Not Yet: Biblical Realism And Power Politics

Rooted in the recognition of human sinfulness, biblical realism is an antidote to the utopian ideals of the Enlightenment.

The crisis faced by a handful of democracies in a sea of tyrannies has become more severe today than it was in 1938. The ruling elites of the Soviet Union command far more military power than did Adolph Hitler even in the days of his triumphs. The ideology which drives their conduct is far more attractive to influential intellectuals in the West, and more broadly expounded by them, than was the ideology of National Socialism. Why does biblical realism, which nourishes Jews and Christians, seem twice in the same century so ineffective in awakening the spirit of the West?

I take my text from two remarkable collections of essays by Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, (1940) and Christian Realism and Political Problems, (1953). The lessons which this greatest of American theologians since Jonathan Edwards sought to teach seem to have been quickly forgotten. There seems to have been an almost universal relapse into the sentimentality, moralism, and utopian hopes which Niebuhr strove mightily to banish. About the actual elites of the Soviet Union, religious officials too often choose to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Concerning the United States, by contrast, and especially as directed against government officials, business leaders, and military officers, there is rage. The culture of the United States is denounced by the religious right for the thirteen million abortions performed since 1972, for the crass pornography of such television shows as Dallas, and for the broad disregard of the religious and moral sensibilities of many millions of citizens. It is regularly denounced by the religious left for its alleged consumerism, racism, sexism, and imperialism. Not only have important intellectual elites, especially in communications, the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and religion coalesced into an “adversary culture;” worse, so many who teach the young and inform our political culture appear to quiver with self-hatred. Some who urge us to be “understanding” toward Soviet elites are quite far from showing “understanding” toward our own.

Of a culture which so vigorously hates itself, not much that is truly discerning or healingly creative can be expected. This is the fundamental reason why so much political “activism” in the United States seems to end in “burn out,” feelings of helplessness, and apathy. Its origins do not lie in realistic love.

To be sure, all the American critics of the United States claim to be, and are, intent upon “improving” the United States. Abstractly, this is a laudable aim. Still, one has every right to question the underlying vision toward which they wish to move the United States, and to examine the hidden standard by which they measure American realities. For not every set of ideals applied to a culture is either apt or just. A father’s disappointment in a child may, or may not, be based upon the real possibilities of that child. Many of the worst sins of human beings are committed in the name, not of vice, but of misplaced ideals. Indeed, this is the very sin which many of the most bitter American critics of their own country lodge against it; viz., that it tries to impose upon itself and the world an impossible or unworthy ideal.

Biblical realism has always avoided both cynicism and apathy through holding to an ideal vision of human life, as this ideal has been handed down to the generations through the Bible and the daily life of those who meditate on it. This ideal of human life, nourished by Jewish and Christian realism, is tempered by recognition of the unavoidable sinfulness of each one of us, individually and in our multiple communities. It is not an ideal of sinlessness but, rather, an ideal hammered into strength by humility, contrition, and mercy.

For every true idealism, of course, there is a false. For Jews and Christians, at the root of the false always lies self-hatred. That is why the Commandment of Love has been so shrewdly articulated, both in the Old Testament and in the New. We are pointedly instructed to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The form of this commandment is ironic, for an appropriate self-love is extremely difficult to reach. We are not inherently very lovable; more exactly, those resources in ourselves which are made in the image of our Creator, and which are, therefore, worthy of love, are typically covered over and distorted by our own errant predilections, habits, attitudes, and choices. Barnacles gather and disfigure in us what the Creator Himself first fashioned as a subject of beauty. It is not easy for us, seeing ourselves, to forgive ourselves. In another irony, therefore, we are not instructed to “forgive others as we forgive ourselves” — advice which would end in massive destructiveness. We are taught to ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God must forgive us, before we can forgive ourselves. We are asked to do what is actually easier, to forgive others, rather than to do what we find so difficult, to forgive ourselves.

