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John Wilson

Christian Realism

Wherever I turn these days, whatever the ostensible subject, I'm likely to bump into someone editorializing about the evils of George W. Bush and his company of wreckers. The New York Times Book Review asks John Ashbery what book of poetry, published in the last 25 years, has meant the most to him, and on his way to plumping for James Tate he arches his brow: "Democracy is after all what our land is all about, or was until fairly recently." Ireland's Abbey Theatre commissions Seamus Heaney to undertake a new version of Sophocles' Antigone (The Burial at Thebes, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and Heaneya reviewer in the Los Angeles Times Book Review tells usremarks that "his translation could have been called 'An Open Letter to George Bush,'" since "the poet found a ready parallel to the bellicose, intransigent Creon … in the American president."

Why does the crudity of this surprise me? Maybe in part because one of the principal charges against Bush and all those who voted for him is their allegedly simplistic view of the world. And the "ready parallel" between Creon and George W. Bush is … subtly nuanced?

In 2003, I contributed an essay to a book called Spiritual Perspectives on America's Role as a Superpower (Skylight Paths). I beg your indulgence to quote from it here:

In the contention over American power and how it should be used, vigorously and often rancorously conducted on talk shows and op-ed pages, in think tanks and policy journals, the matter of a distinctively Christian understanding of the question has hardly been at the forefront, but neither has it been neglected. Indeed, two answers have been heard again and again, two sharply different responses, both of which seem unsatisfactory to me.

The first answer might be called the Way of Renunciation. It is well represented by Daniel Berrigan's book, Lamentations: From New York to Kabul and Beyond, in which Berrigan reflects on 9/11 and its aftermath in the light of the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah. Castigating President Bush and his "war on terror," equally critical of the church for its complicity with the "warmaking state," Berrigan calls for "another way," renouncing "retaliation and revenge" and instead embarking on a national confession of sin.

Many Christian thinkers have agreed. In the final week of 2002, I was in Atlanta for an InterVarsity Grad and Faculty Ministries conference, Following Christ 2002. During that week, the murder of three Christian missionaries in Yemen was reported, with a statement from the U.S. government saying that those responsible would be "hunted down." It should not be so, said my friend, the systematic theologian Miroslav Volf, one of the plenary speakers at the conference. Hunting down the murderers is not what the martyred missionaries themselves would have wanted: such a response violates the meaning of their witness.

In general, those who argue for the Way of Renunciation believe that the Christian perspective on America's role as a superpower is painfully clear. Renounce war, renounce power. Resist the evil machinations of the state; repent for the weakness of the church, the failure of Christians to take up the cross. What we are called to do may indeed be difficult, but it is straightforward, without ambiguity.

On the other hand, there is the Way of Realpolitik. It is well represented by Robert Kaplan's book Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. From this point of view, the radical meditations of a Daniel Berrigan are so peripheral as to be beneath notice. What is dangerous, say the practitioners of Realpolitik, is a more diffuse Christian sentimentality about America and its role in the world. Such sentimentality makes it difficult for America to acknowledge the reality of its own power and exercise it effectively. Ruthlessness, stealth, and cunning are the attributes we need in our leaders, not "Christian" virtues.

Kaplan concedes that some Christians, from Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr, have been political realists, but he misconstrues their engagement with the world: "What all these men were groping for, it seems, was a way to use pagan, public morality to advancealbeit indirectlyprivate, Judeo-Christian morality." Here, in Kaplan's unwitting condescension, his genial contempt for religion is all too apparent.

Indeed, in one important respect, the Way of Renunciation and the Way of Realpolitik are in fundamental agreement: Christianity is irrelevant to the messy realities of power. But is this really true?

James Q. Wilson and Edward Banfield began their classic study, City Politics (1966), with the observation that "politics arises out of conflicts, and it consists of the activitiesfor example, reasonable discussion, impassioned oratory, balloting, and street fightingby which conflict is carried on." This is no less true of international politics than of city politics. In a world darkened by sin, both individual and corporate, conflict takes on a tragic dimension. In working toward a good endor what seems a good endwe often do harm. This is precisely the world as seen in the Bible.

In World War II, to resist the evil of Nazism, we allied ourselves with the Soviet Unionwhich had been Hitler's ally until Germany launched a surprise invasion. Together with the Russians, we defeated the Nazis, but our alliance led to the subjugation of millions behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern and Central Europe after the war.

Far from being doomed to sentimentality, a Christian understanding of politicsand hence a Christian perspective on America's role as a superpowermust begin with our fallenness, a condition which results not only in tragedy but also in dark absurdity. And yet we are also human beings created in the very image of God, a little lower than the angels. A squad of American soldiers dropped in Afghanistan or Iraq is at once an emblem of human depravity and of human nobility.

To be Christian Realiststo borrow Niebuhr's termwe need to learn both from the Way of Renunciation and from the Way of Realpolitik. If we pride ourselves on our realism, we may soon end up rationalizing evil. Such was the case with U.S. policy in Central America under the Reagan Administration. Beware the siren song of Realpolitik, as crooned by Henry Kissinger! But if we pride ourselves on our radical Christian stance, we may abdicate our responsibility to fight the good fight, to make tough choices in a messy, ever-shifting political landscape.

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