Christianity and the Status Quo

by Herbert Butterfield

>Herbert Butterfield, the distinguished British historian, was master of Peterhouse College at Cambridge University. His books include Christianity, Diplomacy and War and Christianity and History.

This article appeared in the Journal Christianity and Crisis, June 10, 1957. Used by permission. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


After World War I there emerged a form of international “idealism” which was gravely weakened by legalistic and pharisaical heresies. It involved a system which was very convenient for the French and the British. This form of internationalism was bound to as a gigantic machine for the freezing of the status quo.


After World War I there emerged a form of international "idealism" which was gravely weakened by legalistic and pharisaical heresies. It involved a system which was very convenient for the French and the British: It outlawed any attack by external powers on existing empires; it vetoed even international action on issues which such empires might regard as internal; and at the same time it rendered illegitimate for all the future any attempt on the part of a new power to build up similar empires on parallel methods. The resort to violence was condemned without regard to the provocation that might have been given, but protection was assured for imperial systems which were held together only by the latent operation of force. This form of internationalism was bound to function in fact, therefore, as a gigantic machine for the freezing of the status quo. An enemy might say of the system that the most unscrupulous experimenter in Realpolitik could not have devised a cleverer way of maintaining an empire which lacked the material force for its defense in a competitive world. With their bags full of plunder, France and Britain declared: "There shall be no more competition; there shall be no more stealing now."

The supporters of this type of internationalism were more virtuous than would appear from this account of the system—an account rather from the point of view of those who were not interested in its maintenance. Such supporters were not so clearly conscious of the end which the system served, though they were aware that they were parties to forms of imperialism which could only survive under a regime of stabilization and peace. They were virtuous in a way, for in politics there is some virtue in a power that marries its private interests to a universal cause, an international good. But they were unimaginatively pharisaical, because their internationalism coincided with their vested interests and, therefore, it was comparatively easy for them to be virtuous and to act as lovers of peace. The real test of the virtue of Britain and France was bound to come when they found themselves in a position analogous to that of the Hapsburgs in 1914—when, as declining empires, they would be faced with the decision whether they would consent to go under without making a last desperate fight.

Under the legalistic kind of internationalism described above, it is not possible to prevent issues and problems from developing to the point of desperation. Nor is it possible to prevent occasions from arising which will provide plausible opportunities for violent action on the part of a state or a people that feels itself the victim of injustice. The kind of internationalism which implies the legalistic defense of the status quo is, in fact, more calculated to provoke a sudden act of violence than the system of diplomatic relations which existed before 1914 and which allowed for a greater degree of "give-and-take." In the latter case men do learn that it may be necessary to concede something in order to release the tension; they do not simply dig themselves in, relying on the whole international order to halt any attempt to change the status quo.

In the hands of men who evaded the real moral issues and who were narrower in their comprehension than so many of the statesmen of the nineteenth century, it is a question whether the established form in internationalism produced a single new idea of any significance between 1919 and 1939. It is a question, in fact, whether before 1914 there did not exist diplomatic methods for meeting crises which were lost or rendered inapplicable owing to legalistic prejudices in the after-period. Let it never be suggested in any case that between 1919 and 1939 a regime was established in Europe which made it more difficult for aggressors and dictators to arise—more difficult for men to resort to the politics of the coup d’etat or to take the world by surprise—than in the preceding generations.

The Franco-British adventure in the Suez has taken the mask away from the internationalism which seeks to "police" the status quo. But the leaders of the Suez enterprise have perhaps been too uncharitably condemned, for they merely brought the older system to its climax (which happens also to be its reductio ad absurdum )—they merely carried a stage further the kind of policy they had been pursuing all their lives. Precisely because it was one of the points of weakness in the older system, "colonialism" has become a primary issue, and three large sections of the globe—the Communists, the United States and the Afro-Asian bloc— have made their separate and varying attacks upon that order of things. And the fact that Britain feels that she has conceded much already, and that she has performed many acts of generosity, is no answer to those who insist that she had no right to what she possessed, no right to the things which she was pretending to give away. Colonies do not present the only issue, however, and Nasser’s own attack has been extended against very indirect forms of "colonialism"; nor is it clear that he would allow himself to be humoured or bribed into becoming a satellite of the West which after all is not so very different a matter. The point is that we are in the position of Metternich—and Time is bound to be against us— in the face of the new forces that have emerged in the world, we merely seek to hold the fort, to dam the flood, to cling to the existing status quo.