Pope John Paul II showed the true depth of his orthodoxy when, in his very first encyclical, he wrote that the first name of God is not justice but mercy. The Pope discerned astutely that mercy is the word most needed by our contemporaries, since a standard of justice alone nourishes self-destruction. The most distinctive mark of a God of Judaism and Christianity, Aquinas remarked, is in fact misericordia, God extending his heart to those in misery. If God were solely just, He would not be God. The power to forgive, not by falsifying our sins but by effectively taking them away through a generosity impelled by His own creative love, reveals the inner nature of our Creator as nothing else does. The Hebrew language says that “the bowels” of God are “moved with compassion,” that is, from His innermost being. It is in this image we have been made.

Alas, it is also this image that has, in our own age, been distorted by pride. Boasting of our thirst for justice, glorying in a lust for perfection, we hold all things human, including ourselves, to impossible standards. The resultant self-hatred poisons everything we touch. Such social reforms as we achieve are, therefore, characterized by excess: by ugly and self-defeating passions, and by the slow spreading of the noxious gases of righteousness. Frequently, the evils which flow from our reforms are worse than, or as bad as, the abuses we set out to correct.

The key to our difficulty, as Niebuhr discerned, is the uncritical insinuation of certain ideals of the Enlightenment into the substance of Jewish and Christian faith. Jewish and Christian faith teach us to expect the persistence of human sinfulness until the very Last Day. By contrast, certain strands of Enlightenment thinking taught many Westerners, including believers, a false virtue of hope. This is the hope for worldly justice, first individual and rational, and then also collective and institutional. All hopes for this worldly perfect justice reveal the preeminence of the Enlightenment over biblical realism.

Biblical realism is also characterized by hope. But orthodox hope is a very modest hope. It teaches us an important distinction between false and true hope. It is false hope to believe that individuals or worldly orders will ever escape the need for God’s mercy. It is true hope to believe that God wishes us wisely to bring out from history more of its creative possibilities than have ever been realized before, while recognizing that the power of evil, the lie, and distorted passion will not by such real social progress be defeated, but all the more concentrated, subtle, and dangerous. Evil is not so much eliminated from human life as checked, balanced, and by at least a little turned to creative purpose. Much that first seems to be progress turns swiftly into decline. The barbarity unleashed in the twentieth century has disconfirmed Enlightenment theories. It has not violated the expectations of biblical realism.

Consider, from a Jewish point of view, the still not ended sufferings of the Jewish people down the ages of history. The precariousness of the state of Israel, subjected at the United Nations to an onslaught of unparalleled hatred, is a lesson for our age, for evil musters its fury against her. Impossible standards, met by no other nation in that region or in the world, are set before her. Her incredible achievements of liberty, prosperity, and sheer civilized beauty are seldom accredited as one of the great accomplishments (in so short a history) of all times. The fate of Israel confounds the Enlightenment. By contrast, authentic Jewish and Christian realism do not expect life to be fair. Israel survives not solely by its moral and cultural brilliance, but by a clear-eyed discernment of power politics. Such is the expectation of Jewish and Christian realism.

Consider, from a Christian point of view, the fate willed for His son by the Father of all. Christians do not conclude from the crucifixion of Jesus, for reasons of the power politics of the Roman Empire, that our Father in heaven will remove Christians from the necessity to confront power politics. Nor are Christians enjoined to collaborate with their executioners. When unjust aggressors assault the innocent, Christians cannot with Pilate wash their hands of responsibility, thus assuring that Christ be crucified again. The lesson of the bold-meek submission of Jesus to the will of his Father is not that evil must always be consented to without struggle. It is that God will no more exempt his other children from the evils of history than He exempted His only Son. Those who love Christ will not willingly let others suffer his fate. To aid the innocent, on the contrary, they will move as one, lest Christ be again crucified with their complicity. Christ showed that even when injustice does it worst, the Father accepts its victims into His hands. He did not instruct us to join the executioners, as if Pilate were to become our model. Against organized evil, Christians must struggle with every energy they possess.

These are complex themes. It is necessary to begin with them in order to discern from the depths what biblical realism demands of Jews and of Christians in the present crisis. Some have said that human survival is at stake. This is a grievous error. For much more basic than human survival is human fidelity. As Sidney Hook has reminded us, the person who says that survival is his highest goal has already announced that there is a price at which he will betray every principle. Such a person has already advertised for blackmail and suitors will knock at his door in droves. Their contempt will disclose that even his survival will not only not be assured but held cheap.

