Should a Christian Work for Government?

Should a Christian Work for Government? May 21, 2012

Should a Christian Work for Government?

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Hauerwas. Earlier I read a lot of Yoder and still do pick him up occasionally. Neither one says Christians shouldn’t work for government, but things they do say about Christianity and government incline that way.

Of course there are government jobs where no conceivable conflict with Christian faith and morals would arise—the drivers license bureau, etc. At least one would be hard pressed to think of such conflicts. (Of course, conflicts could arise if a supervisor asked you to do something unethical, but that can happen in any job. Here I’m wondering about conflicts that automatically come with the job or probably will.)

What really got me wondering about this was last Sunday’s (May 13) episode of “60 Minutes.” They interviewed a former top US spy who had a lot of interesting things to say about strategies for information gathering. One that caught my ear was providing pornography to foreign diplomats and agents. He said he never met a diplomat of a certain country that didn’t love pornography and that he and other US agents provided pornography to them in exchange for information.

I had never thought about that before. I knew that as a US secret agent you might have to kill people, but provide them with pornography? Now that’s another question. Can a Christian do that with a clear conscience—for whatever payoff? Does any end justify such an immoral means?

As I watched that I wondered how many Christians watching the show shuddered at that method of obtaining secret information about our enemy countries. I suspected that many who wouldn’t hesitate to defend torture or even assassination did shudder at that and wondered to themselves whether they could do that with a clear Christian conscience.

Where exactly are the limits? I know that there are evangelical Christians working in intelligence gathering for the US government. What will they absolutely refuse to do—no matter what the pay off might be in terms of obtaining important information that might make us more secure as a nation?

Let’s consider torture. I have heard reasonable people defend torture as a last resort. (You can call waterboarding whatever you want to; to me it’s torture.) Okay, let’s agree to disagree about that. (I think torture is always wrong and should never be condoned by policy.) What about torturing a suspected terrorist’s wife and children—if torturing him doesn’t work?

Absurd, you say? Well, it has happened in history. I have read accounts of it being done by Nazis, so it isn’t literally absurd.

No, you say? Never? Why not? What justifies drawing an absolute line between torturing a suspected terrorist to extract information and torturing his wife and children if it is likely to work? (Remember, he’s only a suspected terrorist, so saying torturing him is justified whereas torturing his wife and children is not because he’s guilty and they’re innocent won’t work.)

I think some Anabaptists (and perhaps others) prefer not to work for any government agency or branch because it is impossible to discern the line between what is participation in unchristian, immoral acts and what is not. And there is always the danger of being asked to participate, however indirectly, in violence or immorality such as providing pornography to someone.

I’m not convinced that Christians should never work for government, but I wonder if average, run-of-the-mill evangelical Christians put much thought into what branches of government they would work for and why (or why not).

Again, I suspect many conservative evangelical (and other) Christians would balk at supplying graphic pornography to enemy agents but not balk at participating in torture or assassination or capital punishment (assuming they are constitutionally able to stomach such things).

I don’t agree with Hauerwas or Yoder about everything, but I think they do (did) the church a great service by at least raising questions about Christian virtues and government practices.

In Hannah’s Child (his autobiography) Hauerwas writes about the backlash he felt from theological friends when he criticized America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. One well known theologian with whom he was close walked out on a talk he was giving and later wrote to ask him if he felt no “natural loyalties”—meaning to country, I take it.

I guess I would ask that theologian if he would provide pornography to an enemy agent if it would result in the likelihood of obtaining information that would help make our country more secure. If his answer was “yes,” I would ask if he would provide LSD or other mind-altering drugs. If the answer was “yes,” I would ask what he WOULDN’T do to obtain such information. If there was ANYTHING he wouldn’t do, I could ask him if he felt no natural loyalties.

Hauerwas believes it is always wrong for Christians to kill fellow Christians. Whether he is a strict pacifist is somewhat difficult to discern. I thought so, but then I read an article by him that muddied the waters a bit. He seemed to back off absolute pacifism into a kind of “war is always evil even when it’s a necessary evil” position. But one thing is clear—he wants Christians to be in the forefront of abolishing war (and capital punishment, etc.).

Should natural loyalties over ride Christian brotherhood? C. S. Lewis thought so. What did Christians of the first three centuries think? For the most part they did not participate in war or serve in the military.

Can anyone imagine the Apostle Paul, just to choose one first century Christian, providing pornography to anyone for any reason? Participating in torturing someone for any reason? Taking up arms to kill someone for any reason? I can’t. (I’m leaving Jesus out of the equation here just because I don’t want to play “the Jesus card.” It’s too easy to say “He’s the exception” or something like that.)

