Christian Ethics and International Affairs

by John C. Bennett

John C. Bennett was co-chairman of the Christianity and Crisis Editorial Board and president of Union Theological Seminary. He has contributed significantly to Protestant thinking on international affairs, communism, Catholicism and church relations.

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, August 5,1963. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Nuclear war would not only result in hundreds of millions of casualties and in the material destruction of nations; it would also probably destroy the institutions of freedom and the moral, cultural and political conditions on which our values depend. There is a moral necessity of shifting the emphasis from the fear of being destroyed to awareness of the moral meaning of our being destroyers.

Three elements of the Christian message should continually illuminate the mind of Christians as they deal with the problems of world politics.

(1) Each nation is under the judgment, providence and mercy of God. This is a corrective for the most common temptation of any nation—to make itself absolute. But the mere affirmation of an ultimate deity may have little effect, because it is easy for the nation to assume that such a deity is on its side, especially when the adversaries are avowed atheists.

To see the nation under God as revealed in Christ, however, gives a different perspective. God is no vague Almighty who can be made over in the image of one’s nation. God as he comes to us in Christ can be seen to be the Father and Lord of all communities of men, who has no favorites among the nations, who cares about justice, about the freedom of men to develop their capacities and to be true to their consciences.

Christians who affirm the transcendence of God above every human group and earthly power must also affirm their faith in the divine involvement in the history of mankind. The Incarnation is the central demonstration of this involvement. Christian understanding of God’s transcendence raises questions about the extent of the claims of every historical community or movement or ideal, but these questions are given clearer focus by the fact that they are asked in the light of the revelation of God’s solidarity with all men in Christ. The fact that the Church exists in every country points to the revelation that comes to each from beyond its history and culture, and it is another way of expressing God’s transcendence of the nation.

(2) The commandment of love for the neighbor, for all neighbors. Christians are expected to reflect in their lives God’s love for all mankind. This seems obvious, but it cannot be left unsaid or taken for granted. Love, in terms that are relevant to international politics, means caring for the welfare and the dignity of all—those at a great distance, those on the other side of every boundary, those whose interests may conflict with our national interests, those who are enemies or opponents. It must be translated in terms of empathy, humaneness, a sense of justice, the development of mutual relations between peoples.

Love should inspire Christians as they form or support policies, though of itself it does not determine policy. It should, however, set limits to policy. In this context love should set up a moral obstacle to any policy that assumes readiness to destroy the populations of other countries.

(3) The understanding of man that is implicit in Christian teaching about man’s creation in the image of God and the depth and universality of sin. Granting differences between traditions, there is still much that can be said by those who have learned to criticize the one-sided historical optimism of liberal Christianity.

The revival of Protestant theology and the events of our time have encouraged a view of man that respects human dignity but takes a sober view of historical developments. Panaceas and utopias are no longer credible. We now know we live with permanent problems that are the result of man’s finiteness and sin. The Christian warning is just as much against cynicism or a fatalistic pessimism as it is against confidence in over-all rational solutions of international problems.

At least two implications for foreign policy may be deduced from these convictions. Both have been illumined by the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. One is the recognition that schemes of world government are no short-cut to the solution of the problem of international anarchy. For three reasons: First, world community of the sort necessary to sustain an effective world government cannot be created by a constitutional fiat. (One of the strong points of the United Nations is that it is based upon a recognition of the given situation. This situation need not be static, and the moment the nuclear powers reach agreement on arms control or disarmament the UN can assume new functions that might be the functions of an incipient world government.) Second, no legal changes can of themselves change the location of the substantial forms of power, whether military, economic or demographic. Third, the road toward world government must not be taken under the illusion that concentration of power at the center would in itself be an ultimate solution, for it might raise new problems of a tyranny on a world scale or of a world-wide civil war to capture the centralized organs of power.

The second implication is a critical attitude toward pacifism as a self-sufficient political party. Pacifism as personal witness or even sometimes as the witness of a Church may serve as a corrective. But pacifism as a political party does not take account of the limits of what a government can do; nor does it take account of the need to find ways of checking power by power if the world is to preserve freedom of choice for nations.