The soul of the West, its sole meaning, is that it has been chosen by the Creator to embody in its poor institutions the yeast which God intends slowly to transform the world. Losing its soul, the West will neither survive nor be worth survival. Yet at this very moment, an enemy more powerful than Hitler has long since diagnosed Western liberalism, its capitalist values and its institutions, as the focus of evil in history. This power has many times declared that capitalism must be destroyed if the dialectic of history is to reach its appointed term. It holds to “Peaceful coexistence” only as a tactic, until a divided and demoralized foe falls like a ripe fruit into the hands of history’s agent, the elites of the Communist Party U.S.S.R.

It is essential to be clear about this. The crisis of the pre-sent has been set in place not by the people of Russia, nor even by the imperial traditions of Russian thought and policy. It has been established in the capital of Russia by a small elite: the fourteen families of the Soviet Politburo, the three hundred members of the Communist Party Central Committee, and the leading circles of that Party, the KGB, and the Red Army. Shrouded in secrecy and protected by legions of spies and armed guardians, walled off against information and ideas by an unprecedented apparatus of thought control, the few millions (or, perhaps, mere hundred thousands) in this ruling elite are not, however, the innermost location of the crisis. The heart of the crisis lies in doctrine.

Jews and Christians, above all, should be able to understand this. But, of course, living in a free and pluralistic world in which “doctrine” has a quite different operational meaning, they do not (sometimes willfully do not) affect to understand it at all. It is by no means clear that individual members of the Communist, KGB, and Army elites in the U.S.S.R. truly believe Marxist-Leninist doctrine in their hearts, in such wise that they would be faithful to it from conviction even in a setting of pluralism and liberty. They do not function in such a setting. Whatever the state of their souls (which we may leave to God to judge), operationally they follow this doctrine to the letter. Their careers depend upon it, as do their lives.

Communist doctrine not only legitimates every move such elites make and the entire context of their making it. Communist doctrine also regulates and informs their every move, keeping them clear about their purposes and their tactics and their manner of proceeding. There is nothing which has not been thought out. Furthermore, this doctrine is expressed not solely in a body of principles, abstract injunctions, and propositional rigidities. It has been designed for praxis. It is a code of behavior. It is (so to speak) a moral vision for action. Its single-minded justification is the right and the duty of Communism to destroy capitalism in order to triumph in history beyond any conceivable challenge. Anything which advances that good, anything, is not only permissible; it is obligatory.

The secret to the power of Marxist-Leninist doctrine is its ability to unlock the riddle of history. It simplifies moral choice. What advances Communism is good. What retards it is both evil and marked for destruction. Before this vision, all human history is an open book. Good and evil are clearly identified. Every action either advances history upon its inevitable course or retards it. The single moral obligation is to advance, sometimes by tactical retreat when so obliged by momentarily superior power, and always by steadfast planning and preparation for inexorable victory. Such a doctrine empowers individuals with a force greater than the individual, with (as it were) that force of inevitability which is called history.

Who can blame those who believe such an interpretation for being much consoled by the relentless advance of Soviet power since 1941? Did the Soviet Union not defeat the greatest army in history from the bloody defense of Stalingrad to the glorious advance into the heart of the West in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Belgrade? Did not the Soviet Union cleverly outmaneuver the greatest power to come out of World War II, the United States, in the days of its unrivalled preeminence, until it was reduced in size to no more than an equal by the time of Salt I in 1974? Has not the land-locked USSR today the world’s largest navy? Are not her officers active on every Continent? Does anybody dare to burn Soviet embassies or assassinate Soviet officials abroad? A believer in Communism must find it difficult to discern disconfirmations of the underlying logic of history. The West today shows every sign of confusion, decadence, and demoralization. The rush to appease superior determination is tangible.