So why am I even posting about this? I wonder if, in our American evangelical Christian churches, we have given enough thought to what Christians should and should not do or participate in, in terms of sinful behavior, for the greater good of our country? At times it seems to me that we simply assume that we should do whatever our country asks us to do—especially if we are in the government’s service—without question.

Hauerwas has been vilified even for suggesting otherwise. Perhaps at times he expresses his own ideas in rather extreme ways, but at least he forces us to stop and think about the issues.

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  • Well, I guess I’m an “average, run-of-the-mill evangelical Christian” because I’ve never considered this before. Haha. It’s a very interesting thought though.

    You made a great point here: “I suspected that many who wouldn’t hesitate to defend torture or even assassination did shudder at that and wondered to themselves whether they could do that with a clear Christian conscience.”

    There typically seems to be a double standard with sexuality and violence. Beats me as to why this is though.

  • Very insightful and provocative post. One thing that took me aback, though you are correct in saying it, “I suspected that many who wouldn’t hesitate to defend torture or even assassination did shudder at that and wondered to themselves whether they could do that with a clear Christian conscience.” It was the fact that so many of my wonderful Christian brothers and sisters can cavalierly accept killing and torture that gave me pause.

    In healthcare, which is my field, I have been studying the ethical concerns of moral distress, whereby a nurse or other healthcare professional is hindered from doing what they consider to be the right thing because the system dictates another course of action. Moral distress has been defined in nursing as “The psychological disequilibrium and negative feeling experienced when person makes a moral decision but does not follow through by performing the moral behavior indicated by that decision.” [Judith Wilkerson (1987) Nursing Forum].

    In matters of government and politics, I felt extreme moral distress when our nation embarked on the Iraq War. I had colleagues who were equally distressed. My feelings were only exacerbated by the many attitudes I heard expressed from other Christians who thought that war was justified.

    The truth is, anyone who is serious about their faith will experience moral distress from time to time because we live in a larger society where many factors hold sway. This is one reason we must hash out these ethical issues as they arise, bringing our faith, reason, and convictions to the table.

  • CGC

    Hi Roger,
    Great post and food for thought. This is another reason why I sometimes think every Christian reader needs to read people like Hauerwas and N. T. Wright to gain a different perspective on some things that they may have taken for granted or just assume to be right for so long without looking deeper or hearing that view challenged. I was also happily surprised to read your words concerning torture. It seems like many American Christians have no ethical problem with using torture if it will serve the quote “higher good.”

  • CGC

    PS – I just watched the movie “Pearl Harbor” last night and I really enjoyed the movie. But it did get me thinking about the ethics of bombing civilians and some how we are the only couttry moral enough to drop atomic bombs on another country. If there were Christians in another country that thought it was alright to drop atomic bombs on America, would we think that was right?

    • rogereolson

      Ah, but you forget…American Exceptionalism. We are not bound to the ethical codes that bind all other societies and countries because we’re special.

      • Sarah Caldwell

        I was visited by a woman, a South African who’d been a missionary for 13 years. She asked me about American Christianity. When I told her of the belief of many American churchgoers that the USA has a responsibility to do whatever is necessary to survive and thrive because God gave us the responsibility of being a light to the world, she said that was what pro-apartheid church members had believed.

        • rogereolson


  • Hard question when we are told from our churches (and to some extent our schools) that service to the country is service to God. While Christian’s don’t explicitly condone un-ethical behavior (in most cases) we implicitly condone it with our political will. I am concerned that most Christians don’t see that votes on either side of the political aisle are compromised in some form because voting is part of the kingdom of the world and as such is tainted even in it’s most virtuous instances.

  • The anabaptist tradition, varied as it is, has been invaluable to me as I’ve though through these questions over the past five years. Whether we agree or not about the nature of government, the institute we call “the state” is an institution with (in economics terms) a comparative advantage in violence; whatever it does is backed by the threat of violence. However we apply such observations would be a lengthy debate, but the nature of the state should give us pause in the same way these practical scenarios ought to. I would extend these questions to other ones, such as, “If it is wrong to steal, should Christians vote for the State to take money from one person for their own benefit?”

    I wouldn’t advise getting too off-topic to the original post, but regardless of the methods used by intelligence agencies to gather “information,” they are often utilizing fraud and deception. Should a Christian CIA agent deceive a would-be terrorist to get that terrorist to confide in him for pertinent information?

    Ultimately, these questions arise within the framework of loyalty and allegiance to nationalist goals, not Kingdom ones. The questions don’t make sense in my mind, because at the get-go we’re talking about an institution whose operations depend on deception, fraud, and violence.

    • rogereolson

      That was my reason for writing the post. You understood.

