Recognizing Political Idolatry

If the human heart is a veritable factory of idols, as Calvin said, then it might be fair to say that theologians see themselves as the factory inspectors, called upon to discern and denounce idolatries wherever they may be found.  Sometimes, however, we are too content merely to take a superficial look at the packaging well after the product has entered widespread circulation, instead of venturing into the factory to see what’s really going on.  Or, to drop the belabored metaphor, sometimes we are overly tempted to identify an idol merely by certain external characteristics rather than by whether it actually rules our hearts as such.  This is a particular temptation in political theology, where critics on both left and right are eager to identify Christian idolatries of the state.  

The right will tell us that we can recognise idolatry by asking whether the state claims to provide goods which only God can provide.  The modern state, we are told, is an overgrown Leviathan, one that presents itself as the saviour from all evils, the solution to all ills, as our modern Messiah.  Whenever someone suggests then that the solution for an economic crisis lies in state intervention, or that state action might remedy economic injustice, or perhaps that the state should be involved in ensuring universal access to healthcare, up goes the cry, “Idolatry!”  God has fixed particular, extremely narrow boundaries to the legitimate intrusion of political authority, we are told, and to ask anything else from the government is to substitute it for God himself.   

Critics on the radical left have their own version of this rhetorical move, one on display frequently in the writings of William Cavanaugh.  For instance, in Migrations of the Holy, Cavanaugh says, 

“The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values, so that it demands sacrifice on its behalf. . . . In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war.  The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the church, meant to save us from division.”  

This particular statement of Cavanaugh’s concern is in fact fairly rhetorically restrained , but the suggestion here, voiced more vigorously elsewhere, is that we may readily discern the idolatry of the state in its call for people to lay down their lives for it, or, even more so, in its call for people to kill others for its sake.  In The Myth of Religious Violence, he thinks it quite significant to point out that very few modern Christians would be willing to kill for the sake of their church, but most would be quite willing to kill for the sake of their country.  Since human life is a good of infinite value, any entity which claims the right to take human life or require its sacrifice is demanding what only God can demand, and is thus idolatrous.

 

The most striking problem with both of these arguments (in their more simplistic forms, at any rate) is that, if they are true, then not merely we moderns, but the majority of the Christian tradition, can be indicted of idolatry.  Most Christian ethicists through the ages have felt quite able to justify, on clear theological and ethical grounds, both the taking of life by the state and the sacrifice of life in its defence.  They have also felt quite able, on clear theological and ethical grounds, to call for the Christian magistrate’s involvement in any number of areas of concern—not only military and judicial, but economic, social, and religious—as part of his protection of the common good and vindication of justice.  

No doubt, there are a great many ways in which modern politics might be indicted for idolatry, and to be sure, both of the arguments I have just summarized can be and have been offered in more sophisticated and compelling forms.  But if we wish to aptly identify the pathologies of modernity, we must go beyond facile claims that certain political actions in and of themselves necessarily constitute forms of idolatry, and must rather ask whether the fundamentally provisional character of these political actions is being maintained, or whether we have passed over into investing them with a significance and finality which no human action can bear (though certainly, part of this will involve attending to the kinds of actions that are being taken and called for).  On this point, O’Donovan’s remarks in chapter 3 of Resurrection and Moral Order are worth reflecting carefully upon:

“The opposition in Western theology between the City of God and the earthly city has enabled political thought to avoid theocratic conceptions of government, which, by claiming to express the rule of heaven on earth, must unify the earthly and the heavenly into a single totalitarian political claim.  Western theology starts from the assertion that the kingdoms of this world are not the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, not, at any rate, until God intervenes to make them so at the end.  If we ask why not, the answer must surely be that their judgments cannot reconcile the world; thus they can neither be perfectly true nor perfectly merciful.  Their sovereignty can be only a relative sovereignty; and the believer, who knows himself subject to the absolute sovereignty of God’s reconciling judgment, keeps his spiritual ‘space’ in relation to them, just as they keep a certain ‘space’ of their own in relation to the judgments of God.  This does not mean (as it has sometimes come to mean in degenerate forms of the tradition) that the secular state can be independent of God and his claims, or that the pious individual can cultivate a private existence without regard for the claims of his society.  It means simply that earthly politics, because they do not have to reconcile the world, may get on with the provisional task of bearing witness to God’s justice.  And it means that the individual, because he is not absorbed by the claims of his earthly community, can contribute to its good order that knowledge of man’s good which he learns from his heavenly calling.”


