A moral debate with God

Jul 31, 2018 by

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In July 1943, American bombers attacked Hamburg, Germany. The Allies wanted to cripple the Nazi war machine by targeting the city’s factories. Unfortunately, precision bombing was impossible. The only way to destroy the factories was to bomb the entire city indiscriminately — which is what the Americans did. It was called saturation bombing. So many bombs were dropped, setting so many intense fires, it created what is called a firestorm: a vortex of fire; literally, a tornado of fire that sucked out all the air as it burned everything. About 43,000 civilians died.

In February 1945, as the Germans were on the run and the end of the war was just months away, the Allies did this saturation bombing again on the city of Dresden. Again a firestorm was created. Tens of thousands of civilians died. But was this bombing a military necessity, or was it mostly an act of terrorism?

A month later, on the other side of the world, the Americans bombed Tokyo for two straight days. Again a firestorm was created. Sixteen square miles of Tokyo were annihilated, over 100,000 civilians died, and over a million were left homeless. It was the single most destructive bombing raid in human history.

A few months later a single bomb instantly killed 70,000 people in Hiroshima; three days later another bomb incinerated 40,000 people in Nagasaki — only 150 were soldiers. By the end of the year another 200,000 had died of radiation poisoning.

Wiping out cities is nothing new; humans have been doing it for 10,000 years. Today our bombs are more precise; we have drones and video and laser-guided missiles. So now, in order to “take out the bad guys,” we can avoid destroying a whole city by targeting individuals.

But when we target a terrorist today by firing a missile at his car, is it acceptable if that car is being driven by a cab driver, and the terrorist’s wife is sitting next to him in the back seat? When we target a terrorist by firing a missile into his house, is it acceptable that his children are also in that house? Even with drones and smart bombs, we still end up killing more civilians than enemy combatants. Is this moral?

That’s the question Abraham is wrestling with in Gen. 18:20-32. He’s wrestling with one of the toughest moral dilemmas of our time — of any time. If there are a large number of sadistic violent people living in a city, and you can’t separate them from the innocent population, are you justified in destroying the whole city? What makes the question more agonizing for Abraham is that it is God who is planning on destroying the city. So if Abraham has doubts about the morality of bombing Sodom and Gomorrah, he’s going to have to argue it out with God.

How do you argue morality with God? How does Abraham try to convince God to reconsider? What’s his central argument? It’s right there in Abraham’s first statement to God: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” The phrase “far be it from you” literally means “that would be profane — unholy.” Abraham’s argument is this: You, God, must be just. To be God means to be just. If you’re not just, you’re not God.

Socrates once asked the question: Is something good because it is God’s will, or is it God’s will because it is good? Socrates insists that goodness is what God must be and do. Abraham agrees. God does not define goodness; goodness defines God. Abraham is, in effect, telling God how to be God. He’s doing it with humility — with fear and trembling — but he’s still presuming to suggest how God should be God.

It’s not that God doesn’t know how to be God. In reality, it is not Abraham who is instructing God, it is God who is instructing Abraham. God wants Abraham to raise these questions. God wants Abraham to tackle these tough moral issues and discern what God ought to do. God has arranged this whole discussion (read verses 17-19). God is inviting Abraham to ponder whether destroying these cities would actually be just — that’s how Abraham will become morally ready to lead a new community that will bless all communities on earth.

When I was a boy, I would sometimes question my father’s fairness. “But Dad!” I’d cry. And he would respond: “I don’t want to hear any buts about it!” He was shutting down any moral discussion. That’s not what God does. God invites moral debate so Abraham will morally grow.

Let’s say Sodom is a city of 1,000 people. Abraham thinks it is inconceivable that it could be moral to destroy 950 wicked people if it also means destroying 50 innocent people. God agrees that for the sake of the 50 innocent, he will forgive the guilt of the 950 wicked. But what if the number of innocent is just a little less — say 45? Or 30? or 20? or 10? Each time God agrees it is better not to destroy all those wicked people for the sake of saving the lives of the small number of possible innocents. Abraham stops at 10; we expect him to go all the way down to one, but he doesn’t. Why not? Perhaps because saving one innocent life isn’t worth letting 999 wicked people continue their wickedness. Or, more likely, Abraham reasons that if the number of innocents is under 10, they can safely escape (which is what happens). But the overall principle is clear: Protecting the few who are good is more important and more just than punishing the many who are bad. Or another way to put it: Collateral damage is profane.

I think this passage is one of the most important passages in the entire Bible. It challenges us in two deep ways: (1) It challenges how we fight evil. If in our fighting we are harming many who are good, we have failed. We are not just; it is we who now share in the evil. (2) We can’t rely on an authority to do our moral thinking for us. We can’t say, “I was following orders.” That’s morally impermissible. We must use our own God-given sense of morality to work out what is right to do in a complicated, difficult world.

We can’t even fall back on the excuse: “I was following a Bible verse.” Are we guided by Scripture? Yes. Are we guided by the moral principles we find there? Of course. But we still need to figure out how best to apply those principles in the most moral way in our situations. That’s how we morally grow. That’s how we become a faith community that can be a light and a blessing to the rest of the world.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois. He blogs at fmcbiblestudy.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.

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