  • In 1971, I was drafted into the military and served in the US Army. I was a new Christian and resistant to the Vietnam conflict. I could not connect the dots as to its justification, nor can I do it now. My father was a full colonel and veteran of WW2. I enjoy reading Hauerwas as his pacifist commitment is a challenge to me, even though I can still see war and the use of the sword as a possible legitimate means to defend a righteous cause. At the same time, I understand what he says: “How can we kill others for whom Christ died?” I read somewhere [perhaps it was Hauerwas] that during WW1, studies showed only 20% of infantrymen did not hesitate to pull the trigger when facing the enemy. Only 2-3% were genuine killing machines. If this be true, then it would seem nature corroborates the pacifist ethic. But it cannot explain why war is such a determiner in understanding world history, unless it all be attributed to a “natural” sinful desire to dominate, as Walter Wink likes to identify the motive of this “present evil age.”

    • rogereolson

      Hauerwas provides those interesting statistics about soldiers in WW1 in The American Difference. Apparently, many soldiers purposely shot over the enemies’ heads. I think the reason for this has to do with WW1 itself. Almost nobody understood what it was about. The justifications for it were bizarre. What it came down to, apparently, was the need by military leaders to “try out” all the new weapons that had been invented, made and stockpiled. How Europe (and then America) got involved in a total war (almost no rules) begun by a political assassination in the Balkans still puzzles me. (For those of you tempted to educate me, I’ve read many books about WW1 and watched numerous documentaries about it. I have never read an explanation that convinced me it was a justified or even reasonable war.)

      • James Petticrew

        whether it was reasonable or justifiable or not I think that European historians are increasingly coming to the conclusion that WW1 was inevitable due to Prussian militarism seeking to extend its terrority much as the Nazi state’s desire for “living space” made WW2 inevitable.

      • Shooting over the heads was one of those things that happened after the Christmas truce.
        See my book on the truce of 1914 for a succinct overview of The Great War, Part I and how it set the stage for the sequel, Part II

        No, it was not a reasonable nor justified war.
        “Undoubtedly this is the most stupid, senseless and unnecessary war of modern times. It is a war not wanted by Germany, I can assure you, but it was forced on us, and the fact that we were so effectually prepared to defend ourselves is now being used as an argument to convince the world that we desired conflict.”
        —Crown Prince Wilhelm,

        • rogereolson

          I’m always baffled by such German defenses of either WW1 or 2. Anyone who knows anything about German’s occupations of the Netherlands and Belgium during 1 knows Germany, in that time and place, was not acting merely defensively.

  • ME

    To me the circumstances are so rare for the ends justifying the means it is better to have a rule to not work for or participate in the government. But evaluate deviations on a case by case basis.

    As Christian trying to follow Jesus, trying to love God with ALL our hearts why do we bother trying to make excuses to not do what Jesus wants?

  • Joshua

    In his book, “The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church,” Greg Boyd attempted to briefly answer that question, or at least questions like it (What should our political involvement be, should Christians run for public office, etc.). The book is based off of a sermon series called “The Cross and the Sword,” which he taught in the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign between Bush and Kerry.

    The response by his congregation was similar to the response to Hauerwas for condemning Iraq and Afghanistan – half of his congregation left, and many more were still very angry. In fact, Boyd cites Hauerwas at several points throughout the book that he eventually wrote, believing that the response by his congregation was a sure sign that someone had to write about what he perceived to be American idolatry. The central premise of the book was somewhat different but very much related to the topic you have posted on here. Like Hauerwas, Boyd also is raising important questions for Evangelicals to ask and answer, even if they may disagree as to what answers those are.

    I’m sure you know about all of this, however, as you both taught together at Bethel, but I thought I would chime in in the occasion that you hadn’t read that particular title.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I know about Greg’s views. I think he is deeply influenced by both Yoder and Hauerwas. I don’t think “half” his congregation left over that sermon series, but many did. I think he told me about a thousand left and he wasn’t too upset about it. I remember the morning I opened AOL to read my e-mail and saw Greg’s picture at the welcome page–and then on the front page of the New York Times! For the most part I agree with Greg about this, but I’m not quite as certain as he seems to be that involvement with government is wrong (for Christians). I do think it’s an issue about which Christians need a lot of careful thought and conversation.

      • His sermon series that the book was based on was the start of turning me around on these issues. In a later interview he was asked whether or not he would preach the same sermons, and he responded humbly that he could have been less provocative while at the same time communicating truth. He gave the number of those who left, though I don’t recall what it was. My initial recollection was 25% of his average attendance dropped. No, they weren’t worried. I can’t imagine his elder board/leadership expected any different.

