Wednesday, December 16, 2009

John the Baptist, Work Consultant

Most workplaces have their own moral grey areas. Our biggest local employer is Westland Helicopters, or Agusta Westland as they're now known, having been bought up by an Italian company. They make transport helicopters, as well as the Apache gunship- well known both to Palestinians (on the receiving end of those owned by the Israeli army) and the UK forces in Afghanistan (which is where the Yeovil-made ones are deployed). Judging by the latest news, there could be plenty of work for Westlands in the next few years.

Some of the folk I know who work there sometimes wrestle with this. Some are working on non-military helicopters, which means they're not directly involved with the Apache, though they still work for a company which prospers by selling machines which are designed to kill people. Some of the end uses are perhaps more difficult to justify than others.

How big a problem is that? WWJD? Here's John the Baptist in Luke 3
12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"
13 "Don't collect any more than you are required to," John told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"
John replied, "Don't force people to give you money. Don't bring false charges against people. Be happy with your pay."

Being a tax collector wasn't an occupation for the morally pure. Working for the occupying Roman power collecting money for them from your fellow Jews, and creaming a bit off the top for your own enrichment. A profiteering collaborator, they might have got on well with the French Vichy administration during WW2. The soldiers were possibly the enforcers for the tax collectors.

This caught me by surprise. Because I'd have expected someone as rigorous and demanding as John the Baptist to tell them to quit their jobs and do something more pleasing to God. But he doesn't. A baptised, penitent, honest tax collector/soldier can serve God where they are by living an upright life within the parameters set by the job. Does that apply to Apache gunships too? What about other weapons systems?

This of course raises a host of issues - there must be a point where you have to bail out, but then people like Schindler would have never achieved what they did without remaining in the system. There's also the question of when and how you try to reform the system itself, and a focus purely on individual morality can be quite weak at this point.

But yes, I would rather have a tax collector who doesn't overcharge me, and a criminal system which doesn't exploit its power over the weak. So maybe its better to have good people in bad jobs than to have bad people in bad jobs, which is what you'd get if all the good people quit.

Still processing this one, what do you think?


  1. The issue of whether those in the Arms industry do more harm than good is one of discernment. As a just retired soldier with 43 years service, I know that the Armed Forces are there for the defence of their country and to participate in peace support operations, as decided by the Government of the day. To do their jobs, they deserve to be equipped with the arms that allow them to be efficient and to cause least harm to defenceless civilians and non-combatents. So in this context, the Westland workers can be justified in producing Apache and other helicopters for use by the military.

    Where I have a moral objection is firstly, where arms are traded to regimes or countries which will use them for offensive operations, often against less well defended oponents or even in some cases to support dictatorships or illegal regimes. This and Nuclear weapons and other WMD are the moral issues that both governments and individuals are faced with.

    Governments need to work out the morality of what they are doing - and electors are the ones who need to make their views and feelings known loud and clear to governments not just at election time, but by campaigning widely via any media to achieve the moral outcomes.

    Yesterday the Government made an announcement to cut strategic force assetts in favour of short term expedients to fund new Helicopters for Aghanistan (purchased form the USA of course).
    This desperate scratching around for funds could be paid for and more by the disarming from Nuclear when the current fleet reaches the end of its working life. Instead, we are wasting billions extending the life of the fleet and working on developing a new deterrent.

    Now that is immoral.

  2. I was commenting in my sermon Sunday about John's explosive and apocalyptic call to action - and then the relatively benign and down-to-earth answers he gives to the question "what should we do"? It's a dilemma. No selling houses, giving away your money, saying goodbye to the parents and off - just "be better people and get baptised".