What considerations should shape a Christian approach to international relations?

February 11, 2011 - Robert Joustra

International relations is a Christian minefield but we’ve made a long history running right in. Did God send ruin across Haiti for its demoniac dealings? Did President Bush extend evil imperial oil interests and the dark shadow of corporate America across the globe? Running along we go, with knee-jerk moralism, where angels fear to tread.

Reading the Bible in international relations is too easy for some, and too hard for most. One thing it certainly is not is normal—my friend Scott Thomas tells about Bible studies in CIA basements during the Cold War reading Joshua to discern “a theology of espionage.” But if the Canaanite conquest is a bad story to lift out of the Old Testament and slap onto the War in Iraq, what are the principles and ideas we should be understanding? Here are three very basic, orthodox Christian sign posts.

More than a few Christian traditions would say we have no business reading the Bible politically, at least not in a way to baptize secular political structures. The polis of the Christian is the church, according to people like Stanley Hauerwas. By contrast, Oliver O'Donovan in The Desire of the Nations set out to discover the kingship of Christ and ended up with “a defense of Christendom.” Jonathan Chaplin finds Christian Democracy at the intersection of Calvinist and Catholic social thought. All three make profoundly different stakes for a Christian approach to international relations.

These traditions exist along a very ancient continuum of Church teaching, what the Catholics call the Magisterium. Traditions organize and discipline Biblical teaching in consistent, communal and historic ways. Choosing which tradition opens up the melancholy postmodern quandary—an intractable problem if the highest authority and end of tradition is human beings.

All of which means that the Spirit, a belief and encounter with an historically active, personal God, must surely be a consideration that shapes the Christian approach to international relations. If the tradition of the Christian faith is nothing more than a protracted theo-political Hobbesian spat, then these three traditions are some awfully sad sign posts. But if the Spirit is alive and active in history, guiding and reforming the people of God, then everything is changed. We become a people characterized by hope in troubled times.

Hope is not fatalist. Hugh Gusterson tells the story in Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War of fatalist Christian eschatologies embracing nuclear weapons as a fast-lane to the end of times. There might be good reasons to support the possession of weapons of mass destruction, but this is not one of them.

Nor is hope naive; it compels us to see tyranny and injustice and work for a better justice, a truer beauty and a more lasting peace. A personal, active God means none of it will ever be lost. None of it is meaningless.

Hope makes the present pregnant. It means no reconciliation is too hard, no system too complex or powerful, and no problem too intractable. Audaciously, gratuitously, God continues to act in the now of human history. He still shows the strength of his arm, still scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts and still pulls down the mighty from their seats. Still, he exalts the humble and meek, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away. We expect the miraculous in an Easter morning world.

So this is no time for perfunctory hand-wringing or smug Christian denunciations. We may be cloistered Benedictines or transformative neo-Calvinists, but a belief in the personal, powerful presence of God always resists apathy, cynicism and hopelessness. Hope is not a political monopoly. It is a Biblical virtue. And that hope, read in the Scriptures, understood in the tradition and encountered in the living God, shapes any Christian approach to international relations.

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Originally Published

date: February 11, 2011
publisher: Capital Commentary