        • rogereolson

          In fact, if I may share something he may have meant to be confidential but didn’t say so, he told me most of the people who left over the sermon series did not really belong with his church in terms of ethos.

  • Just Sayin’

    From an outsider’s perspective, many American evangelicals seem to be merely cultural Christians in these matters.

  • Norman

    Well obviously this is a nuanced subject! Especially since both Christ and Peter welcomed with open arms two Roman Centurions into the fold of faith as great examples. One was used to illustrate the faith that Israel was expected to uphold but would not and so he was provided a seat at the table with Abraham instead of Israel’s leaders. The other had his benevolent actions toward Israel illustrated to demonstrate his worthiness. Does anyone question the brutality that these two Roman Centurions would also have adhered to in able to reach their military station? Somehow those aspects are set in the background for the moment which perhaps provides us with a glimmer of theological perspective.

    However dismissing them and their occupation as aberrations is likely not a sound approach to take.

    The question is if we have the choice should we take the better avenue than those professions require. I would hope we could but this is probably not a black and white subject.

    • CGC

      Jesus also embraced prostitutes and tax collectors.

      • Good point CGC, that means even soldiers can be children of God. Cornelius didn’t even have to repent of his Roman Army position as he was accepted as he was. As the first Gentile convert he was a particularly interesting selection. 🙂

        • rogereolson

          Of course, we have no way of knowing what happened next. Did he remain in the army? Who knows?

          • Norman


            The point is that he wasn’t instructed to repent of being in the military. In fact no commentary is given. Indeed he may well represent the one whom bears the sword for the rulers and authorities of Rom 12. There is no directive regarding military service as there is toward overt sinfulness for repentance and speculating is not necessarily a viable argument.

            My problem with Pacifism to the extreme is that it is never taken to its natural practical conclusions regarding the reality of the world. It’s ideology at its purest and lacks practical real world application.

            Having stated that I believe pacifism is a needed counterbalance to excess greed and warmongering tendencies of people and I agree that the discussion needs to go deeper. However many discount pacifist because they don’t appear to live in the real world with any semblance of a nuanced stance when push comes to shove. Ideologues don’t typically resonate well.

            History tells us that in the rise of Civilization that Pacifist probably didn’t fare well if they didn’t ban together with their neighbors, tribes and nations to defend themselves from the constant pillaging. Perhaps Pacifism has a higher degree of being practiced without molestation today than in previous times but a look at the last century tells us we are only a heartbeat away from anarchy at any given moment.

  • Jeff

    As a strict pacifist, I am in full agreement with the substance of this post. Indeed, I’m grateful that you take the time to wrestle with important issues like this. However, as someone who has worked for the government at both the federal and state level, I am a bit put off by the title of the post. According to the most recent census data, less than 15% of government jobs might conceivably require moral decision-making at the level you’re describing (see That hardly causes me to question whether a Christian can work for the government. I question whether a Christian can work for the military or intelligence service (or even the police), but to lump all government employees in with that group seems drastic. Again, I completely agree with the thrust of this post, but I do find the title to be rather misleading.

    • rogereolson

      Have you ever heard of a journalistic “hook?” A headline is often used to get people to read. However, I stand by the title–as a question–regardless of whether it was partly devised to get people to read. I think it raises a valid question about which Christians need to think. Too many Christians unthinkingly take for granted that government employment is a neutral thing–unrelated to their Christian faith. IMHO, there’s no such thing.

    • ME

      If you participate in any way with the government you are helping to prop it up. And if you prop up the government you are propping up an institution founded on violence and which continues to perpetrate violence.

  • I can’t help wondering why you are singling out working for governments. Exactly the same conflicts are likely to arise if working for private corporations, even potentially for educational institutions. Well, hopefully torture will not be involved, but you can never be sure. I am sure there are even universities which offer pornography to sweeten up potential clients.

    But just as there is no fundamental conflict with Christian principles in the great majority of corporate or educational jobs, so there is no fundamental conflict in the great majority of government jobs. So surely exactly the same principles need to be used by any Christian in employment, regardless of the sector of the employer.

    • rogereolson

      I suspect, however, that many conservative American Christians think working for the government is service to God in a way working for any corporation is not. I think many, perhaps most, conservative American Christians, are well aware of the dangers of working for certain companies. For example, I know evangelical Christians who have lost their jobs over things like pornography–e.g., being unwilling to print it in a printing enterprise that gets a contract to print a pornographic magazine. I know of a group of evangelical Christians who simply refused to do their jobs when that was being printed. They were fired, sued and lost. I have not heard of very many, if any, evangelical Christians refusing to work in government service, or losing their jobs there, because of similar moral conflicts. I suspect it is easier to justify certain behaviors that would otherwise be considered grossly immoral when it’s in government service.

