Originally created 07/01/00

Divorced from ethics, technology is a threat



The very week scientists celebrate the mapping of the human genetic code to understand the origins of life, politicians are asking whether the information can be used for military as well as medicinal purposes.

Our scientific inquiries provide us with new powers unimaginable to ancient Israel, but the Judeo-Christian tradition provides an ethical framework for dealing with power that seems far advanced of much contemporary political thinking. Our ancestors were discovering a God who called for powerful personal character, intense community cooperation, and a religious milieu that centered on reverence for the one God, human life, and all the Earth.

Recently a nuclear submarine commander said on the occasion of the birth of his daughter, "My main job is to ensure that politicians realize it's never justifiable to use nuclear weapons. While nations having strong defense systems is crucial, the arsenal on board my submarine is not designed for defense of our nation or for wars between armies, but to destroy the whole world that includes my daughter."

Today we can imagine genetic medicine and genetic warfare just as we live with nuclear medicine and nuclear weaponry. The warfare must be prevented. Some uses of power born of the human genome project, even in the name of defense, are indefensible ethically, while some uses of power of genetics to heal and sustain can deepen our reverence for God, human life and all the world.

Nations with gigantic new powers that cannot contain their aggression, their radioactive waste, their biological weaponry or genetic engineering differ little from a boxer who cannot keep from biting his opponent's ear or assaulting him after the fight is over.

In considering gigantic powers, we may want to dust off an old story about David and Goliath. It's hardly just a bedtime Bible story for children, but a thought-provoker for contemporary adults about the nature, uses and limits of power. And reading it may give us all a better night's sleep and rest at the last.

Goliath was an immense figure armed with incredible weaponry produced by the best technology then available, and no understanding of the chinks in his own armor or the appropriate uses of his power. His language was haughty, used to humiliate. His bullying betrayed the arrogance of power born of boasting his own private god rather than believing in one God of all the Earth. However, at least this Philistine had one thing right; rather than stage a war that would devastate all the people in all the land, he challenged Saul's army to send one champion to battle him.

David was the unlikely one to accept the challenge of Goliath. Interestingly, he found the best armor and weaponry inferior to his accustomed tools, used to protect his flocks from predators, and a strong belief in the one God. He understood that a fight was only an avenue to proclaim there was only one God of all the Earth.

While Goliath proclaimed that his power was in the service of destruction, David proclaimed that God's intention was to reconcile peoples. When personal humility based on trust in God met the arrogance of power in human strength, the power of God who reveres human life and all the Earth prevailed.

We will no doubt hear of technological possibilities imagined to destroy enemies, or political posturing to place people in different camps rather than welcome one people under one God. If our new and marvelous technologies, however, are placed in the service of God who reveres life, we find that we live with trust that God's grace is a power greater than our own imagined and real destruction by nuclear or genetic means.

Perhaps we'll celebrate the Fourth of July with a gathering of leaders from around the world proclaiming one God and reconciling all peoples to ensure that our new technologies will lead to the healing of life rather than its destruction. Perhaps you will find that conversation already alive this week in the church, synagogue, temple, or other spiritual gathering where God leads you.

The Rev. Mark Deaton is pastor of the Greene Street Presbyterian Church and executive director of GAP Ministries.