What Good Ol’ Days?

Even among us postmillenial types, it is a common enough foible to imagine that we are living in a dark and decadent age.  We look back with nostalgia and longing to an earlier Christian culture, to a time when everyone went to church, society lived basically in accord with Christian morality, Biblical teaching was enshrined in law and followed in national and international affairs, and orthodoxy was universally accepted and taught in the pulpits.  Nowadays, it is clear, we have rejected God and are suffering His judgment.  

So it is strange when one starts reading works from these good ol’ days and finds the same old complaints about the irreligiousness of society, the same laments about impending judgment. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to read two things which helped reveal just how one-sided this narrative really is–Patrick Collinson’s brilliant study The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 1559-1625, and an essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Violence Vanquished” 

 

In the first, Collinson offers a wonderfully thorough and lively portrait of ecclesiastical life in Elizabethan and Jacobean society–the period following a successful reformation, and before the waning of piety that an ensuing formalism is thought have caused–here, more than any time, we might have expected a picture of the good ol’ days in action.  And yet, wherever we look, we find the familiar problems of modern society?  Power-hungry and amoral rulers?  Check.  Corrupt church leaders?  Check.  Incompetent, uneducated, and/or immoral ministers?  Check.  Widespread ignorance of Scripture and orthodox theology?  Check.  A populace that seems by and large apathetic about the faith and inconsistent at best in putting into practice?  Check.  Absence of children and young people from church altogether?  Check.  Loose sexual mores, with widespread practice and acceptance of premarital sex?  Check.  

Not that Collinson’s point is to paint a gloomy, cynical picture.  Far from it; one of his main burdens in the book is to demonstrate the relatively robust health of the English church in this period.  The bitter invectives of the Puritans, and their certainty that theirs was a church rotten almost to the core, are shown to be just as without foundation as the “good ol’ days” mirage.  The reality?  The English Church in this period was a lot like many churches in many periods–a mixed bag, with a  large number of inconsistent professors and practitioners, and a small minority of fully dedicated and zealous believers, whose leadership consisted of a few true saints, a few true villains, and a generous helping of well-intentioned but imperfect and usually undereducated clergy, who were sometimes too strict, sometimes too lax, but on the whole, slowly nurtured their parishioners into greater piety and maturity.  

 

Very well, then.  Perhaps they had their problems back then too.  But one can hardly say that we have much improvement to be thankful for, right?  Well, not quite.  When was the last time one of your friends was robbed and murdered while traveling?  Or when your town was attacked by a neighbouring town over a resource dispute?  In his recent WSJ article, “Violence Vanquished” (a précis of a book he has just published, The Better Angels of Our Nature), Steven Pinker challenges us to come to grips with just how peaceful a society we (and by we, he means the whole world) enjoy now.  Homicide rates in the Western world are only a few percent of what they were five centuries ago; violence and execution as a form of legal punishment has been dramatically reduced (except in Texas 😉 ); feudal conflicts and tribal violence have been banished from most of the world; leaving inter-state conflict as the only large-scale form of organised violence.  But inter-state violence is huge nowadays, right?  Wrong.  The death rate today from inter-state conflict is only a few hundredths of a percent.