      • Here in the UK we have had cases of government employees losing their jobs in similar circumstances. One I remember was a state registrar who refused to perform same gender civil partnership ceremonies. Of course that refusal raises other issues. But I suspect that in the USA too there will be a growth in such cases as even the government recognises behavior which many Christians consider wrong.

  • Mark

    I would work for a health department or CDC or NIH or DEA or FDA or an agricultural extension office. Now the DEA can straddle the bounds because it turns into a law enforcement agency dealing with the craziest criminals such as the Mexican cartel. But this is necessary because this evil is too close to our border and there are too many people to protect. I would pray about it and take a deep breath and probably do what is necessary to obtain information. If it involved torture, I would say a prayer and do it, and pray the whole time I was in this kind of situation. I don’t know — some things are necessary because there is evil in this world. So much what you are bringing up lies in the gray zone. There is no right answer. I guess I believe that God forgives us when we are thrown into these kind of gray situations. As a corollary, I can’t imagine being a Christian and not suffering some post traumatic stress from exposure to all this evil.

    • rogereolson

      Would you torture the suspected drug cartel member’s wife and children if torturing him doesn’t get the information you think is necessary? That was one of my key questions. Where is the line?

  • earl

    Well I guess that I am cut from a different cloth than many of your respondents. They remind me of the Jews who were told by God to invade a country and kill everyone there but decided not to do it. Consequences occur. I may have missed the point of your blog somewhat. But while you all are sitting in your airconditioned offices safe because some person, a christian perhaps did something unethical or just nasty to protect your family and country so we can practice our faith and have the freedom to write stuff like Hauerwas does, just pray for the Marines.

    • rogereolson

      Ah, but you still didn’t answer my question. Do you think torturing a suspected terrorist’s wife and children to get information from him is ever morally justified? Is there anything that isn’t morally justified if doing it MIGHT save American lives?

      • Mark

        I don’t know? An argument could be made that this is a war situation, and all that are involved in these Mexican cartels are enemies, not only of Americans, but Mexicans.

        There is an insurgency South of the border, and 50,000 plus Mexican civilians have been murdered — due to this conflict — since 2006. I have ex-patriot Mexican friends who tell me how awful it is in their homeland. These cartels have no conscience who they kill or why they kill them (it can be cause they are jealous of the famous pop singers they have murdered. There is a report of a mass murder of Mexican civilians in drug rehab). These Mexican cartels are headed by sociopaths and serve no good purpose other than anarchy.

        With sociopaths and dangerous organizations can you afford to be humane? They would kill anyone in a second just for the shear joy of it. We have two issues we are dealing with here: 1) the drug problem within our border that are fueling the drug cartels: and 2) drug cartels (headed by sociopaths) centered across the border creating an insurgency in Mexico, and operating within the US (even using children). Whether we use the term or not, this may be a very covert and overt war, and it is impacting both American and Mexican security.

        How far would I go? I don’t know. But an argument can be made that desperate circumstances bring about desperate measures. Part of this argument is that the cartels would stop at nothing to harm people, so our measure should match our enemies’ resolve. And it might involve getting information (with force) from uncooperative cartel mafiosi family members.

        You really framed a tough question and I didn’t enjoy answering it because there is a tension between religious ideology and pragmatism, and so much is gray. And what is pragmatic is what I believes serves the better good. If the greater good (ie shutting down the cartels) can be accomplished humanely, then so much the better. But if humane actions against the cartel are impossible, what are our other options, and how far are are we willing to go with these other options? And it may involve that awful action no one likes, which is torture and shady dealings.

        • rogereolson

          I think you are responding to my challenge about whether it would ever be right to torture a suspect’s wife and children to extract information from him. But you still don’t answer that question. I’m pressing to see if you (and others who defend torture) have any absolutes; do you draw the line anywhere? Are you willing to say of any behavior “That would always be wrong no matter what?” If not, then how does that differ from sheer relativism?

          • Mark

            The CIA involvement in the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh was wrong. We had no business there and it really did not serve our interest. Our government was probably more beholden to oil interests who were threatened by Mossaddegh’s nationalization against British petroleum. We are still paying for this move with anti-American sentiment among Iranians. It was one factor that helped fuel the 1979 Iranian revolution. And we are still paying for it.

            American involvement in the 1973 coup in Chile against Salvador Allende Gossens. This whole coup was devised more for American and Chilean business interests. The issue become less gray and more black and white when an issue is not really an issue of national threat or national interests, but a support for special interests such U.S. business oligarchs and Chicago school academics. How much of the Iraq war was in support of business interests such as Haliburton or Blackwater? The war would have been more just if these business interests had never existed. Because of their involvement, it was such a waste of people, money, and time, and a plethora of corruption. So a determining factor is the honesty of the cause and fairness of our dealings.

