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“If God wills that it (the war) continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn from the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
These thoughts are rather unfashionable, and certainly politically incorrect, today – the thought that there are certain sins so objectionable to God that He is prepared to work great suffering on those responsible for them no doubt offends many modern thinkers. It is hard to imagine any current American political leader who would be prepared to advance such thoughts. But the fact is that Lincoln clearly believed in the notion that God abhors and judges sin of nations, not just of individuals.
What is also noteworthy is that earlier in his address Lincoln observed that the South wanted to “strengthen, perpetuate and extend” slavery and that the North merely “claimed no right more than to restrict the territorial enlargement” of slavery; in other words because the North did not abhor slavery sufficiently to be fundamentally opposed to it, its sin was indifference. That observation, tied to the lament that God had given “to both North and South this terrible war,” indicates that Lincoln believed that God wanted to punish both acts of commission and omission and in the case of the North, the North’s indifference to the suffering of slaves – and that God was delivering judgment on the North as well for this indifference.
Lincoln is arguably America’s greatest President. He is universally revered in the US and throughout the West for his great wisdom in steering the United States through its gravest hour. If he were alive today and applied the same principles what would be the national and international sins of the West – those Lincoln would fear would be the object of God’s wrath and judgment? Might he have argued that America’s costly wars in Vietnam and Iraq were the “woe due to those by whom the offence came”?
It is in this context I venture to suggest that critical mistakes, if not sins, have been committed by some countries in the West in the formulation of their foreign policy since the 2nd World War. It is my belief that Christ’s teachings have some profound statements to make in the formulation of Western foreign policy, which are designed to protect freedom.
“Blessed are the peacemakers”
The first concerns a reliance on military might over principle and morality. I vividly recall the triumphant “shock and awe” demolition of Baghdad in 2003 followed by President George W Bush’s claim that the war in Iraq was effectively over. I fear that we see a similar attitude being displayed now by NATO forces in the demolition of Tripoli. I should stress that I am not a pacifist and nor do I hold, for example, any brief for Colonel Gaddafi, indeed I loathe what he has done in Libya and the negative influence he has had throughout Africa.
I recognize the extreme dilemma the world has faced in dealing with dictators like Gaddafi but nevertheless my fear is simply that the West appears to trust more in its own military superiority than it does in the consistent moral force of principle. A resort to force seems to be the rapid default position of some countries in the West when their national interests are threatened and yet when force is crucially needed but there is no national interest at stake, as was the case in Rwanda, that superior force is not employed. The West’s failure to take any action to prevent, stop or minimise the genocides which took place in Zimbabwe in 1983 and Rwanda in 1994 are the modern day equivalent to the North’s indifference to slavery in Lincoln’s time.
Although Martin Luther King spoke these words over 40 years ago in the context of the Cold War, they are arguably even more applicable today:
“The large power blocs of the world talk passionately of pursuing peace while burgeoning defence budgets bulge, enlarging already awesome armies, and devising even more devastating weapons.”
I also wonder whether some of the new devastating weapons which were not around 40 years ago are even effective and perhaps may ironically make the West more insecure. Drones and Stealth bombers cannot prevent the atrocities we have seen perpetrated against civilians in the last decade and may even inflame terrorists to do more “remote control” killings of their own. My argument is not that the countries which have them should abandon these technologies but rather that I think it is misleading to think that these are primarily where the West’s security lies.
A related concern is that because the West trusts in its military might it pours a vast amount of its resources into the military rather than directing more of its resources into what ultimately are the root causes of most international turmoil today, namely poverty and a lack of education. Once again King is devastating:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programmes of social uplift is approaching spiritual death”.
I wonder how different the world would be if all the money paid to prop up and arm corrupt regimes had been, for example, spent on building a free press and in constructing schools and hospitals in the benighted countries some Western countries have fought wars in since the 2nd World War. I spoke at the outset about the recent survey done in the Middle East which shows that the United States is more unpopular there now than ever – in other words for all the billions of dollars spent in fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the root objective, namely to make the United States safer, has perhaps not been achieved. For so long as there is a perception that the West is motivated by self interest, such as securing sources of oil, rather than by a genuine desire to uplift the people of those regions the fertile ground for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations will grow. It seems to me that the West’s greatest long term security lies in doing what it can to remove the sting of grinding poverty and ignorance, in the breeding grounds of terrorism, which motivates terrorists and provides terrorist leaders with deep reservoirs of angry young men. That is why fair trade policies and development assistance, particularly investment in education – of both women and men – is so vitally important to the stability and security that the West seeks so desperately.
History shows that when raw military power is used aggressively in pursuit of a flawed cause it ultimately fails. All the military power of the Nazis, the Soviets, the Americans in Vietnam, the Rhodesians in Rhodesia against nationalist guerrilla forces and the Apartheid regime ultimately lost to the sheer will and courage of weaker forces who had a more just cause. Going back to Lincoln the American civil war is also instructive – the South clearly had the better Generals but that didn’t help them to prevail; the North had overwhelming economic might but initially it lost a series of battles. One could argue that it was only after the Emancipation Proclamation was effected on the 1st January 1863 that the North started to get the upper hand and major victories such as the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 gave new impetus to those on the side of right. The point is that mere military superiority alone is not sufficient to win wars; ultimately history shows that there needs to be a superior moral principle for a cause to prevail.
Some argue that if we are to prevent war and to deter evil regimes it is important that democratic nations should maintain military superiority; that in turn is used to justify massive military budgets. I do not advocate for a massive reduction in military spending but think at the very least that Western development budgets need to be substantially increased. And we need to remember that even the shocking state of ill-preparedness of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth in the face of rising Nazi power was ultimately sufficient to allow good to prevail over evil. In short in the most important war the world has waged in the last hundred years military under-spending by those on the side of right did not prevent God’s justice from prevailing.
By Senator David Coltart.
Excerpted from The Annual Acton Lecture on Religion and Freedom. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org