Pinker’s narrative is a bit overstated, perhaps, relying too much on the relatively short period of history that has elapsed since the end of the Second World War, and his explanations are decidedly secular, giving the credit to evolutionary factors, the Enlightenment, and the rise of the State (though perhaps these latter two deserve more credit than we are usually wont to give them), and none at all to the leavening effects of Christianity.  Nonetheless, he certainly has a point, and one well-worth attending to in an age of ubiquitous media, when single murder cases from thousands of miles away can dominate the headlines for months on end, creating an illusion of ubiquitous violence.

 

The moral of all this is certainly not complacency.  There is more than enough sin in the world to get worked up about, more than enough that still needs to be done for Christ’s kingdom to get us up off our lazy bums.  But discontentment with our present lot and ingratitude for our present blessings are vices; and constantly assessing the present by comparison, not with the realities of fallen human existence, but with some utopian Golden Age, leads readily to an extremism that sets its face against the wickedness of the world and embraces dangerous creeds and schemes in a vain attempt to restore the lost Golden Age.  When we realise that every age has had its share of vices and virtues, we will be more able to exercise patience in our efforts to make our world a godlier place today.  



A Constantinian Showdown

 Yes, believe it or not, I am still alive.  But I am on vacation, and my brain has completely shut down and refused to produce blog-worthy ideas.  

However, I can point you to where some real blogging action is–or was–I’m a week or two behind. 

Ben Witherington recently produced a lengthy series of posts reviewing Peter Leithart’s groundbreaking recent book, Defending Constantine–while broadly appreciative and complementary, he was sharply critical on several points, as one might expect, given that he is a pacifist.  Leithart’s responses to his objections are particularly fascinating, and very relevant to the recent discussion about retributive justice here.  Leithart’s final post, “Loving Enemies” offers a frank confession of the difficulties of a Christian just war position, which he nonetheless feels compelled to cling to.  My own thoughts on this subject are very similar to what Leithart voices in this fantastic post.

Here are the links:

Witherington Intro
Witherington 1
Witherington 2
Witherington 3
Witherington 4
Witherington 5
Witherington 6
Witherington 7
Witherington 8 

Leithart 1: “Guarding the Garden”
Leithart 2: “Crushing Heads”
Leithart 3: “Protoeuangelium”
Leithart 4: “Warrior Messiah”
Leithart 5: “Marcion”
Leithart 6: “Loving Enemies” 

If you’re eager for more action, this just in–the AAR conference this fall in San Francisco will host a dialogue/debate between Leithart and Stanley Hauerwas over Defending Constantine.  If I weren’t already going, I might buy a plane ticket just to see that!


My Bleeding Country

As most everyone now knows, last Saturday a deranged youth in Arizona gunned down a Democrat congresswoman, together with a crowd of staffers and citizens.  6 were killed, another 18 wounded; congressman Gifford miraculously survived a point-blank shot to the head.  But the spray of literal bullets unleashed was scarcely sadder than the rhetorical firefight that soon filled the country’s political media–which in this day and age, seems to be all its media.  Some wondered aloud whether a shooting like this wasn’t the logical result of years of violent political rhetoric and demonizing of the opposition, and names like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh surfaced, as indeed they were sure to do in any discussion about polarizing politics.  Some went further, singling out Sarah Palin’s gun crosshairs map of politicians to take down.  Rather than having the restraint to leave the more pointed and overstated accusations unanswered, and looking beyond them to the very important discussion about political rhetoric, both Palin and Limbaugh took the opportunity to step back into the limelight, climb on their soapboxes, and fire a heated counterblast to legions of imagined opponents.  The irony is as sad as it is unsurprising–in the midst of expressing concern about polarized politics on the one hand, and denying its existence on the other hand, the two “sides” have managed to give us Exhibit A in a showcase of polarized, slanderous politics.  

Let’s try to step back, sort through this mess, and make space for confession.