            None of these helped the common good. The good they promoted was to the benefit of a select minority. My limit would be involvement in a cause I felt did not promote the common good.

  • ME

    What is your position on this, Roger? Would you feel ok before Jesus if you worked for, say, the Department of Education?

    Lets assume you say yes. My counter-argument would be, how is it ok that you get your paycheck from the IRS, who, will throw people in jail if they don’t pay up? Would Jesus be ok with an officer of the IRS hauling someone off to prison because he won’t pay up? If He is not ok with that, then is he ok with you making your paycheck from that?

    • rogereolson

      Good questions worth thinking about.

  • Michaeal

    I suspect your last comment about people losing jobs over moral conflicts is the bigger “disease”, with govt jobs being a vocation that brings a bigger supply of those kind of conflicts. Most of us, myself included, are too easily manipulated by money and the sense of security we purchase with that money. The secondary illness may be the submission to demands placed by those up the food chain. Certainly, that has been the predominate excuse for war criminals. As we move farther and farther away from absolute truth vs. subjective thinking almost any immorality can be justified by creative thinkers.

  • Peter Kirk said what I was thinking!

    It doesn’t matter what your job is, you should always refuse to do those things that conflict with God’s will. I was in the military for 6 years. I was never in combat and I was never asked to do anything immoral. But I was always prepared to say “no” if that were to happen.

    I just finished reading Wayne Grudem’s book “How Christians Should Relate to Government” and I thought his response to Boyd’s position that “all government is demonic” was quite good.

  • RF

    Fascinating post. As an elected official, and someone who tries to follow Christ, I can see all sorts of applications. The millions of dollars we/they raise in the name of “politics” rather than using it to alleviate poverty, etc; the harshness of our tones in debate (again, justified with “it’s-only-politics”) when the same language would be found totally offensive in other quarters. Does working for the government (elected or otherwise) give license? hmmmm

  • What about diplomats in the State Department? Just curious. Not that America particularly values its diplomats as the State Department budget is less than 1% but that is beside the point. I’m a graduate student in IR, so it’s a vested interest.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t know what diplomats (who aren’t spies) must do. With regard to your question about how highly regarded they are by the government–have you read In the Garden of the Beasts? It’s a popular non-fiction book out right now and it is well reviewed. It’s about the U.S. ambassador to Germany (and his family) in the 1930s and how he (a history professor) tried to warn the U.S. government about Naziism at a time the U.S. government didn’t want to know. The State Department conspired to have him fired by Roosevelt. It’s a gripping story made all the more fascinating (like a train wreck) by the fact that it is true.

      • Yes – it’s actually loosely based on several real cases at the time. A consolidation of efforts. One of the biggest hurdles I am learning in Diplomacy classes is that much of the time, diplomats aren’t taken seriously by their government, and get ignored a lot. Negotiations over US citizens fates (if they are being held within the country for whatever reason) diplomats negotiate for proper treatment within the prison, and that their sentence is upheld fairly so they aren’t kept for longer than originally termed etc. (it’s up to the lawyers to figure out if they are actually guilty, the diplomat just ensures a just trial). Passport issues, visa complications with citizens abroad, passport theft etc. And visa interviews for people wanting to travel to the US.

        Higher level negotiations aren’t usually left to those on the bottom, and diplomats are are usually there to recommend cultural insight into situations, but have little control of the outcome. Plus the two governments often follow through with negotiations in ways that ignore the diplomats recommendations as far as cultural sensitivity etc. Yet the professors have said without diplomatic recommendations, many situations would be far worse and some wars have been prevented. Relations with formerly enemy countries(Vietnam) are reengaged and negotiated. Part of the problem is negotiations take a lot of time and effort, and sometimes both sides would rather just do what is expedient. I have quite a few friends doing the job right now and it is extremely stressful. It’s a government agency that needs increases, but is stretched thin as security and military take precedence.

  • Jack Hanley

    I have read the above article, along with many of the comments. The question seems to be, where do we as Christians draw the line, or what can be justified. These questions, in my opinion, seem to be very selfish, and fail to see and understand the bigger picture of far we as humans, including Christians have fallen. Please allow me to give an example,

    If I were to walk into my home and find an intruder standing over my wife with a knife, in the process of killing her, and I happened to be armed with a pistol at this time and used it, and took the life of this intruder, would I be justified? Now I believe according to the state I would be justified, and I also imagine most people would think I was justified. However, the question here, is not whether I would be justified in the sight of the state or others, but rather, would I be justified in the sight of God. How can I justify taking the life of someone created by God? I cannot for any reason. Having said this, allow me now to say that, I firmly believe that if I were to walk in on an intruder, in the process described above, I believe I would use any force necessary to protect my wife. However, I do not believe I should attempt to justify myself, but rather, I should grieve that I live in a sinful world that I have contributed to where such things occur.