Thus, in 1984, on the death of the inventor of psychiatric torture for dissidents, the leader under whose regime a daring plot to assassinate a Slavic pope was elaborately set in motion, and a leader who made no apology — quite the opposite — for shooting down an unarmed Korean airliner, the world did not dare to rejoice as it rejoiced upon the death of Adolph Hitler. On the contrary, a candidate for the presidency of the United States mourned the passing of Yuri Andropov as a realistic and good man, praying that another like him might be chosen:

It is a modern tragedy that one of the Soviet Union’s most intelligent and realistic leaders has served and died during the administration of one of the most ill-informed and dangerous men ever to occupy the White House. . . .

We can only hope and pray that a realistic leader will come forward in the Soviet Union and that the American people will end Ronald Reagan’s reign of error in 1984.

This was no Party apparatchik speaking; this was a former Senator of the United States, a religious man, the estimable George McGovern, a follower by only twenty-four years of John F. Kennedy. Could a Communist believer be faulted for seeing the handwriting on the wall? Anything will be forgiven. Anything will be forgotten. In the West. clearly, only power talks.

That is the final secret of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. It is purely and nakedly about power — a specific power, the armed and terrorist power of the Communist Party USSR. The inner law of history is power, armed power. That is the only truth. Everything else is lie, and about everything else the lie must be systematic, in order to afford environmental disguise. Any other sense of truth, Lenin gave instruction, is bourgeois:

                Is there such a thing as Communist ethics?

Is there such a thing as Communist morality? Of course there is. Often it is made to appear that we have no ethics of our own, and very often the bourgeoisie accuse us Communists of repudiating all ethics. This is a method of shuffling concepts, of throwing dust in the eyes of the workers and peasants. In what sense do we repudiate ethics and morality?

In the sense that they were preached by the bourgeoisie who declared that ethics were God’s commandments. We, of course, say that we do not believe in God, and that we know perfectly well that the clergy, the landlords, and the bourgeoisie spoke in the name of God in order to pursue their own exploiters’ interests. Or instead of deducing these ethics from the commandments of God, they deduced them from idealistic or semi-idealistic phrases, which were always very similar to God’s commandments.

We repudiate all such morality that is taken outside of human class concepts. We say that this is deception, a fraud, which clogs the brains of the workers and peasants in the interest of the landlords and capitalists.

We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interest of the class struggle of the proletariat. Our morality is derived from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.

And what is this class struggle? It is — overthrowing the Czar, overthrowing the capitalists, destroying the capitalist class. . . . We subordinate our Communist morality to this task. We say: “Morality is that which serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the toilers around the proletariat, which is creating a new Communist society.

Thus, when Konstantin Chernenko, appearing quite swiftly as successor to Andropov (whose state of health had for seven months been shrouded in a tissue of lies), spoke to the world from his new eminence, he paid tribute to the doctrine by which he would be guided:

The strength of our party is in its unity, adherence to Marxism-Leninism, ability to develop and guide the creative activity of the masses, to unite them ideologically and organizationally, under the guidance of the tested Leninist principles and methods.

There are many Western humanists and religious thinkers who do not read Marx and Lenin so boldly. They claim to be anti-Stalinist, sometimes even anti-Soviet; nonetheless, they cling like the Soviets to Marxism-Leninism as the true doctrine by which to interpret history. They seem to hold that something went wrong in the Soviet Union. They claim to possess a vision of Marxist-Leninism superior to that of the Stalinists, according to which Communism is a form of humanism rooted in “the young Marx.” They fail to understand that what informs every tissue of Soviet power and Soviet institutions is relentless fidelity to Marxism-Leninism. There is nothing the Soviets do that Marx and Lenin have not explicitly commanded and certainly licensed. What is wrong with Marxism-Leninism is not its practice in the U.S.S.R. What is profoundly wrong is its doctrine. Claiming to be “scientific,” Soviet praxis is suffused with correct doctrine. Those who read Marx and Lenin for instruction in humanism overlook the fundamental reliance of both thinkers upon naked power, combat, and inexorable triumph. There is in Marxism-Leninism no seeking after truth, no demand for a free marketplace of ideas, no permission for dialogue, dissent, and individual intellectual liberty. Class is more important than individuality. The collective must always be preferred to the individual. The power of Communist arms must take precedence over any and all scruple. There is only one truth, and all else is the domain of the lie: POWER.