Did Sarah Palin incite Jared Loughner to violence?  No, that would clearly be an absurd accusation; and indeed, so far as I know, no one has made it in its baldest form.  Did violent political rhetoric (which right now is mostly the weapon of conservatives) incite him?  Again, no, this would be an overstatement.  But is it a relevant part of the discussion?  Those seeking to deny that it is have laid stress on the fact that Loughner was mentally disturbed, confused, and irrational; ergo, they say, he could not have been politically motivated.  But this, I think, is to miss the point of the concerns that have been raised.  The point is that, whatever the psychiatric pathology that set Loughner awry, he decided to take out his angst on an elected official, a congresswoman.  These aren’t exactly lurking on every street corner–there were thousands of other people he might have decided to shoot, but he decided on her as his target.  Why?  Because he’d convinced himself than an undesirable politician was the cause of all his problems, and the problems in the world, and was a suitable object for his violence.  It’s not unreasonable to ask the question, “Why?”  Why single out a congresswoman in this way?  Indeed, the fact that many think it a needless question to ask simply underlines how dangerously accustomed we have become to pinning all our problems on politicians, and singling them out as enemies.  This has become part of the air we breathe, not least the toxic air of talk radio.

Richard Hooker put his finger on the problem more than 400 years ago:

“First in the hearing of the multitude, the faults especially of higher callings are ripped up with marvelous exceeding severity and sharpnes of reproofe; which being oftentimes done begetteth a good opinion of integritie, zeale and holines, to such constant reproovers of sinne, as by likelihood would never be so much offended at that which is evill, unlesse themselves were singularly good.  The next thinge hereunto is to impute all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth, unto the kind of Ecclesiastical governement established.  Wherein, as before by reproving faults, they purchased unto themselves with the multitude a name to be vertuous; so by finding out this kinde of cause they obtaine to be judged wise above others….” 

The only difference now is that we are not so pious as to blame the faults of the world on the ecclesiastical government, but the civil.  

And this is the highly relevant and highly important question raised by the Arizona shootings–did a country of demagogues who try to persuade their citizens that the political opposition is the cause of “all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth” have some effect on persuading a deranged man that his local congressman was a suitable target on which to vent his wrath?  In one article I read, a leading psychologist made this balanced statement: “Political rhetoric provided some of the context for his thinking, the pretext for his actions, but the core reasons for his actions were his psychosis.”  That sounds fair enough.  And as a context and pretext, it certainly bears some discussing.  If an intoxicated sports fan decided to bust in to the visiting team’s locker and smash the shins of the players, and if this happened on a campus already criticized for fostering very bad sportsmanship, wouldn’t it be legitimate to raise questions about the ethos of that campus?  Even if it turned out that there was no causal connection whatsoever between Loughner’s actions and the political ethos of the country (which seems unlikely, given how even the most maniacal of us are deeply shaped by our environment), this tragedy nevertheless serves as a reasonable occasion to raise concerns about that ethos, concerns that desperately need raising.  

This, it seems to me, is the legitimate role of pointing out, for instance, Sarah Palin’s gun crosshairs map.  The point is not–or should not be–that Loughner saw this map and said, “Oh, I guess I’d better go shoot Congressman Gifford–that’ll make Sarah Palin happy.”  The point is that we should say, “Dang.  That sure doesn’t look too good in retrospect.  I wonder if it’s really a good idea to mark out your political opposition with gun crosshairs.  A metaphor only, perhaps, but surely the wrong metaphor.”  The blame, of course, should not fall only on conservatives, even if it is true that they have recently been the chief offenders.  The behavior of the right over the past couple years has been truly puerile and reprehensible, but we shouldn’t be too quick to forget the shrill (literally–remember Howard Dean) rhetoric of the left during the final years of the Bush administration.  