What has come out of all of these considerations is often called Christian political realism, a position that recognizes the limits of rationality, the fact of finiteness and sin, and the reality of power that cannot be wished away but which must be checked and used. I have regarded myself as a Christian political realist. However, this realism has often gained too much momentum of its own and has not been kept under a sufficient degree of Christian criticism.

The original proclamation of this approach was against the background of a too moralistic or idealistic form of Christian social ethics. It emphasized the necessity of choosing between evils, and there was a genuine emancipation in the idea of taking responsibility for the lesser evil and living under the mercy of God. But years of living with this realism during a period in which most of the voices of moral criticism have been silent have too often made it little more than a rationalization of whatever has seemed necessary for Western strategy. What began as a corrective now stands in need of correction.

What are the implications of these theological and ethical convictions for the pressing problems of American foreign policy? I shall deal briefly with three areas: (1) The role of nationalism in the emerging nations; (2) The present conflict of ideologies; and (3) The dilemma of nuclear deterrence.

(1) Nationalism has a bad name in Christian circles in the West. It is associated with the familiar chauvinisms, the absolutizing of national sovereignty, the overripe nationalism of National Socialism and Fascism, the grandiose pose of General de Gaulle and American isolationism or self-righteousness. Nationalism in any of these forms must be criticized as a kind of idolatry.

But nationalism in the emerging nations has a constructive role—so long as it avoids idolatry and is open to accommodation and cooperation with neighboring states. The temptation to chauvinism is always present even in the new countries. However, nationalism may often be the means of overcoming tribal conflicts, providing the incentive for loyal and responsible citizenship, and causing people to sacrifice narrow interests for the welfare of the larger national community.

One of the most important meanings of nationalism is that it inspires movements for independence that may lead to significant forms of human freedom. One must walk warily here in view of the danger of the balkanization of a continent.

No Christian answer can be given to the question of which political units are viable or whether one kind of federation or another should become the political unit. These are all relative matters; each case must be discussed on its merits. Yet nationalism can be a great good when it inspires a particular national community to win freedom from external control for the development of its own national life.

Christians must preserve some detachment from the fierce passions of nationalism, but they should not reject the goal of independence that enlists these passions. They need not reject in principle all revolutionary violence, but they should seek to neutralize the hatred and vindictiveness that often accompany it. This is no easy task.

If the most extreme nationalists have the dynamism that is creating the new political community and Christians must choose between supporting their policies or detaching themselves from the forces that are realizing the aspirations of the nation, their dilemma is grave indeed. Both individuals and churches face this predicament. They must live with it and, without separating themselves from their people, find answers that may not satisfy the absolute partisan who claims that he is the only true nationalist.

(2) The relationship between Christian faith and ethics and the ideological conflict of East and West. There is no question that communism, as a total system of life and thought, and Christianity are in radical opposition. Rationalized political terror is the chief symptom of the evil in the Communist absolutism we reject. While much terror exists or is perpetrated in non-Communist nations today, it seldom becomes a system supported by an interpretation of history.

The struggle will continue within nations and across national boundaries between Christian faith and Communist faith. The religious aspect of the struggle must be carried on by Christians through their witness to the truth as they see it and by deeds of love.

I am concerned here especially with communism as an international force, and I want to address myself to the relationship of the churches to the Cold War as an ideological conflict. I have said on many occasions—usually I am scolded for saying it by American Rightists—that we should avoid identifying the conflict between Christianity and communism with the international conflict. One reason for this has become increasingly clear in recent months. The clash between Christianity and communism is a reality within the Communist nations, and nothing can handicap churches in those nations more than for them to appear to be allies of the West in the international struggle.

A few years ago it may have been plausible to dismiss this consideration on the ground that the leaders of the churches in the Communist countries, especially the Orthodox and Protestant leaders, were collaborators with their governments. Now I am convinced that, however much some of these leaders may be criticized on particular counts, their churches have in important instances preserved independent Christian vitality, and they remain the major organized force bearing witness to the ultimate criticisms of what intends to be a Marxist culture.

The role of these churches is not to serve the policy of the United States but to keep alive in their own societies a deep challenge to the official ideas of God, man and history. In the Soviet Union and in some of the Eastern European countries the Communist ideology is losing much of its power for post-revolutionary generations. We have reason to hope that the Christian churches in those countries, while they may have no direct political influence, will help many people to rediscover God and the true humanity of man.

