22 September 2016

Global leadership: not a Christian imperative

Answering the call to dialogue from Providence Magazine’s manifesto, ‘A Christian Declaration on American Foreign Policy’, I feel I must offer this response.

I should state from the outset that I belong to what has historically been an imperial church. I do not say this in approbation or in any kind of adverse judgement upon the tradition I have willingly embraced: it is nothing more than a statement of fact. The One, Holy, Conciliar and Apostolic Right-Believing Church has been, from the 313 Milan Edict of Emperor Saint Constantine the Great, Equal-to-the-Apostles, to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the state-tolerated, later -recognised and -supported, religion of the (Eastern) Roman Empire. In addition, it has been, from the marriage of Tsar Ivan III the Great to the Roman refugee-princess Sophia Palaiologina in 1472, to the martyrdom of the blessed and God-bearing Emperor Saint Nikolai II in 1918, the state religion of the Russian Empire. (After the fall of the City, Russia was often conceived of in Orthodox writings, polemics and prophecies as the Third Rome, after which there would be no fourth.) Today, Holy Orthodoxy retains close symbiotic relationships with the governments of Greece, Georgia and Bulgaria, and has been repairing those with the governments of Russia, Belarus and the Balkan states for the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Eastern, Orthodox Christianity preaches an eschatological renunciation of earthly libido dominandi, power, wealth and self-will unmatched by any other religion’s call to the same (apart, perhaps, from some of the Protestant ‘peace churches’), is nevertheless the one Christian tradition which has maintained the closest proximity to earthly political power, even in its rawest and most absolute forms. The Orthodox witness is therefore often criticised in strident tones by Western thinkers – even amongst ourselves – for being, alternately, either politically-quietist or opportunistically wedded to authoritarian governments (often both at once). However, the political and social witness of the Holy Orthodox Church, precisely because of its paradoxical relation to power, remains vibrant and brimming with potential, particularly in a world positively aching for some kind of moral orientation. It is out of this long tradition of political-theological witness that I hope to respond to this manifesto.

To start with, there is much that I can agree with in this epistle. To begin with: the notion that authority is not a bad thing in itself, but can be beautiful, creative and nurturing is one that the Church readily and gladly acknowledges. Parental authority to their children, teacherly to students, husbandly to wife, elder brotherly to younger brother – can at its best be among the highest expressions of self-sacrificial love and self-giving. Secondly: the related idea that the purpose of the state is to exercise authority in a spirit of justice, as the authors rightly note, ‘as a check against the worst abuses of human sin and evil’. This idea is one which the Russian Orthodox Church has put forward most strongly: ‘Holy Scripture calls upon powers that be to use the power of state for restricting evil and supporting good, in which it sees the moral meaning of the existence of state’ (Basis of the Social Concept III.2).

These are good principles to build upon, but we must examine why they are so. The sorts of authority wielded by fathers, mothers, teachers, rulers and so on are present in the human anthropology only by the impress of God, our Creator. As Christ Our God said to Pilate: ‘Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.’ Authority is only authoritative because our Author authored us in perfect, self-emptying love – in the truth that He wanted us to be united to Him. As the Prophet Isaiah said on God’s behalf: ‘So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.’ Authority is not arbitrary; it is based on the truth of the author, and the accountability of the author for what she says. Subjects must be given reason to trust what the author directs.

The trustworthiness which God showed to us is present in the story of Genesis. God called us human beings to life, even to eternal life, from the very dust of the earth, and He had prepared for us a garden with every good thing needed to allow that life to sustain itself and flourish. He did not condemn us to solitude, but created us male and female: to work together, to live together, to raise children together – all before the Fall. Anthropologically speaking, in the differences of sex God ordered human society before the state ever arose: ‘[t]he family represented the initial cell of human society’ (Basis III.1). The authority of God is manifest in His word to us to ‘be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it’.