By contrast, Jews and Christians of the liberal West are extremely ambivalent about power. Some would like to believe that in a world of reason and virtue power would play no role. Most know that that is absurd. Since the West cannot think clearly about power, neither wishing to make it the be-all of everything nor a factor wholly unconsidered, the present contest is asymmetrical. For it is by no means essential to those who cherish institutions of cultural pluralism that history must be solely organized on principles of cultural diversity. Our idea of diversity is so far-reaching that we could comfortably accept a law-abiding, peaceful Soviet Union behind its Iron Curtain, self-isolated in its own thought-control. Nor is it essential to those who cherish market economies to insist that the U.S.S.R., were it to choose to retard its own economic development through unworkable institutions, should also embrace free markets. Nor is it, finally, essential to those who cherish democratic polities, defending the institutions which protect individuals, free associations, and other fundamental rights, that the U.S.S.R. should become a liberal society. Without internal contradiction, liberal societies can genuinely practice laissez-faire. To be sure, many Westerners hold that liberal institutions exhibit “the natural system of liberty,” open to all human beings everywhere. But no liberal must obey an injunction from history (or any other source) commanding the destruction of socialism. True, Stalin nervously feared that Roosevelt and Truman, having defeated Hitler and Tojo and in possession of the atom bomb and the world’s greatest military force, would next march upon the USSR. But this was a case of a Communist ascribing to liberals his own sense of moral obligation.

It is widely recognized in the world that, if the Sahara were socialized, in twenty years there would be a shortage of sand. Yet most Westerners hold, from conviction, that if a nation is so foolish as to embrace socialism, that is its own prerogative and misfortune. Laissez-faire is the underlying principle, repaired to in the West both by the left and by the right. Those few who believe in “crusades” to liberate “captive nations” are sharply and publicly rebuked.

Indeed, the Soviets themselves know that “peaceful coexistence” is the dearest illusion of liberals. “They will sell us the rope by which we will hang them,” Lenin astutely observed. What is for the West a principle is for Communist doctrine a tactic. Communist doctrine holds that, in the end, history has already decided for Communism. It would be better, so those hold who grasp that doctrine, for Westerners to “move with the tide of history,” to “assist in the revolution,” and, sooner rather than later, submit to the inevitable. The only hopeless course, they hold, is to resist.

The non-doctrinal peoples of the West, of course, are loathe to ascribe power to doctrine. More exactly, they find the attribution of internal power to mere doctrine incomprehensible. They themselves are permissive, experimental, pragmatic. They “hang loose” and abhor doctrinal rigidity of any sort. Furthermore, they fail to grasp the precise power of a doctrine of praxis. For that power lies in putting the supremely practical goal of the advance of Communist power first, so that that doctrine can appear to be, in tactical movement and detail, quite pragmatic and non-doctrinaire. The doctrine of Communism is not “doctrinaire.” Its very substance is the pragmatism of power.

A pragmatic civilization nourished on Kant and the Continental Enlightenment finds this precise sort of doctrine outside its experience. Kant wrote one critique of pure reason, another of practical reason. Marxism-Leninism allows no such distinction. In important ways, it is a pre-Enlightenment mode of perceiving. In its view, doctrine aims at praxis, and practice is informed by doctrine. The eyes of students are trained to observe the “correlation of forces” and to act so as to make Communism triumph. That is the only rule of morality. There is no other principle by which practice is to be judged moral or immoral. Truth itself is constituted by the victory of the revolution, that is, by the triumph of Soviet power. Anything which does not serve that triumph is a lie against history. Every victory confirms the truth. Every seeming defeat obscures the real structure of history, but only for a time. The student will see.

Because Westerners do not take Communist doctrine seriously, because so many find it simply incomprehensible, outside their own modes of perceiving, they are easily deceived. Given the resources of free inquiry in the West, this deception can only be called self-inflicted. Its secret springs must be found, not in intellect, but in the will. In this, too, the Soviet analyst rejoices as a happy confirmation of his inevitable triumph.