The fact that many in our nation have been unable to grasp this, to grasp the difference between a direct cause and a relevant context, and unwilling to take this opportunity for serious self-examination, using it instead for more political grandstanding and demonizing of the ambiguous “left” and “right,” seems to prove more than anything how right some were to raise the questions, how desperately our country needs to grow up.  I mean, seriously.  The kid on the playground at recess feels like every perceived insult has to be matched with a heavier counterinsult, or even a well-placed punch, to preserve his honor.  But hopefully once you grow up, you learn the wisdom of the proverb “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”  Or, to quote Hooker again, “Wee are still perswaded that a bare deniall is answer sufficient to thinges which meere phancie objecteth; and that the best apologie to wordes of scorne and petulancie is Isackes apologie to his brother Ismael, thapologie which patience and silence maketh.  Our answer therefore to their reasons [arguments] is No; to their scoffes nothing.”  Would that Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh could have been so persuaded.  Few enough in the media were seeking to directly implicate them as causes of the shooting, and those who were could be safely ignored as hypocrites and fools.  To the broader concerns that had been voiced, a response might be in order, and hopefully a balanced, patient, and self-critical response.  But no, what do we get? 

Sarah Palin accuses the media of engaging in “blood libel” and Rush Limbaugh says “They are accusing a majority of Americans of being accomplices to murder,” boasting that he now represents “a majority of Americans.”  This latter claim is patently absurd–the hard, vitriolic right represented by such as Palin and Limbaugh cannot represent more than a quarter of the electorate at most.  Of course, it may be true that a majority of Americans now engage in vitriolic political rhetoric and demonizing the opposition.  If so, then a majority of Americans should be confessing their sins in the wake of these shootings, recognizing the responsibility we all bear.  But, of course, Sarah Palin will have none of that.  Quoting Ronald Reagan’s “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions,” she went on to say, “Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle.”  Each individual, and each individual only, bears guilt for the crime he commits.  Understood in one sense, this is a truism.  But understood in a fuller sense, this is simply not in accord with Christian teaching, or with reason.  Corporate guilt is a basic reality in Scripture–all Israel bears responsibility for the evils of some Israelites, and even righteous men like Daniel beg forgiveness for the sins of the wicked.  Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima says this powerfully in the Brothers Karamazov–we must learn to ask forgiveness of every creature in the world for the wrong that is done to it, a wrong that we share in due to our sin.  Even aside from theologizing, it is not hard to recognize that the actions of a society influence the actions of its members, and when one of those members commits a monstrous deed, all of society should examine its conscience.  Nuanced moral judgment, of course, will make a distinction between those who are direct causal agents of a crime, and those who are part of the context that facilitated it, and will apportion a legal guilt on the former that does not rest on the latter; but the latter cannot therefore absolve itself of any need for penitence.  

Such inability to engage in nuanced moral judgment–evidenced by Limbaugh’s wildly off-the-mark claim that most of America was being accused of being “accomplices to murder” has become a distinctive of American politics, it seems, right and left.  As has, of course, hypocrisy.  Palin and Limbaugh both deplored the fact that some would use this tragedy as a pretext to score political points against the opposition, and simultaneously, they both sought to do so: “‘They will use anyone,’ Limbaugh said of the left. ‘They will use any event. They will take what is a genuine tragedy and without any evidence whatsoever attempt to massage it for their own political benefit. And they can’t do it by touting their ideas. They can’t do it by explaining the virtue of their beliefs. So what do they have to do? They have to impugn, destroy get rid of, regulate out of business, their political opponent in media if they have a chance.’”  Can you tell me, Limbaugh, in good conscience, that you aren’t massaging these accusations for your political benefit, using it as another opportunity to demonize the left?

