have many questions that come up afterward. I think the most obvious confusion isn’t this quote from the article:

    “If your argument is that nuclear warfare can be ethical because Augustine and the Bible teach Just War theory, why should I care if I’m not a Christian?”

    It is that in what way does Augustinian just-war theory support nuclear warfare? Who is teaching this supposed just war theory?

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  • Alan Noble

    Benjamin,

    I’m not sure Augustinian Just War theory does support nuclear warfare and I’m not sure how it was used in the course.

    The course was taught by a chaplain, as I mentioned.


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