Another reason for emphasizing the distinction between the international conflict and the religious conflict is that we need to avoid the hardening of differences between nations. Such hardening usually results when the passions of religion and of politics are united. Today we have new opportunities for constructive relationships with Communist countries, and we should be able to deal with them as human communities not fully controlled by any ideology.

One hopeful development in this area is the gradual change that has taken place in the Roman Catholic Church. That Church had seemed to be engaged in a holy war against communism as an ally of the West in its political conflict, but now it seems to have accepted the reality of coexistence. No diatribes against communism were issued by Vatican II. There are many indications that the Roman Church will no longer be a spiritual arm of the West in the Cold War. (The World Council of Churches has sought to avoid that role.)

It is significant that, while McCarthyism was in large measure a Roman Catholic phenomenon, today Catholic authorities seek to discourage Rightist movements. Unfortunately these movements now seem to be a Protestant phenomenon, though it is a sign of the health of Protestantism that its national institutions are under attack by these Rightists.

When we speak of ideologies I must note a development that has become very dangerous to our national sanity and to the peace of the world. It is a type of anti-communism distinguished by the following characteristics: it has no understanding of the causes of communism and emphasizes only self-defeating methods of opposing it; its starting point is a type of economic individualism that cannot tell the difference between the modest institutions of the welfare state in this country and the first stages of communism; and it closes minds to the changes that have taken place in the Communist world. This wild confusion is present in the minds of a small but financially powerful minority, though a much larger part of the population has a tendency to hold rigid ideas about the kinds of economic institutions in other nations with which we should cooperate.

Another problem is our obsession with fears of Communist military attack. A frontal military attack that would destroy the world the Russians hope to change makes no sense from the Communist point of view. These obsessive fears have crowded out all awareness of the degree to which our own immense military superiority is regarded as a threat by the Soviet Union. We have no empathy for the Soviet Union as a human community, and herein, too, lies a great danger to peace.

In discussing this American ideology it is important to emphasize how little the assumptions that govern our policies are publicly debated. People are afraid of being considered soft on communism if they raise serious questions about national attitudes and policies in the Cold War.

An important difference exists between our ideological blinders and those characteristic of the Communist world. Here they are not primarily the creation of the American Government. Indeed, those most responsible for our governmental policy seem to be struggling for freedom to maneuver against the limitations imposed on them by our popular ideology. In the Communist world, blinders are in large part the result of government education, propaganda and censorship.

Our churches, as members of the universal Christian community, may make their major contribution to better international relations by helping the American people to think with greater freedom about the world in which they live. They should tear off all Christian wrappings from the individualistic American ideology. In the context of the Church Americans should be helped to adjust to the fact that many nations with which we must cooperate are in revolutionary situations, and their governments are certain to be Leftist by our standards. Americans should be helped to see the world as it appears to the Communist nations and to take more seriously the changes that have taken place, especially in the Soviet Union, Poland, and even Hungary. On the political level the most important change in the Communist world is the split between Russia and China, but perhaps on the cultural level the fact of Poland has greater significance.

(3) The dilemma of nuclear deterrence. The dilemma is easily stated: The non-Communist world needs nuclear power to deter Communist nuclear power (to prevent nuclear blackmail and pressure in the interests of Communist expansion) ; but if we ever use our nuclear weapons, they are likely to destroy all that they defend as deterrents. The dilemma has another dimension: If the deterrent is to be credible, we must not give the impression that under no circumstances would the weapons ever be used.

We can no longer take comfort in the belief that the deterrent will certainly deter and that there will therefore be no need to use the weapons. The chief danger of nuclear war is that it might develop by escalation from a limited military operation.

Not being a pacifist, I cannot suggest an absolute solution of this problem. I can only present considerations that, if taken seriously, might result in the reduction of the number of occasions that could lead to war and in keeping down the degree of violence if war should come. This is not very satisfactory, but there is a vast difference between those who emphasize restraint and those who keep pressing for more provocative and reckless action.

Two aspects of nuclear war need to be emphasized. The first is that nuclear war would not only result in hundreds of millions of casualties and in the material destruction of nations; it would also probably destroy the institutions of freedom and the moral, cultural and political conditions on which our values depend. If we do not realize this, we are likely to say too easily, "Let us accept the casualties for the sake of freedom." But what if freedom is also a casualty?

