Much is being made of the amiable statements passed back and forth between Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During a Thursday news conference, Russia’s strongman praised Trump as “the absolute leader of the presidential race” calling him “bright and talented” and “an outstanding…personality.” A day later Trump responded, “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
When reminded in an interview by Joe Scarborough that the long list of criminal acts attributed to Putin includes such illiberal activities as having killed journalists who disagree with him, Trump dismissingly countered, “Our country does plenty of killing also.” Not content with this absurd moral equivalency, Trump retorted: “At least he’s a leader – unlike what we have in this country.”
While one might want to attribute Trump’s snark more to his feelings toward Morning Joe than Vladimir Putin, his remarks nevertheless correlate with much else we’ve seen in his campaign – and much that brings him in orbit with Putin. Neither man, clearly, suffers weakness well, they attack it like dogs do fear and each are prone to bluster as they seek to assert their tough-mindedness. This is not simply violent braggadocio; both are, I think unquestionably, quite earnest in their views about weakness and power. Moreover, these views translate into their vision of statecraft. What’s of concern is that Trump’s brutishness is being taken seriously by a great number of Americans. This should be viewed as a problem for America.
There’s a helpful distinction made in theological reflection about the character of God that categorizes the divine attributes under two key headings: God’s greatness and His goodness. Attributes refer to those qualities that are rightly ascribed to someone or something, they express some truth about a thing’s nature. When we speak of God’s “greatness” we point to those things that reveal his majesty or magnificence, his glory, dignity, and splendor. His “goodness” directs our attention to his moral character. Scripture attests to both. Consider Psalm 8:
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
Here, God’s greatness is clearly evidenced in the witness of creation which attests to his eternal power. The omni-everything, God’s greatness is associated with terms such as wrath, justice, power, immutability, sovereignty, and the like. Included among the manifold ways in which he directs this power is his Kingship over the earth, the rule and defense of His people, and his judgment and destruction of evil.
But this greatness is coupled with – not qualified or limited by – his goodness. God is not simply creator but he is mindful of his creation – he is providentially concerned that it should flourish. God’s goodness is described by his holiness, love, mercy, graciousness, and his fidelity – both to his own character and to his creation.
To distinguish between God’s goodness and His greatness is helpful but it’s not meant to be stark. One cannot talk about His goodness without also needing to gesture to His justice. Neither can one start to describe His Kingship without very quickly needing to bring in His love. God is just to the nth degree and He is loving to the nth degree. Would He cease to be one He would cease to be the other.
This is a useful analog regarding the character of nations.
Nations are not, of course, gods; though sometimes over-zealous patriots act as if they are. When they do, we label the perversion nationalism. The nationalist is very much concerned about the greatness of his nation. Strength, power, will, and might are the concepts in which they traffic. Here I call to mind again Putin and Trump. Both men are very much concerned that their respective nations be great. Indeed, Trump’s campaign motto insists on precisely this.
There is nothing inherently wrong in wanting one’s nation to be great. In fact, the primary purpose of government is the provision and maintenance of the common good of the people over which they govern – characterized by the presence of justice, peace, and order – and these things cannot be had by any nation whose greatness is insufficient to overcome the threats against it. But when one’s conception of their nation’s greatness is absent a vision of their nation’s goodness then they might, and likely will, do whatever it takes to maintain or expand this greatness –even such morally abhorrent acts as willfully targeting the innocent.
For a nation as materially blessed as America, greatness can be had for a song. But goodness can be harder to come by and is more easily lost. This is partly because seeking to be good is far more risky than merely wanting to be great. It is seen in such acts as the willingness to kick in doors to get at the bad guys rather than simply leveling the village entirely, or in expending a measure of our own blood and treasure abroad that others too might flourish. It means refusing to make simplistic distinctions between being compassionate and being secure and to instead find means to be both.
Made in the imago Dei, human beings are intended, both individually and corporately, to represent the Divine in history. How we conceive the attributes of God shapes how we worship Him. So too does our conception of our nation’s character shape how we serve her. Christian theological witness has always contended that this service cannot be rightly rendered by seeking either greatness or goodness absent the other. Any nation so concerned with being “good” that it refuses to be great will not long survive. Any nation so concerned with greatness over goodness simply isn’t much worthy of surviving.
Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence, and Scholar on Christian Ethics, War, & Peace at the Institute on Religion & Democracy.
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