I’m going to comment on this post:
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?
Needless to say, if Olsen, at the very outset, defines the means as “immoral,” then, by definition, no goal, however, worthy, can justify the use of immoral means.
But that simply illustrates Olson’s chronic inability to accurately represent a position he opposes. He’s interjecting his own value-judgment into the way he frames the opposing position.
Assuming (ex hypothesi) that we did think that pornography was a justifiable enticement in espionage, it wouldn’t be with the understanding that the means is immoral.
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?
Once again, if you initially define the means as “sinful,” then the question answers itself. But that begs the question.
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.
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) This is unintentionally comical. Why would some Christians think torture or assassination is sometimes warranted, but using pornography is never warranted? Why is that where we’d draw the line? If anything, wouldn’t it be the other way around? Surely “torture” and assassination are more serious than pornography. (Keep in mind that we’re speaking of pornography in espionage.)
ii) In addition, Olson is such a babe in the woods. The guy’s 60 years old. He lived through much of the Cold War.
Not only does espionage sometimes employ pornography, but prostitution–as a form of blackmail. Has Olson never heard of “honeypots”? He acts like he just fell off the turnip truck.
Thus far I haven’t bothered to comment on the morality (or not) of using pornography in espionage. For now I’m just remarking on Olson’s naïveté, as well as his inverted priority system. I haven’t commented on pornography in espionage because I think that’s fairly trivial compared to some other issues in espionage and counterterrorism.
Olson has led such a cloistered existence. He spent his entire life in insular church circles. His lack of real-world experience no doubt accounts for some of his ethical positions.
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) When Olson classifies a terrorist as a merely “suspected” terrorist, what does that stand in contrast to? A convicted terrorist? Is this just a legal formality?
What about an admitted terrorist? And by that I mean a terrorist who was an admitted terrorist even before he was “tortured” or apprehended. Surely there are “suspected” terrorists whose involvement in terrorism isn’t in serious doubt. For instance, Bin Laden was never convicted of terrorism. Does that mean he’s merely a “suspected” terrorist?
ii) So, yes, there’s a fairly obvious distinction between a “suspected” terrorist and his kids. Of course, that also depends on what Olson means by “children.”
Is Olson using “child” in a chronological sense, for an underage minor? Keep in mind that grown children can follow the old man into the family business. A twenty-something or thirty-something child of a terrorist can be a terrorist in his own right. Let’s not get sentimental.
iii) There’s a fairly obvious moral difference between “torturing” a terrorist for information about terrorist plots, networks, &c., and “torturing” an innocent bystander.
iv) As to drawing an “absolute” line, ethics is chockfull of borderline cases. There are situations in life where we can’t draw an “absolute” line. Can Olson draw an absolute line between murder and self-defense? There are many situations in which that line can clearly be drawn, but there are other situations in which that’s ambiguous.
In real life we’re going to be confronted by situations where there’s at least apparent moral ambiguity regardless of what we do or refrain from doing. Where we don’t have instant answers. Where we don’t have as much information as we need to be morally confident. It's unrealistic to demand the "exact limits" of what's permissible or impermissible. Olson himself has nothing to offer in that regard.
Demanding an “absolute line” in every situation doesn’t keep you morally pristine. You’re going to find yourself in circumstances where making a tough decision one way or the other is unavoidable even if you can’t point to an “absolute line” distinguishing one course of action from another.
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.
But that’s just a cop-out. By delegating the task to someone else, then turning a blind eye to what the second-party does, you still share responsibility for the outcome.
Sequestering yourself in an Amish community simply relocates the issue. You’re still drawing lines. After all, there’s no “absolute” line between the morality of working in gov’t and working outside of gov’t.
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.
Is that a great service to the church? Unless they have a workable alternative, they bring Christian ethics into disrepute. They make Christian ethicists look like ninnies who fight terrorism with a plate of home-baked cookies.
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.
Well, that’s very vague. Was there a backlash merely because he opposed the wars, or was it specific to the reasons he gave?
Of course, if he’s a pacifist, then he’d criticize any military response regardless of the threat or provocation.
And so what if there was a “backlash” (whatever that means)? Criticism is a two-way street.
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.
I don’t see how administering a hallucinogen is a reliable way of obtaining information. Perhaps Olson has truth serum in mind. That’s a convention of spy novels.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that truth serum was a reliable way of obtaining information from a terrorist, yes, I think that’s justifiable.
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.
Olson is trying to up the ante. He acts as if administering truth serum is already morally outrageous. Hence, if you’re prepared to do that, what are you not prepared to do?
But he hasn’t begun to explain why administering truth serum to a terrorist is the next fateful step in moral freefall. Why does he think that’s immoral? Where’s his argument? Otherwise, there is no downward spiral.
Certainly there are lines that Christians shouldn’t cross. The ends, however noble, can never justify immoral means. But that leaves open the question of what means are intrinsically immoral. Olson hasn’t provided a general formula or rule-of-thumb for distinguishing moral means from immoral means.
All he’s done is to give us some examples of what he deems to be immoral, without furnishing any supporting arguments. He can’t extrapolate from his examples before he defends his examples.
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.).
Abolishing war? How does that work, exactly? Does Congress pass a law abolishing war? Does the UN pass a resolution abolishing war? Then what happens? Does everyone compliantly disarm? How do you enforce a resolution against war?
This is why pacifism is morally frivolous.
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.
That’s a false dichotomy. Christian brotherhood has national as well as international dimensions. What about protecting Christian brothers on the home front?
Can anyone imagine the Apostle Paul, just to choose one first century Christian, providing pornography to anyone for any reason?
Why is Olson so obsessed with the moral propriety of pornography in espionage? Surely that’s small potatoes compared to other issues in military ethics. Aren't there more important things to evaluate?
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.
Rather than putting words in St. Paul’s mouth, I’d just point out that Paul was a firm believer in the divine inspiration of the OT. Let’s take some concrete examples of OT ethics in action:
17 But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 And Jael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 And he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 And he said to her, “Stand at the opening of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’” 21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak was pursuing Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent, and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
24 “Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
25 He asked for water and she gave him milk;
she brought him curds in a noble's bowl.
26 She sent her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen's mallet;
she struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his temple.
27 Between her feet
he sank, he fell, he lay still;
between her feet
he sank, he fell;
where he sank,
there he fell—dead.
(Judges 4:17-22; 5:24-27
While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. 4 And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”
6 And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped (Num 25:1-8).
I imagine that St. Paul approved of these actions.
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.
Who’s assuming that?
Olson isn’t a serious moralist. He’s just a showman.