The crisis in which we find ourselves, therefore, springs from the asymmetry between Communist realism and biblical realism. Those guided by the former seem to perceive reality more quickly and more deeply than those guided by the latter. Biblical realism, on the record, seems to engender a prolixity of illusions and to weaken the will. How can this be?

The fact itself, first of all, is an immense scandal. It affords, on the other hand, a measure of consolation. The single-minded pursuit of power undeniably has its own fascination and attraction, especially for intellectuals who must otherwise claim the quite heroic virtues of a disinterested service of truth. It affords such persons an analytical power, certainly, and feeling of participation in action which cannot be claimed by their brethren. This is easier to maintain, of course, outside a Marxist-Leninist society, where it is one option among many, and where one need not make every decision accordingly. (“The main difference I see between Poland and the West,” a former Marxist émigré recently said, “is that here you have so many Marxists.”) From inside a Marxist-Leninist system, at least a million dissidents have fled to the West to escape from the closed world of the doctrine of power. More than carefree Westerners can imagine, a life committed to the laws of brute power levies costs on intellect, heart, and soul which are unendurable. We too easily forget the annihilation of spirit commanded by Marxism.

By contrast, as conservatives and fundamentalists in the West have long shouted into the gale of liberalism, human liberty is an unfinished blessing. Those who think that it is liberty from soon lose their souls. For the first impulse of human liberation, humans being what they are ever since Adam and Eve, is infidelity. To hold that human liberty demands higher responsibilities than servitude is a harsh teaching, bound at first to be rejected. Furthermore, never in history have the 400 million persons of the North Atlantic community enjoyed such liberties and such affluence as they have enjoyed since 1945. Never have so many human beings been so free to choose from such a wide range of alternatives in virtually every arena of their lives: from the shape of their conscience to their “lifestyles,” from their religion to their occupation, from the activities of their leisure to the objects of their discontents. Should we be surprised that most entered upon this suddenly achieved era unready for the responsibilities of liberty? Have we a right to expect of human beings what nothing in the texts of Judaism or Christianity would lead us to expect; OZ., heroic, responsible vigilance and courage?

Any free people must be expected, by the constant teachings of Judaism and Christianity, to give themselves in disproportionate numbers to idols and illusions, to fleshpots and to eccentricities. It would be superhuman for them to do otherwise.

The prospect of a hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully, however. Enough rope has been sold to the Marxist-Leninists to hang the West many times over. Thank God, the leaders of the Soviet Union seem so far to have exhibited the immemorial traits of Slavic caution and inferiority, calculation and patience. They are not much given to “adventurism.” Blitzkrieg has so far not attracted them, Wagner not being their music, chess being their game. Slowly, for forty years now they have added to their assets. Piece by piece, they have moved their knights and castles on the board, having learned too late in Poland (but in time for Central America) the importance of using bishops adroitly.

If we look at power politics on the board of the world, the state of play is by no means where it was in 1945 or even in 1975. Were I myself moving the soviet Red, I would be using Afghanistan for a play on Iran, and Syria for a play on the port and airfields of Beirut. Just along that axis, the white throat of the West is ripe for throttling. The sources of oil for Japan and much of Europe may be controlled from there.

Meanwhile, to occupy Western Europe would be inexpedient. Socialized, Western Europe would be impoverished within a decade. Better to keep it fat enough to live on for a hundred years. Upon Europe, Soviet power need make only endurable demands: None but Communists sent as ambassadors to Moscow; critics of Moscow to be jailed for their own protection; only spokespersons who recognize the true source of Peace and Justice permitted to guide public discussion. As for the United States, its long border with Mexico should be enough to preoccupy an army larger than the U.S. now maintains, until well into the twenty-first century. Patience is all that is required.