    My point here is. to ask questions such as: should I as a Christian, lie in order to obtain information that may protect others? Seems to me to be selfish, and it also seems to ignore the mess we are all in here in this world. It also seems to ignore the fact that we have all contributed to this mess we are in.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t get your point about such ethical reflection as “selfish.” What’s your alternative? Just do whatever those in authority over you tell you to do? That’s what all the defendants at the Nuremberg trials said to justify their actions (or inactions).

  • DRT

    Yes, there are many things that are not morally justified even if they might save lives in the US.

    I have a more difficult question with drawing the line between participate and non-participation. We all participate if we support the status quo. But, clearly, we individually cannot change the status quo except in some very specific situations. In those situations we need to abstain.

    But where is the line for the rest of us?

    I designed military combat vehicles for many years. Does that make me … what does that make me? Does it matter if I was on the offensive or defensive end? Does it matter if the vehicle killed people or protected people? What if it transported hurt people to hospitals?

    I think this post is overly simple and contend that we are all, quite likely, complicit in ways that are very evil.

    • rogereolson

      The post was meant to raise questions, not answer them. I don’t know how that is “overly simple.”

    • ME

      Why not strive to not be complicit? Jesus said to be perfect. If we don’t even try to be perfect I think we get in to “cheap grace.”

  • Jack Hanley

    I believe the comments by DRT above are valid, and I believe I understand what he means in his last sentence, which seems to me, to be the point I was attempting to make. If you will recall I made the comment,

    These questions, in my opinion, seem to be very selfish, and fail to see and understand the bigger picture of far we as humans, including Christians have fallen.

    The reason for this comment, is that it seems to me, these questions focus on our own morality, and or piety, (as if any of us are truly moral) and ignores the fact that we live in a world, in which we have to make such decisions, and the reason we have to make such decisions is because of our, immorality (including Christians). In other words none of us escapes fault or blame.

    My main point here is this, for me to say, I will not participate in torture or lying to protect others, because of morality, not only seems selfish, it also seems to me to be foolish. I would love to live in a world where my morality trumped other causes, however I do not believe we live in such a world as of yet.

    • rogereolson

      I understand your objection; what I don’t understand is your claim that thinking about such things (i.e., trying to understand what’s right and wrong in this area) is “selfish.” What if you lived in Nazi Germany in the 1930s? Would you call it “selfish” for a group of Christians to discuss how far they could go in cooperating with the government? Take yourself out of your own context and put yourself in another one (like Nazi Germany in the 1930s) and then ask if your response is appropriate in any context? Or are you speaking out of a commitment to American exceptionalism so that there aren’t such comparisons?

  • Adding to my post above though here, are some other questions that I have; in every job, in every field, I believe we do one of several things – we may ignore and be unwilling to see what is going on in the company, for example in a clothing company that has outsourced to another country, do all the employees stateside know what is truly taking place in the overseas factories in say Bangladesh? Do they know that water poisoning is a huge problem with clothing companies in developing countries and yet that is the livelihood of the people in that country many who keep quiet in order to feed their families? What should be done? How many people are willingly ignorant of what their company is doing to hurt the poor.

    One of the greatest offenders of this sort of thing ****. Poisoned water, polluted air, strong-armed forcing out of the competition, bullying of vendors – everywhere WalMart goes it destroys and makes people dependent on its cheap goods while turning a blind eye to the destruction it causes abroad. Can a Christian conscientiously work (or shop at) for such a place?

    What about the car companies that intentionally bought out the public transportation systems in the United States to force people to buy cars and be dependent on them? Who still fight with a lot of money every attempt at changing and bringing in a public transportation system that would allow the poor better access to there work and save lives of people in lessening of numerous drunk driving accidents every year? What about the chemical used in the factories overseas that cause cancer? A company responsible for such greed, destruction and evil – can a Christian conscientiously work for them?

    Some people choose resignation, to the matter – they know what is going on, but have justified that they can shine a light in their own little corners. Where do you compromise? What do you stand up for? The thing is I think in any job, even Christian academia, there are lines blurred. When I took theology, I had a Professor who attempted to manipulate the class to see things according to a Pacifist perspective – I am sure he had good intent, but the way he went about it was wrong.

