The Conscience of a Nation

by Benjamin Domenech on 6:48 pm August 14, 2007

Williams: But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make; when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection. King Henry: So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation.But this is not so: the king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services. Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can carry it out with all unspotted soldiers… if they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.


Henry V Act IV, Scene 1

This brief debate, held on the muddy ground of France the night before Agincourt between a disguised King Harry and a British soldier, strikes me as a good summation of the two distinct philosophical positions about death and the conscience of a nation. Let’s leave out the intradenominational issues surrounding the process salvation, and focus on the issue of responsibility for a moment.

The soldier’s position grants that there is a judgment made by God concerning the responsibility for death, whether in battle, or in any other context. The soldier points to the King (or the Nation) as the responsible party, and argues that, on the day of judgment, the ghosts of perished soldiers and bereaved wives will point their bloody hands toward the leader who urged them on.

King Harry’s position, on the other hand, states that the ultimate judgment is not made in a corporate manner, but based on the state of the individual. Therefore the King — the Nation — is no more guilty of the sin of causing these deaths in battle than he is of the sins perpetrated off of the battlefield by his fellow citizens. There are only the individual consciences to worry about — no national one.

There are several important questions here, ones that I think can particularly be drawn to bear in the case of our current national dilemma. This is about more than just, can the United States be held responsible for the death of its soldiers in battle — it strikes at the very heart of our attitude toward our public policy.

In the latest interview published by Bob Woodward, the President repeated his articulate defense of a foreign policy based not just on strategic interests, but on humanitarianism. He clearly views the encouragement of new democratic regimes around the globe not just as a shield against terrorism or being in our economic interest, but as an agent of change in favor of increased human rights.

The moral argument that stopping human suffering around the world is one of our reponsibilities as a world power is familiar as an anti-protectionist position favored by neoconservatives. And to some extent, it relies on the broad-based theological teaching of love for our neighbors, defending and supporting widows and orphans, feeding and healing the sick, etc.

I personally have a problem with interpreting Biblical teaching based on individual action as a mandate for corporate (or, in this case, national) action — “Thou shalt not murder” as an individual command appears a few verses away from a command to communally stone to death just about anyone judged to be guilty of adultery, murder, or bestiality. There’s a distinction to be made between God’s personal commands for how we each live our lives and the rule of law in a nation; while we are told to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, Christ does not devote very much time to discussing the proper role of public and foreign policy. But there are also clear indications that, as a nation and a community, we do have moral responsibilities:

“If my people will humbly pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear them. Freely then will I forgive them, and I will heal their land.”
2 Chronicles 7:14

Ultimately, I understand and agree with the idea that theology does have a role to play in the debate over foreign policy, and I believe that America should encourage and support governments that protect human rights for their people. “The Evil Empire” and the “Axis of Evil” both make for good copy and controversy, but they also send the very real and true message that these national governments were acting in a tyrannical way that prohibits religious practice, makes slaves of its citizens, and, in some countries, even restricts the number of children a mother can legally bear.

I would go further than this, though. A foreign policy that is based at least in part on morality makes sense to me — but so does a domestic policy based on morality. And I would argue that the latter is a far larger problem than the former for our nation at this point in time.

I’m not advocating in any way a joining of church and state, but I am saying that our leaders should rely heavily on moral judgment when considering these issues. The conscience of our nation doesn’t just react to whether we protect and promote the human rights of those suffering under communism in North Korea, Cuba, and China, or under the yoke of despots in Iraq and Iran. It also reacts to our internal actions — to crime, to widows and orphans, and especially to abortion and euthanasia.

There are two bumper stickers I used to have on my desk at college. One just said “Pro-Life.” The other said “Free Tibet.” I believe that both of these political statements originate from the same philosophical belief. The basic issue of recognizing and respecting the sanctity of all human life holds true in all cases, whether we are battling tyranny abroad or the culture of death fostered here at home.

“And Joshua said to all the people, “The LORD gave you a land on which you had not labored, and cities which you had not built, and you have lived in them; you are eating of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant. Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
Joshua 24

I believe King Harry was right in his argument with his fellow soldier, but wrong in his theological interpretation of responsibility. While it’s true that we stand before God as individuals when He judges the quick and the dead, this does not mean that we have no responsibilities as a nation to advocate and support moral right. It does matter whether a soldier dies on a battlefield fighting a just or unjust war, a war seeking freedom or seeking genocide. It does matter to our national conscience whether we legalize the murder that goes by the names of euthanasia and abortion. It does matter whether we decide to place our economic interests above the interests of freedom and human rights.

In the end, we must choose who we will serve, as individuals, as families, as communities — and as nations.

(Originally posted by Ben on November 26, 2002)

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