However, we disregarded the authority of God, who did all things so that we might live. We trusted instead in the false promises of the Evil One, and ate the fruit which God forbade us to eat. Instead of the eternal life which was our birthright, we chose the inheritance of death. Instead of the equality with God, that we would ‘be as gods’ as the serpent promised, we found ourselves degraded and exiled from the Garden, doomed to a fallen state subject to the laws of sin, corruption and death. Though the Orthodox Church is very far from denying the right purposes or raison d’être of the state, it is clear that is only in our fallen condition that the institution of the state becomes needful. ‘Thus, the emergence of the temporal state should not be understood as a reality originally established by God. It was rather God’s granting human being an opportunity to order their social life by their own free will’ (Basis III.1).

Here’s where the Providence epistle begins to get, at least from an Orthodox Christian view, more than a little strange. Amstutz et al equate the Garden – the Paradise God has ordered for us – with the ‘international system’, and direct the mandates to take care of the Garden to the postlapsarian institution of the state, and in particular the American state, on account of its unmatched power. Leaving aside for the moment the dubious eisegesis of the God-planted Garden as metaphor for a human-constructed international order, this reading makes for a most peculiar and nationalistic anthropology which, as we have seen, not even the supposedly-nationalistic and imperial Russian Church has dared to articulate! But the directive to the man and the woman to work and to take care of the Garden is not given because they are powerful, but because they are loved in such a way that enables them to show love to other created things and to each other, in a way that mirrors, emulates and approaches their Creator. This is the true basis of the sophic logic of the Edenic economy, which is the end of our striving as human beings: as social beings, as working beings, and – yes – as subjects of states.

Instead, in spite of the Providence editors’ protestations that ‘there is no perfect political order’, when the ‘international order’ is identified with Eden and the ‘liberal order’ identified (a propos of literally nothing) as the ‘best means’ of accomplishing the ends of government, the epistle begins to take on an alarmingly triumphalist and imperialist tenor, and Amstutz et al open themselves to the very same temptations to ‘hubris and selfishness’, the ‘strategic and moral myopia’ they later decry. On what empirical grounds, I must ask, do Amstutz and his co-signers assert that our ‘passivity’ has enabled ‘actors with scant regard for the responsible use of power’ to ‘[step] into the vacuum’ we’ve ostensibly left? For that matter, the innuendo is unbecoming – to which ‘actors’, specifically, do they refer?

Remember: the basis and the ideal for earthly authority is not power, but rather truth to life and the trustworthiness of the author, whose model is the Author of Life. It is only from here that a truly Christian realism can proceed. It ought to be recognised, speaking of ‘scant regard for the responsible use of power’, that the reason Americans have withdrawn so heavily from supporting the projects of their own state abroad, even in support of the ‘liberal order’, have to do with the lack of trust they have in the American state. The American state has squandered its own citizens’ trust in military adventures waged on morally- and practically-dubious grounds, beginning with the dismantling of the Yugoslav state and the reckless eastward expansion of NATO, continuing through the mindbogglingly wasteful and bloody crime that was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and perpetuating itself today through less-publicised but equally ill-conceived projections of American power in Libya, Syria and the Ukraine. As a result, not only thousands of innocent people have perished and hundreds of thousands if not millions more find themselves homeless and displaced, but also we, the American people, have failed to secure any of the benefits to our own safety or prestige as a nation we were told these international projects would bring us. None of these sins are the primary responsibility or the fault of the shadowy, unspecified outside ‘actors’ which Amstutz et al darkly hint are the cause of the world’s problems.

Sadly, this Providence epistle, proceeding as it does from a faulty anthropology of the state coupled with an extreme, blood-curdlingly nationalistic reading of Genesis, does not and cannot offer a morally-sound or even realistic prescription for introspection and reflection on the proper role of the United States on the world stage. Ironically, even as they lay claim to ‘deep sense of responsibility to see such power used well and caution because of how such immensity of power can be misused’, Amstutz et al display, in consigning any serious and profound conversation on the hard limits of American power to the outer darkness of ‘reactive populism’ and ‘withdrawal’, a thoroughgoing lack of both responsibility and caution.

