April 26, 2016


God's Avenger, Whore of Babylon: Political Power in the Bible (Paul D. Miller, Winter 2016, Providence)

Christian political theory understands that government, as an expression of human sin, is usually wicked, oppressive, cruel, and barbaric. Yet government is ordained by God; God is the ultimate authority behind every government; it is legitimate; it must be obeyed; it may rightly use violence and coercion to uphold order and execute justice; when it acts rightly, it is a great blessing to human beings; and rulers must seek to govern with wisdom and justice. This balanced view leads to a middle way between naïve, utopian pacifism and cynical realism.

Mainstream Christian political thought is not pacifist. That, by itself, is not uncontroversial. Some Christians have taken Jesus' command "do not resist an evil person" but rather to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39) quite literally, as prohibiting resistance to violent offenders, both personally and corporately. More broadly, this line of thinking prohibits Christian participation in government--an inherently coercive enterprise--at all. From Tertullian and St. Benedict to St. Francis, Menno Simms, John Howard Yoder, and Stanley Hauerwaus, a minority of Christians through the ages have argued that true fidelity to Jesus' example requires Christians to foreswear any and all violence, coercion, and engagement with the corrupting institutions of the world. Yes, they understand, this view is radical; it is "unrealistic;" and it is impractical. That, they believe, is the point. By living a radical life, the church is supposed to bear witness to the radical message of Jesus.

The arguments against pacifism are, I trust, well known. The Bible is well aware of the violent and coercive nature of all government, and yet quite clearly shows it to be ordained by God as a blessing to human life. That gives strong support to those who argue, rightly, that when Jesus tells us not to resist an evil person he is giving us guidance for our personal lives and our heart motivations, not articulating a political philosophy of pacifism and disengagement. Jesus, of course, knew the Old Testament and what God had told Noah in Genesis 9--and he knew as well what his apostles would write in the New Testament, in Romans 13 and elsewhere. We must use Scripture to interpret Scripture: read Jesus' command not to resist an evildoer in Matthew 5 in light of Romans 13 that specifically commands government to resist evildoers with the sword. That is why the mainstream tradition of Christian thinking on government and war has not been pacifist.

But if Christian political thought does not lead to a simplistic stance of pacifism and withdrawal, neither does it simply bless the dictates of realpolitik with a religious gloss. "Realism" as a school of thought is largely the creation of 18th century Enlightenment thinkers eager to escape the so-called "Wars of Religion" of the previous two centuries. In their view, the marriage of religion and politics led statesmen to believe it was in their interest to spread the true faith through force, leading to 150 years of pointless bloodshed and ruinous war throughout Europe, with nothing to show for it. Instead, the new "realists" argued, states should ignore religion and pursue material interests, like land, money, and industrial resources. As other states pursue the same, they will either join up in alliances, if their interests align, or seek to counter one another, if they clash. States will naturally line up to oppose any single state that threatens to become too powerful: the balance of power. "Realists" argued this was simply a recognition of the "realities" of the world as it actually is, not as religious zealots wanted it to be. War is merely a matter of calculating the nation's material interest and pursuing it with cold efficiency. Today's realists tend to counsel against humanitarian intervention and have been the loudest critics of peacekeeping, reconstruction and stabilization operations, and counterinsurgency because they believe such operations are dispensable exercises in charity.

Here is the paradox of Christian political theory--and its genius. God ordains the use of the very instrument that is the greatest danger to human life as a check upon that instrument. In the Federalist Papers, Madison wrote that "ambition must be made to check ambition," meaning that human selfishness was the best and most reliable tool to counteract human selfishness, and used that insight to craft a finely balanced constitution and control violence within one state. The same insight applies internationally. The only tool powerful enough to stop a marauding, murderous, thieving government--is another government. Government must be made to check government.

The Biblical view differs from both pacifism and realism. When we wield the instruments of statecraft, we must not do so solely with an eye for how it furthers our own national interest, narrowly conceived. Rather, we must also think about how our exercise of power effects those upon whom we exercise it, and our power must, to the extent possible, work for their good as well as ours. In practical terms, the United States cannot pursue a strategy of unilateral domination, nor unilateral withdrawal. Either position can be motivated by a naïve utopianism or by a cynical amoralism. We should not seek to dominate the world either out of utopian hopes to usher in world peace--nor a cynical drive to guarantee absolute security. But neither should we withdraw in utopian hopes of remaining unsullied by the world--nor out of cynical apathy that there is nothing worth fighting for.

Instead, the United States should pursue a grand strategy of fostering liberal order--order characterized by self-government and civil liberties; by open and transparent market competition and the rule of law; and by intergovernmental cooperation on issues of common concern. Love of neighbors and love for enemies requires as much.

Indeed, Christianity requires from us that we be activist on behalf of those who do not enjoy those blessings with which they are endowed by the Creator : life, liberty and the pursuit.   Therefore, our history is in fact one of cultural domination and often military domination that has brought the End of History to nearly the whole globe already.  

Posted by at April 26, 2016 5:25 PM