As for Christianity, why need there be enmity between Marxism-Leninism and true believers? Let there be “dialogue.” Let all begin with “Marxist analysis.” Christianity means “the option for the poor;” inevitably it will serve “the revolution.” Marx was quite right. Religion is the opiate of the base communities, the popular church, and the vanguard of the future. It is not so difficult to turn Christian doctrine ever so slightly, installing “history” where there was “being,” replacing the Thomistic “correspondence of truth” with Hegelian “history as truth,” and speaking much of compassion, justice, equality, and brave heroism in the struggle against oppressors of every sort. Christians will soon enough see that “the Right to Life” is the aim of Marxism, fashioning a seamless web between “peace,” “pro-life,” and “the revolution of the oppressed.” There is no reason why the most serious Christians cannot collaborate with us in practice, a Soviet theoretician may hold, even if they must be left free to reject materialism, atheism, and class struggle. Their sensibilities are not yet tough enough, but their will is ours already. The Vatican has always been realistic. There will never again be a Slavic pope, a Soviet might well prophesy, unless he is one of ours.

And Israel? What will Israel do when the Soviet fleet operates out of Beirut, when Soviet units are massed in Iran and Syria, when Jordan and Egypt buckle to reality, and when the United States is busy fortifying its Mexican frontier? We shall let Israel squirm, a Soviet may even in 1984 imagine, despite the pleasure it would yield him to let Arafat lead the armies which would drive man, woman and child into the sea.

Power politics is of considerable concern to Jews and to Christians. I believe that Reinhold Niebuhr expressed it best in the inaugural edition he wrote for Christianity and Crisis on February 10, 1941:

Our civilization was built by faith and prayers and hard work — it was also built by fighting. Is there a Christian minister who believes that the rights which he daily enjoys and which he takes for granted, like the air he breathes, would be his to enjoy unless these rights had been fought for . . .? Are Protestants in the United States to . . . express complete indifference . . .? Should this become the American Protestant attitude toward the world, it would inscribe one of the darkest pages in the annals of the Church.

For more than a thousand years this civilization of ours has been merging around the shores of the North Atlantic Ocean. The fact which differentiates our civilization from all others is that here men organized states on the basis of consent rather than on the basis of force — here men made the dignity of human life the test of policy — here men won the right to freedom of speech and freedom of worship. The North Atlantic became the Ocean of Freedom. Wherever its waters touched there free men lived. . . .

We are the trustees of this North Atlantic society. We are the heirs of this freedom.

What then is the Crisis? The Crisis is that the most powerful state in Europe has sworn to destroy our North Atlantic civilization and . . . has proved its ability to keep its word. . . .

The inconceivable has happened. We are witnessing the first effective revolution against Christian civilization since the days of Constantine.

The tragic irony of the hour is that so many of the men in America whom this revolution against Christian civilization most concerns seem to be least aware of its implications. The freedom of these men to speak and write depends upon the existence of a certain type of civilization. Yet they talk and act as if they believed that, whoever wins, religion-as-usual like business-as-usual will be the order of the day in America after the war. The fact is that if Hitler carries out his declared designs there is not going to be any religion-as-usual, at least as far as Christians are concerned.

The choice before us is clear. Those who choose to exist like parasites on the liberties which others fight to secure for them will end by betraying the Christian ethic and the civilization which has developed out of that ethic.

At the cost of immense treasure and blood, at the cost of Europe in ruins, Hitler was defeated by herculean efforts between the writing of this editorial and May 15, 1944. Yet even as that war ended, the Third World War began. Because of the atomic power of the United States, this war would be fought according to new rules. It would be fought by the Soviets with new instruments of power politics, with espionage, subversion, terror, disinformation, the sowing of confusion, the systematic and collusive spreading of false and dangerous ideas, and always by intimidation. The West would now be asked, not to be defeated by armies in the field, but to surrender piecemeal by negotiations, under the threat of superior military force. Reason itself would be employed as a weapon. For wherever military power is insufficient, surrender which for a time preserves external decencies is the obvious path of reason.

Power politics is what the struggle of our era is about. No one who derives moral strength from biblical realism has any right to be surprised. There are not many religious documents in history so filled with the lessons of warfare and battle as those of the Jewish and Christian peoples. Yet Jews and Christians are always tempted to believe that the struggle of history is over, that peace has been achieved, that the lamb should lie down with the lion. It is not so easy to believe our redemption is not yet. It is flattering to believe that our generation is the lucky one, the one of whom no battle is asked. For this illusion, many eagerly sell their souls.

The hardest two words for Jews and Christians to swallow are: Not yet.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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