Christian realism has to be shaped, first and foremost, in the full knowledge and awareness of the fallen nature of man, and in the understanding that the state itself (and not only individual human beings, or our society) is always already conditioned by the limitations of sin. It is not for nothing that such astute and subtle Christian ethicists as Vladimir Solovyov (who was certainly no pacifist and no anarchist) have explicitly said that it is not the state’s primary job ‘to transform the world which lies in evil into the kingdom of God, but only to prevent it from changing too soon into hell’. He understood how, all too easily, the desire to do the former ends up resulting in the latter. May God have mercy on us.


  1. In a cynical and individualistic society, there is something refreshing about the Orthodox affirmation of state authority.

  2. The authority of the state is part-and-parcel of the historical witness. But it's also conditioned by a religious-'anarchist' (the Orthodox clerics wouldn't use that term themselves) awareness that the state reflects a contingent rather than an ultimate reality.

    Even so, a strong state is needed for defensive reasons - especially on the part of the Russians - to keep unaccountable and bloodthirsty multilateral organisations at bay.

  3. Yet I want to ask what of the political sovereignty of Christ, the enthroned King over the Earth? If bishops are the heirs to the Apostles, they too possess the political authority of Christ's Kingdom. But (per Rome's error) this requires us to think through a different kind of politics.

    I'm always impressed by the holy insight of Petr Chelcicky. He said, to put it succinctly, that if the gospel is what best restrains evil, arising as it does in the shadows of the Human heart, than the Christian king ought to be himself a preacher, and take off Caesar's purple.

    The problem with many pacifistic Churches is the attack on authority and power. But never is the question of who possesses authority, and how ought power to be exercised, broached as qualifying marks. Christ is the political sovereign over the world, despite pretensions of princes.

    That's my problem with some of what I've seen in the Imperial forms of Eastern Orthodoxy (alongside other Western variants). It's too willing to recognize the sacerdotal nature of the Church, without its regal status as well. At least Rome refers to her hierarchy as "princes of the Church", even if this has taken some of the most disturbing and abominable forms seen.


    1. This wasn't an intended criticism of your response. I think you're very much right. I am just skeptical of the Church's role in the State. It's one thing for a Christian to be Emperor (though perhaps foolish) and be disciplined by the Church (as per Theodosius and Ambrose). But it's another thing where the kingship of the Emperor is seen as reflecting Christ's Kingship. It's a collapse of the State into the Church, and by creating a Christian society, sets the stages for the decimation of the Church and the secularization of its gains. Hence, St. John's Revelation tells us of a Whore being devoured by a Beast. The Western World is living testimony of this prophetic allegorical set of figures.

  4. Hello, Cal P! Welcome to the blog, and thank you for the comments!

    I confess I have some difficulty understanding the point you want to make. Solovyov (and apparently Chelčický before him) did have an idea that government ought to yield in the end to Christian convictions, that the Church ought to insist on its rights and encompass the state. Ultimately, his was precisely an argument for the 'political sovereignty of Christ'.

    The Russian bishops apparently agree with Solovyov enough to insist that the Church precedes and compasses the state, but they want to hold in tension with that the responsibilities of state not to usurp the powers of Church, and vice versa. Their reasons for that seem to be along the lines of your second comment - they don't want to see the Church become a nakedly political authority, guided by the materialistic and domineering temptations of Dostoevsky's High Inquisitor...

    1. My point is only to highlight the regal nature of the Church, and what that actually means. Thus, a more pacifistic policy for the Church is not the attack on power, sovereignty etc. but, theoretically, be a rearticulation of it. Yoder's 'Politics of Jesus' is an example of this.

      I don't know Solovyov well, but Chelcicky advocated not surrounding the State, but a kind of rejection of it. Not its abolition, but Christians refusing to serve it when it asks us to disobey God, namely military "service"/impressment.