A Response to ‘Drones, Foreign Policy, and Christian Ethics’

August 8, 2014

Let me begin by stating that I am a Christian pacifist, meaning that I believe that Jesus really meant what he said about loving enemies, about being a peacemaking prophet like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, and about the alternative better way that he describes in the Sermon on the Mount.

As his authorities in an article with “Christian Ethics” as part of the title, Brandon James Smith cites the US Constitution, the UN Charter, and a quote from C.S. Lewis denouncing pacifism. His only citation of Jesus is to dismiss his command to love one’s neighbor as naïve or impossible in a fallen world. To quote Jesus once, then say that he can’t have really meant what he said in that quote, does not warrant the title “Christian” ethics.

I recognize that the US or any government cannot be held to the same standards as those who have committed to following Jesus. Nevertheless, Christians should bear witness to our governments in a way that urges them toward the kind of peacemaking that Jesus commanded and away from bloodshed. For this reason, I see the just war theory as a potential tool in limiting violence. In other words, war within limits is preferable to war without limits. On this point Smith and I are in agreement.

While I support the idea of limiting war through just war principles, along with John Howard Yoder I question whether the theory has historically performed the task for which it was designed. Most often, governments act as they please in war (cloaking it in language of self defense) and only attempt to justify their actions after the fact.

Nevertheless, even a mostly ineffective just war theory has some value. The question then is how just war relates to the uses of drones. I see two reasons why the use of drones as they are presently employed cannot be justified under a just war framework.

First, the just war theory assumes that the only proper actor in war is the state, which is given the authority to make decisions about the use of violence. When the enemy is not another state, therefore, the conflict cannot be called a war, and one’s opponents cannot be held to just war standards. We can use terms like crime and policing. But to take a framework designed for states and apply it to an individual or an organization is to enter a game in which the rules apply to one side and not to the other. In such a game, how likely is the former to continue playing by its own rules and to make itself accountable to them? If we more consistently called the current use of drones policing rather than war, would the ratio of civilian deaths to combatants be acceptable?

I also question the forthrightness of Smith’s numbers. His only stated statistic is that “in 2011, the United Nations reported that less than 5 percent of casualties reported with drone strikes were civilians.” The whole picture is much bleaker; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism states that between 2004 and January 2014, 381 drones strikes in Pakistan resulted in civilian casualties closer to 20 percent:

Total reported killed: 2,537-3,646
Civilians reported killed: 416-951
Children reported killed: 168-200
Total reported injured: 1,128-1,557

Second, Smith appears to be looking for a moral line that cannot be crossed, and in the absence of such a line assumes that any technological advancement in weaponry is a positive or neutral one. Yet he begins by acknowledging that drones raise ethical questions because “their use represents a cold, calculated, and often disconnected act of taking the life of an enemy.” His use of the word disconnected is appropriate, rightly seeing that killing a human with a keypad from the safety of a chair is a different sort of thing from facing him on the battlefield.

The very risk of war and what it could entail – one’s own death or injury or that of one’s compatriots – should serve as a strong incentive to pursue peace rather than violence. When that risk is removed, so also is the incentive to seek alternatives.

The result is that people are making decisions about whom to kill from a very great distance away, with significant amounts of risk-free guesswork. In the words of Smith, from their remote situations “pilots and commanders are required to make decisions as to who is a valid target. This is complicated in counterterrorism conflicts because of the ability of terrorist groups to act and look like civilians.” He concludes, “Nevertheless, terrorist enemy combatants are fair targets both ethically and under the law of war because of their actions.”

The calling of every Christian, and of the church, is to be a peacemaker, imagining different sorts of possibilities from the sword that Jesus shunned, and seeing even enemies as loved by God and as potential friends. To dismiss such a calling as naïve is to box in the transformation that God can bring about.

Furthermore, there are concrete examples of such transformation when people meet face to face, with openness to something better than violence. I commend Jonathan Larson’s Making Friends Among the Taliban and Ahmed Haile’s Teatime in Mogadishu as examples of peacemaking set in the very regions where drones buzz through the sky, bringing death from above. There is an alternative to doing nothing, if we are willing to engage the enemy through just peacemaking practices as Jesus taught us.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

Peter Sensenig

Peter Sensenig is a graduate of Palmer Theological Seminary and served as associate pastor at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24