There are some who believe that time and custom, prescriptive right and continuity of possession are good grounds for retaining territory or economic privileges or various forms of property. The war of 1914—in its effects on the Hapsburg Empire or on Germany’s overseas possessions, for example—shook the very basis of such "legitimist" doctrine; and in a wider sense France and Britain should have the credit for the democratic ideas and the nationalist teaching which are working to their detriment at the present day.

We are still faced with the question: how can we have an international order that will not simply freeze the status quo by its legalistic insistence on the sanctity of the existing order? Even in the eighteenth century it was recognized that the internal development (perhaps the economic development) of one state or another might change the distribution of power in the world and change even the distribution of rights, so that treaties would need revision. Today the existence of an international order depends on our discovery of some method (other than war or revolution or similar acts of violence) for the changing of the status quo.

The Communists are bound to have the strategic advantage if they are promoting change, with the wind at their back, while the Western powers are desperately struggling merely to keep the barriers firm. Since public opinion, or world opinion, or the opinion of governments in general has become a powerful factor in the situation, and since the West must depend very much on capturing the opinion and the sympathy of what might be called the uncommitted powers, our future is going to depend on the kind of internationalism which does not attempt to freeze the existing situation in a legalistic manner but takes the lead in predicting and preparing the necessary changes in the status quo.

On this view England and France were at fault in that, years ago, they did not foresee how precarious was their situation in the Suez. They ought to have placed the Canal on an international basis so clear and unobjectionable that Nasser would have had neither the motive nor the opportunity for behaving as he did in 1956.

One of the dangers presented by the Afro-Asian peoples—and indeed by all countries which are newly awakened—is that of excessive nationalism. Yet excessive nationalism is just one of those things which expand through any effort to repress them; it is quickened by any suggestion of "colonialism" and stimulated even by the memory of such a thing, and it resents paternalist treatment. There is poor hope for the world if the newly arisen peoples share the infatuations and make the mistakes which characterized the European states at the period when they were at the same stage of development—the same stage of political consciousness.

Yet while the Afro-Asian peoples are still in a sense unachieved— still not formidable as autonomous and well-constituted powers—there is always a danger that if the Western nations withdraw their interest from them, a vacuum will be formed, a vacuum which Soviet Russia will infallibly try to fill. If "colonialism" exists it provokes resentment; if it exists merely in economic forms that seem more appropriate to our age, it is still going to lead to difficulties, and danger is going to arise if the Western nations imagine that all problems can be solved by the power of money. It would be to our interests if the Arab nations were thoroughly modern states, completely independent and autonomous. In fact, their genuine transformation and development are things that cannot happen as quickly as we want them to happen. If they were free, strong, independent modern states, or if they formed a powerful autonomous bloc, the great Russian mass is so very much on the top of them and the danger of the Communist kind of "colonialism" is so real, that nothing could prevent their being on our side in the event of a conflict with communism. Nothing could prevent their being on our side except the suspicion that we retained designs of direct or indirect "colonialism," or the memory of humiliations suffered in the past.

The genius of Britain, discovered both in the internal relations of the home country and in the various parts of its actual Empire, is a curiously flexible method for the changing of the status quo—a method which prevented crises from reaching the desperation point, ensured the gradual development of liberty, and provided a model of the kind of change which is just in time to anticipate the resort to violence. It has never been easy to secure the extension of the same technique to the realm of international affairs; and in some respects it is possible that the traditional diplomatic methods (or a continuation of the development they were undergoing already) were more capable of the required flexibility than the legalistic methods which, tended to characterize the more recent types of internationalism. This would seem to be one of the things which the world requires at the present day. And a Christianity that disengages itself from the defense of the status quo is well fitted to carry on the required conflict—the fundamental moral conflict of our time—the conflict against legalistic and pharisaical notions of righteousness.