Sarah Palin is right to say at least that we shouldn’t be using this tragedy to point fingers at one another; no, we should be using it to point fingers at ourselves, at all of us who encourage crimes like this by publicly hating, rather than loving our brothers.  It’s no surprise, I suppose, that a nation that so habitually demonizes and kills its enemies, real and imaginary, outside its borders, should soon find this hate spilling over into how we treat those within.  Those who don’t learn to love their enemies will soon find it difficult to love even their friends.  When we see these public actions being mimicked by private citizens, the only adequate response is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

 

Some articles:

Limbaugh’s reaction

Reaction to Palin’s reaction

Another reaction to Palin 

Contrasting Obama and Palin

Full text of Palin’s message 


Politics and the God of Peace

I already blogged some time ago about John Webster’s magnificently thoughtful lecture on “Theology and the Peace of the Church” from Aberdeen last month, but I’ve been wanting to follow it up with some thoughts applying what he said from the area of ecclesiology to that of politics.  Of course, just as I remarked that his lecture was somewhat one-sided and his picture needs to be complexified with other angles, the same remarks could apply to these following reflections.

Too often, said Webster, we tend to assume that conflict is the norm, is the way in which we should expect the world to work; we assume that it is a positive good, and that the only way in which the cause of Christ can be advanced in the Church is through vigilance and uncompromising fortitude in conflict.  We also find this attitude, of course, in the political sphere–there has always been and there certainly still is in our society a warmonger mentality on the part of many, a conviction that the world is a dangerous place, that conflict is the norm, and that the only way you can survive is by being tougher, smarter, quicker, and if necessary more ruthless than your opponent.  

Foreign policy, for men of this mentality, is a matter of vigilance, deterrence, and preemptive strike.  There are bad guys out there who are out to destroy you and they will destroy you unless you can identify them first and then go on the offensive against them to erase them from the earth before they become a pressing threat.  We all know the tribe of Presbyterian heretic-police who live with this mindset in the Church, and alas, we all know the tribe of neo-cons (many Christians among them) who live this way in politics.  The Muslims, we are told, plan to take over.  They will take over if we let them–the only way to keep them from taking over is to meet their violence with violence, to enforce peace through conflict.  

Of course, even assuming the first premise (are most Muslims really planning a violent takeover of the Western world?), why should we assume the second?  Why should we assume that their violent aspirations will necessarily succeed unless met and preempted with violence?  To do so is to assume an ontology of violence, to assume that conflict is primordial, that war beats peace every time.  But, as Webster argued in his lecture, this is not the Christian account of reality.  At the source of all things lies a God of peace, who creates a world based on peace, and redeems it with the promise of peace.  Peace always comes before violence and always wins out after violence has interrupted.  Conflict is a shadow that can never eclipse the true reality of peace.  Ultimately, peace kicks violence’s butt.   

But Webster’s lecture also had another target–the moralizing ecumenist.  Too many Christians, he said, waste their breath on pious-sounding exhortations to peace, lecturing us all that we must learn to be tolerant, and insisting that if we just try hard enough, we can all get along.  This puts the imperative before the indicative–it exhorts us to peace without ever establishing a proper basis for believing that peace is possible.  Counsels of peace in the Church must start at the starting-point, the doctrine of God, and must teach us that, because of who God is, peace is already winning out over violence, that conflict is never ultimate or irresolvable, that Christ has brought reconciliation and we await only the full manifestation of that.  Only then can we seek peace in confidence that God is already giving it to us.

Of course, the moralizing ecumenist, like the warmonger, has his analogue in the world of politics.  We have all had our fill of the tiresome tribe of peace-demonstrators and UN peacekeepers, those who emptily proclaim that we can have peace if only we drop our lust for oil, or our pride, or get a new President, those who incessantly preach “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.  If only we could understand the Arabs properly, and they could understand us, everyone would get along.  Hardly.  Where there is irreconcilable difference, greater understanding often just brings greater conflict.  The warmonger tribe understandably mock the peacemongers.  

The Christian quest for peace, unlike the naive hippie’s, recognizes that what we need is not more admonitions to peace, recognizes the love of violence that is deep within us, however much we may learn to dialogue and understand one another’s differences.  The Christian quest for peace is founded on a greater confidence, a trust that God is a God of peace, and peace always wins out over violence, a confidence that because peace is prior to conflict, conflict will not have the last word, conflict will not prevail.  But the Christian quest recognizes that this is only true because of Christ, and will only happen through faithful witness to Christ, not through appeals to a universal sense of humanity or human rights.  

