Is it ever right for individuals or nations to intervene in the affairs of others?
Some Christians are pacifists or isolationists. They think the use of force is wrong – always, or most times – and we should not intervene in the affairs of others, be they individuals or nations. Christians who are pacifists and non-interventionists by conviction, based on their careful study of Scripture, is one thing.
But far too often – especially when it comes to intervention among nations – I find some of these folks putting political ideology first, and biblical exegesis second. In fact far too often I see them putting isogesis first, and sound, biblical thinking second. They frequently massacre Scripture to make their case. That is not how Christians should be operating, on this or any other issue.
The other day I did a piece on just war theory. What I said there applies here: whole libraries are filled with books dealing with these matters, so a brief introductory piece will only take us so far, and more articles will be needed to do these topics justice. See that earlier piece here: billmuehlenberg.com/2022/03/26/just-war-theory/
The various issues of international relations, geopolitics, war among nations and the like are complex and multifaceted. When it comes to whether one nation can intervene in another, various options have been offered over the centuries. I mentioned the pacifist and isolationist options. They are not identical but have some overlap.
Realism is another option, coming in various versions. Classical realism is especially championed by Hans Morganthau and his influential 1948 volume Politics Among Nations (now in its 7th edition). Other names, such as Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan can be mentioned. Power struggles among sovereign states will always exist, and national self-interest is a key determinant in how nations tend to proceed. Wars will occur, but they can be minimised by careful use of diplomacy.
Another view, sometimes called democratic idealism, states that at times free and democratic states can intervene elsewhere, especially if nearby threats to freedom and democracy are occurring. The earlier US foreign policy position as enunciated in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 is one expression of this, warning European powers to stay clear of New World nations.
All these positions come in various forms, and some can at times overlap with others. I do not want to get into the fine details of politics and international law here, but just try to look at some general questions and some biblical principles that might help us out as we approach these issues. And two obvious biblical themes that are relevant here are justice and love of neighbour.
Of course how all that might work out when it comes to international relations and power politics is not easily decided. But one can begin on a smaller scale at least. Love of your neighbour and concerns about justice can often mean intervening in various ways.
Unless one is a die-hard pacifist or hyper-isolationist, most caring persons – and most caring Christians – WILL sometimes get involved in the affairs of others. For example, you might see some complete stranger walking in the park, set upon by two thugs. Is just walking by and letting her be assaulted the loving thing to do? It seems the parable of the Good Samaritan might have something to tell us here.
Many more examples could be mentioned. A concerned father might be rightly worried that his young daughter is in with the wrong crowd, involved in illicit drug taking and the like. He may well feel justified to locate her and physically remove her from this place of danger.
Sure, in cases like these, the ideal is normally to have delegated authority – the police – using force and doing the interventionism. But that is not always feasible – they may be nowhere near, and by the time they do arrive, a rape or murder may have already happened, or a drug overdose may have occurred.
And police powers within nations often can also involve intervention at times – even when no actual crime is taking place. A tip-off about a household next door that seems to be involved in building bombs for potential future terror attacks would be case of a legitimate ‘first strike’ intervention by the police. Preemptive actions such as this might well save many lives. Sometimes waiting until an aggressor acts may result in more harm than good – in more deaths and injuries.
But plenty of ethical minefields arise here as well. For example, is it ever morally justified for the authorities to make use of entrapment procedures? Is it OK for a policewoman to pretend to be a hooker or a drug dealer to trap potential customers? This too is a sort of ‘first strike’ arrangement. No crime has yet happened, but the aim is to reduce or prevent other crimes from occurring.
While things might get a bit trickier in international relations, some of the same ideas or principles can apply here. Is it ever right for one nation to intervene in the affairs of other nations? If so, when and why? And politics will always play in such considerations. As is sometimes said, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It depends on what side of the political fence you happen to be sitting on in a given conflict.
We have seen plenty of discussion and debate on these things over the past month with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I have already stated my position on this in various articles: no ruler is ever fully pure – or evil – in most cases. But sadly I have seen far too many folks – including far too many Christians – fully siding with Putin and fully convinced that the rape of Ukraine is somehow justifiable. I find their views appalling.
And it would be nice if some consistency would be shown here. That is, I have noted that some of the folks most strongly arguing against any foreign intervention have at the same time either supported or winked at Putin’s intervention (invasion) of Ukraine. They seem to think the latter is peachy, and even justified, all the while trying to tell us how wrong and even sinful it is to intervene in the business of other sovereign states.
As I said above, this is when I see political ideology trumping clear thinking and faithfulness to Scripture. Some of these believers are so certain of the evils of Zelenskyy and the virtues of Putin that they have become completely one-eyed, and they start to rival cultists in their twisting of Scripture and their pushing of agendas.
I understand that nothing that I have said here so far provides a clear way forward on all these matters. But that was not my intention. I simply raised a few issues and asked a few questions. The point is, the thinking and prayerful Christian does need to think long and hard about such matters.
What does being a Good Samaritan actually look like in practical terms? Does it mean putting money in the hands of every beggar we find on our city streets? Does it mean getting involved when you come upon a husband beating his wife, or two schoolkids having a punch up? Does it mean withholding parts of our taxes because of certain government policies that you do not like?
As to international relations, is it ever right to take preemptive action – even military action – to prevent greater carnage and bloodshed further down the road? Can more or less free and democratic nations ever take overt or covert steps to help a struggling nation move toward democracy and away from tyranny? Is it morally defensible for a nation to sit back and turn a blind eye to other nations being invaded and levelled to the ground? Is it ever right to use military might to threaten other states into seemingly good outcomes? Can nations align themselves, at least temporarily, to help stop tyranny and aggression?
Hundreds of such questions arise here. Dozens of ethical, biblical, philosophical and political issues arise that need to be addressed. As I say, this piece is mainly intended to get us thinking and reflecting on such matters. To affirm the love of neighbour and the need for justice is one thing. Christians fully believe in both. But how these things work out on the personal, the local, the national, and the international levels is not always clear.
One can opt for a one-size-fits-all approach, such as, ‘we never should intervene anywhere at any time’. But life is almost always much more complex and difficult in a fallen world with its mixture of good and evil to take such simplistic and predetermined positions on such matters.
Just as some personal situations we encounter may require us to get involved – and some not – so too some geopolitical situations may require democratic states to intervene, and some not. Having the wisdom to know when we should and when we should not get involved is a big part of the equation. And folks will differ on the right way forward.
So, having probably raised far more questions here than answers, let me remind you that future articles will look at some of these issues in greater detail. I will also seek to draw upon various specific biblical principles and texts that can be brought to bear on them. So stay tuned.
In a world of moral and mental confusion, prayerful and thoughtful Christians are needed to help make sense of it all, and offer possible steps in the right direction.