    How do we live our lives in whatever we do trying to “Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God?” the government is an easy one to pick on, because there are so many obvious areas of compromise – but I believe there are just as many in other secular jobs (and “Christian” ones at that). Everything has a cost, whether we see it or not. I’ve been all over Southeast Asia and have seen the destruction that we in the US are responsible for just by living in the US and contributing to its economy. How do you advocate for the poor widow in Bangladesh who is directly affected by our buying habits at ****? When we put gasoline in our cars, do we think about the bloodshed that happened to keep those prices artificially low?

    If we take our faith seriously – where then do we work?

  • Jack Hanley

    Allow me to make my last stand here. It is not thinking about such issues that is selfish, however, when you state,

    trying to understand what’s right and wrong in this area

    This is closer to my point. Several respondents above, have given great examples and I could continue to give more, that would put you in situations, where it would be impossible to choose between right and wrong, moral, or immoral. In fact you would not even be attempting to choose the greater good, rather it would be the lesser evil, (if there even is such a thing as a lesser evil, I do not believe there is). This is why I believe DRT above used the phase overly simple, because it fails to see, and understand, that we live in a world that we as Christians have contributed to, where we do not always have the luxury of morality. In other words, I believe there are times where, we can only do what needs to be done, and trying to justify what we do, is naive, foolish, or just plain conceit.

    As far as my use of word selfish, I do believe we can use our so called morality in a selfish manner. If I know of someone in desperate need, however in order to help them I may have to cross a line that I would not normally cross, and I tell this person I could help but, I have to look out for my morality, this is, I believe putting morality ahead of the needs of our neighbors. Now to be clear, I am not speaking of serious crimes and such, but I am sure we have all been in situations where we have had to struggle with helping someone, or morality.

    • rogereolson

      Ah, so you are not speaking of “serious crimes.” But we were. So you are still avoiding my question. Would it ever be right to torture a suspect’s wife and children to attempt to extract information from him that the government thinks is necessary for the country’s safety and security? I don’t see how asking and attempting to answer that question is “selfish.” And I don’t see how one can say the question can’t be answered ahead of time. It’s a simple, straightforward issue of right and wrong. Of course, it’s always possible to admit that once a person is in a situation of having to act the preconceived “right” might have to be sacrificed or compromised. But we can’t use that to avoid the hard work of making decisions about right and wrong to guide people in their moral decision making.

  • Jack Hanley

    It seems we are speaking around each other. I agree it is not right, and that is my point, we are not right, the world we live in is not right. Therefore, we find ourselves in situations, at times, where right and wrong is not an option. You may feel qualified to make such decisions, I myself being so far removed, and not being in the heat of the battle, would rather leave those decisions to ones more able than myself. Soldiers killing the enemy in battle is not right and can never be justified, would you suggest that we ask our soldiers to abstain from such actions?

    You continue to bring up the question,

    Would it ever be right to torture a suspect’s wife and children to attempt to extract information from him that the government thinks is necessary for the country’s safety and security?

    No it is not right, and I would assume you would agree that torture of any kind is not right. So this is where you draw your line. However this goes back to my point above, are we right when we send our soldiers into battle to destroy and kill other human beings?

    Just because you and I draw a line, further back than maybe others, does not make us right or moral. Having said this, let me be clear that I believe I would fight against the torture of women and children period. My main point here, has always been, this does not make me right, and it certainly does not make me moral, it is only where I draw a line.

    Now I realize that I stated in my last post, that it would be my last stand, however I could not resist attempting to get this point across, and I will give you the last word. Thanks

  • Great article and great comments, I must read more of them.
    Re: “I knew that as a US secret agent you might have to kill people, but provide them with pornography? Now that’s another question. Can a Christian do that with a clear conscience—for whatever payoff? ”
    And can I, as a Christian, kill them for whatever payoff?
    My journey from Marine to Christian pacifist:


    I consider myself a christian in the manner I was saved by Jesus. He took me away from drug and alcohol abuse and lead me on track to get an education in electrical engineering. I now wonder if my destiny is hell because I chose to work for a defense contractor that makes weapons instead of a company that diggs wells for African tribes dying of thirst. I know the weapons we make will kill people in other countries. Missiles & guidance systems for the missiles that kill people in the middle east, or what ever country we decide to bomb this year. I question if I should be in Africa digging wells of water & helping to feed starving children, but I still make electronics that go into missiles that kill people. I go home to my warm house and love my wife & feed the dog and cut the grass & barbecue. Then I go to work an make parts to go into bombs to kill innocent people. How am I any different from Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini. I go to Church and feel the holy spirit but still everyday I ask myself why do I do what I do. I am insane or is this my destiny. Nobody else here questions the bombs we make, they just swallowed the evolution pill in school so I guess it makes them accept it more, but I know what I do is wrong but I must pay the bilss and support my family. It’s like quicksand.