 

What does all this mean in practice?  In Webster’s lecture, it did not mean an avoidance of all conflict in this sinful age.  Rather, it meant three rules for conflict: 

1) It must be a work of charity, for the Church and our neighbors.

2) It must be exercised in common pursuit of divine truth.

3) It must arise from and attend toward peace.

What might this mean for politics?  It does not mean an avoidance of all violent conflict, I suggest.  But it certainly changes our approach.

First, if conflict is to be a work of charity, not merely for our own people but for all our neighbors, including our enemies, then it is never just about advancing our own ends and protecting our own people, no matter what the cost to anyone else.  In the War on Terror, many Americans seem content with the logic that if 2,700 Americans were killed on 9/11, then 270,000 or 2,700,000 Muslims is not too high a price to pay for justice and future protection.  The casualties of the enemy, or the collateral damage to the civilian population, are easily ignored.  For some of our politicians, it seems, any foreign policy decision can be justified by an appeal to national security.  But if conflict is a work of charity, then national security can never be a trump card, can never justify a conflict that is not for the good of others, but merely of ourselves.  Conflict seeks the protection of the innocent (of all parties) and the correction and reconciliation (and only in a last resort the destruction) of the guilty.  If we learn to see conflict as a tool of charity, we will find that other tools, more often than not, will be more effective.

Second, what would the second criterion mean for political conflict?  Well, in the realm of theological controversy, Webster’s point was to say that we must recognize that our theological opponents are in search of the same divine truth as we are, even if they are in error.  We must acknowledge that we have in many respects a common aim and be willing therefore to accept the possibility that they have some things right and we have some things wrong.  In global politics, we cannot of course assume that all of our opponents are ultimately seeking the same good we are; Hitler, for instance, certainly was not.  However, we can still usefully apply this principle, by learning to recognize that our enemies are humans like we are, motivated by many of the same fears, hopes, and loves, and seeking many of the same goods.  Very few of our enemies are so foreign in their aspirations that there is no common ground to find.  A Christian approach to conflict in foreign policy seeks to look with sympathy into the mind of the enemy, and find there desires that we can understand, aims that we can share, and grievances that we can admit to be legitimate and seek to redress.  This means, for instance, that we should not assume that Muslims are out to destroy us, pure and simple, and there’s nothing we can do but fight back.  We should recognize them as humans like ourselves who want, more often than not, many of the same sorts of things we want.

Third, what does it mean for conflict to arise from and tend toward peace?  It means that we do not assume conflict as the norm, do not assume that conflict is perpetual and irreconcilable.  Rather, we must recognize conflict as an aberration, something that has little power compared to the power of peace, a phenomenon with a very brief life-span.  We hope and we trust in a return to peace, a peace that will squeeze out conflict in the end.  When conflict arises, we recognize that the conflict could have been avoided, and respond in confidence that peace can be restored.  Christians in the last decade have been quick to buy into narratives of an eternal conflict of civilizations–Islam vs. Christianity, or worse, Islam vs. the West.  Based on such narratives, we are led to believe that we must not blink or waver, that any friendly gesture is a sign of weakness that will come back to bite us soon, that any truce is a temporary and local halt in hostilities that must be resumed ere long.  Such narratives attribute more power to conflict, to violence, than it actually possesses; we must remember that conflict is only “The afterlife of what the gospel has already excluded, the lingering shadow that the rising sun has yet to chase away.”  

In short, a true faith in the God of peace will teach us not to see the world as a dark and dangerous place, through which we must always walk with gun cocked and loaded, distrustful of everyone we meet.  It will teach us to go forth in confidence that the Prince of Peace has conquered and to see in all our relationships an opportunity to share Christ’s peace and make it more and more a reality in our chaotic world.