US Evangelical foreign policy is over
With a clarity of thought which seems to elude most Christians in British politics, Dr Bacevich says: "Facing our present predicament requires that we shed illusions about America that would have offended Jesus himself."
While Cranmer does not doubt that there is much about America that would offend Jesus, he equally does not doubt that the Lord might just despatch Dr Bacevich with a flea in his ear and tell him to get his own house in order before presuming to spout forth the mind of the Lord on any matter. National illusion is a good place to begin, but personal delusion is very much better.
Dr Bacevich takes exception to the Conservative Evangelical Jesus which finds expression ‘in an urge to launch crusades against evil-doers’. He suggests that the two-dimensional Methodist Jesus of George W Bush is about to be supplanted by the more rounded Niebuhrean Jesus of Barack Obama. Niebuhr’s theology and insights, Dr Bacevich observes, ‘do not easily reduce to a sound-bite or bumper sticker’.
That is a shame. For the Jesus of the sound-bite is the Jesus of the New Testament. ‘Love thine enemy’ could just as easily have been attached to the front of one’s donkey or to the rear of one’s cart as easily as ‘Bless those who curse you’, ‘Feed my lambs’ or ‘Thy kingdom come’. In fact, if Jesus had not come at such a backward time to such a strange land, he might just be blogging away and feeding far more than 5000 every single day with his theological insights, and making sound-bite tabloid headlines whilst doing so.
Dr Bacevich is right to identify the nexus of Niebuhr's thought as the appreciation of an indelible and omnipresent original sin and the fallenness of man, but he is wrong to caricature President Bush, the GOP or the United States of America as incapable of grasping the theological implications of this. Power is indeed necessary, otherwise ‘we lie open to the assaults of the predatory’. Yet he is wrong to conclude that because America numbers among the fallen, that its ‘professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect’.
The United States of America, he might consider, has historically given of herself when it has not been necessarily been in the national interest to do so. And the world is safer and manifestly more at liberty as a result of those interventions. An insular, protectionist, navel-gazing United States is not in the interests of the free world. And all the early indications, or all the Obama campaigning rhetoric, certainly points that way.
Niebuhr asserted that power cannot be wielded without guilt ‘since it is never transcendent over interest’. But Cranmer is bemused as to why the interests of President Bush should be any less altruistic than those of President Obama, or indeed any more virtuous. If the America of the last eight years showed a lack of self awareness, then the America of the coming four is no less likely to do so. There is an absoluteness about the office of President of the United States that cannot but corrupt. And that corruption may be manifest as a kind of blindness. But this is precisely why the United Kingdom must remain close to the United States – in the hope that the partially-sighted may see what the other does not.
It is incumbent upon the leaders of the free and democratic world to resist evil. And this vocation is all the more acute when those leaders are Christian – as President Bush was, and Senator Obama appears to be. Yet ‘doing God’ does the Christian politician no favours in the UK; indeed, it is easier in the UK in this day and age to do any god but the One True God; it is easier to chant any esoteric mantra than to pray the Lord’s Prayer.
But Dr Bacevich does encapsulate one eternal truth: ‘To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results’.
And he refers to Niebuhr’s ‘precise distinctions’, insofar as Niebuhr supported US intervention in World War II and yet condemned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; he supported the Cold War, yet opposed US intervention in Vietnam. Yet he presumes to know not only the mind of Niebuhr but also the mind of the Lord when it comes to confronting ‘Islamism’ – which is undoubtedly and undeniably the greatest threat to liberty and world peace in the (post-)modern era.
But Cranmer is bemused that Dr Bacevich finds Barack Obama to be a disciple of Niebuhr at all, for Obama’s sound-bite of ‘change’, and his facile ‘Yes, we can!’ are a world apart from the mind of one of Protestantism’s foremost philosophers. There are no ‘Niebuhrean inclinations’ in the politics of Obama, for he is two dimensional himself; the embodiment of bumper-sticker politics, and the fulfilment of sound-bite prophecy. If ‘the course of history cannot be coerced’, it is no more likely to be so by a ‘born-again president intent on eliminating evil’ than it is by a half-black president of Muslim paternity intent on inviting the Islamists to the White House for tea and cake (or whatever the American equivalent may be).
President-Elect Obama has written that he took from reading Niebuhr ‘the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world’ along with the conviction that evil's persistence should not be ‘an excuse for cynicism and inaction’. Moreover, he says that Niebuhr also taught him that ‘we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things’.
And so defeatism enters the White House.
Iraq was wrong, for it was motivated by pride and revenge. Afghanistan was an affront to Jesus, for it was an attack upon a sovereign nation state which had no direct involvement in anything. And President Ahmadinejad must be invited to tea, as must Hamas, and the leadership of North Korea.
It appears that the new US foreign policy is a policy of appeasement which would indeed offend Jesus himself.
President Obama would do well to reflect on the writings of Reinhold's younger brother Richard, who identifies ‘Christ against culture’ as one of the pre-eminent missiologies, and it is an either/or choice. H Richard Niebuhr proposes that believers must follow Christ and reject the cultural/global zeitgeist, and adduces St John in his thesis:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15).
Contiguous with this is the notion that the prince of this world is the devil, and therefore that loyalty to worldly authority is ultimately loyalty to the devil.
And the younger Niebuhr names historical proponents of this view including Tertullian, Tolstoy, and the Mennonites. Tolstoy went so far as to claim that ‘the Christian is independent of every human authority by the fact that he regards the divine law of love, implanted in the soul of every man, and brought before his consciousness by Christ, as the sole guide of his life and other men's also’.
Richard Niebuhr acknowledges the integrity of those following Christ against Culture in their courageous witness and sometimes martyrdom under evil governments, and in the social reforms they have thereby provoked. Indeed, without a continual separatist impetus, Christian faith quickly degenerates into a utilitarian device for the attainment of personal prosperity or public peace; and some imagined idol called by his name takes the place of Jesus Christ the Lord.
This missiology is, however, vulnerable to devastating objections, not least the reality that it is impossible to separate oneself from culture; as culture permeates our thinking and language, it is as much in us as it is around us. We may keep out some bad influences of culture but others will remain inside. If Tolstoy, or the Amish, live apart from certain state institutions, or from mainstream technology and consumerism, they succeed only in establishing countercultures, not in becoming acultural. And although the separatist may insulate himself from some of the actual sins of prevailing culture, the original sin in his nature remains.
Insular separatism is itself two-dimensional, for it ignores the exhortation to relate to culture and engage with humankind. Christ himself says that taxes must be paid, and neighbours must be loved, and where are these taxes and neighbours to be found if not in mainstream culture? If President Obama is to separate himself like the self-righteous Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, then it will fall to the Samaritan in another part of the free world to manifest holiness and cross the cultural boundaries to help his fellow man.
God affirmed the fallen world by becoming incarnate in Christ, and this incarnation demands involvement in culture and in politics. While Dr Bacevich derides the Bush doctrine of engagement, he is deluded if he believes President Obama should pursue an alternative path, and he is no scholar of Niebuhr if he believes that Niebuhr would advocate anything other than that which has been pursued for the past eight years.
Cranmer thanks God that the United States of America grasps the theological reality that man is a cultural being (Heb 2:14-18). Since we are to follow Christ in all things, and Christ has a cultural dimension, it is incumbent upon Christian nations to follow him in that dimension as well.