Secondly I want to emphasize the moral necessity of shifting the emphasis from the fear of being destroyed to awareness of the moral meaning of our being destroyers. Talk about destroying the population centers of other countries springs from a combination of fatalism and callousness. There is much emphasis on a counterforce strategy in the Government, but many people are skeptical as to whether it would be possible to adhere to this. The tendency of both sides to stress invulnerable retaliatory forces undermines this more limited strategy.

Against this background I want to raise several questions.

How can we justify the assumption that we should, at a given point in a military conflict, initiate the use of nuclear weapons in order to avoid a conventional defeat? The possession of nuclear weapons that are kept to deter their use by the other side has some justification, but the moment we accept the actual possibility of our using them to initiate the nuclear stage of a war, we are taking upon ourselves an unexamined moral responsibility. We find ourselves thinking in strategic not moral terms, and we are not very realistic about the consequences of such a choice for the people we might be defending.

When will we cease threatening the use of ultimate violence every time there is a crisis involving Russia? We pride ourselves on being less ruthless than the Communists, but actually our threats seem to presuppose that any violent action is permitted, no matter how destructive, if it serves our political purposes. How is this different in principle from the Communist assumption that anything is justified if it serves the revolution?

When will we take seriously our moral responsibility for the effects of our actions upon the hundreds of millions of people who have no part in the decisions and who do not even share our view of the issues at stake? A demonic pretentiousness has developed that needs to be examined. There may have been and there may still be justification for our taking upon ourselves this responsibility in some cases, but there is a danger that it may become an unexamined habit. The same thing can be said of the decision to engage in nuclear tests that have consequences not foreseen by the scientists who plan them and affect distant nations that have no part in the decisions.

When will we begin to evaluate the world conflict in the light of the changes in the Communist world? This means, for one thing, reconsideration of the military threat to us in view of the fact that Mr. Khrushchev has a better understanding of the meaning of nuclear war than either the Chinese or some American Senators. This does not erase the need for a deterrent, but it may affect the degree of power that is needed. It may also help us to keep in view the risks of an unlimited nuclear arms race as compared with the risks involved in disarmament. Perhaps the most important practical point is the need to assure the Administration of support if it does secure agreements on nuclear tests and the reduction of arms. The danger is that such an agreement might not be upheld by the Senate.

Another consideration growing out of the changes in the Communist world is that new alternatives are available. The assumptions underlying our country’s attitudes and strategies were based upon the realities of Stalinism. We feared that if we let down our guard we would be inviting the extension of Stalinist terror from country to country. While we still need to preserve deterrent power in the non-Communist world, there can be a gradual change in the feelings on both sides concerning what is at stake in the Cold War.

Such a change may well go with a shift in emphasis from all-out nuclear deterrence to reliance on limited military methods and with a shift away from preoccupation with the military to a search for political and economic alternatives to communism. These shifts have already taken place to some extent, but as "our side" ceases to feel surrounded by a monolithic "slave world" the public may be ready to accept much greater changes in policy.

Though it is difficult to measure the effect on public opinion of the present dependence of our economy on defense spending, this is one factor of great importance in supporting the psychology of the cold war. I do not mean that we are confronted by a capitalistic plot to preserve the arms race. Rather, we face the combination of many local pressures to keep the factories open for the sake of employment. Such pressures can only be met by a national plan not now in sight.

I have moved here from the theological and ethical convictions that should guide the mind of the Church to many concrete issues about which there is no uniquely Christian guide.

I have concentrated on issues that require changes in assumptions. These issues call for wisdom on the part of policy-makers, but my chief concern is to counteract pressures upon the Government by vociferous elements in the public.

The churches at this point have a great responsibility not to advocate over-all idealistic solutions but to emphasize the distinctively Christian message that is relevant to these issues, to help their members to see the world without the characteristic American ideological blinders, to challenge many of the prevailing assumptions about the cold war and nuclear armaments, and to encourage the debate on public questions about which most people prefer to be silent. In this way our churches can be, more clearly than they are at present, part of the world-wide Christian community that never allows us to forget the humanity of those beyond the barriers that limit our understanding.