On Golgotha: Self-Donation & American Power
O My chief good,
How shall I measure out thy bloud?
How shall I count what thee befell,
And each grief tell?
Good Friday, George Herbert
What does the Good Friday passion possibly have to do with the stuff of international relations, national security, or military ethics? Much, I think—and this because I think Good Friday has much to commend to individual Christian behavior, and I’ve long ago stopped believing there’s a massive gulf, or even a significant one, between an individual Christian ethic geared toward private life and an ethic fit for those same individuals when they engage in political life. I’d like to reflect, in the shadow of the cross, on why bringing moral considerations to bear on American foreign policy is an essential endeavor.
My answer is simple: it is in our national best interests to be moral. It’s easy to forget this—especially when our political discourse too often traffics in false binaries: realism versus idealism, compassion versus security, or justice versus love. As we dig into our particular political camp, it’s too easy to forget that these needn’t be zero-sum games—we can be compassionate without taking anything away from our security or, in the very least, we can find a salutary balance between striving to be compassionate to the nth degree or secure to the same dimension.
We can get our bearings by considering the family—that “little society” through which we can analogize to the larger political community. As a father, I take for granted that one of my primary moral duties is the welfare of my children. It is morally appropriate for me to secure their vital interests—even against the interests of others (if my neighbor and my son both fall into a pit of poisonous snakes, I’m pulling out my neighbor second).
But the character of this fidelity to my children’s security is susceptible to circumstance. First, the primary duty is limited to their vital interests: basic necessities of food, shelter, and physical and emotional security. Regarding my kid’s enjoyment of luxuries, I am significantly less concerned. I’m entirely unconcerned about their having luxuries if my neighbor hasn’t enough to eat. And, nightmare of nightmares, in a real crisis I may even jeopardize my children’s full enjoyment of basic necessities in order to aid those at greater risk.
This might appear to substantiate the binary relationship of interests to morality. But interests and morality can be harmonized when we understand that it is good for us to do good, even at great personal costs. The profit is not always extrinsic—sometimes the extrinsic gain is entirely absent. But the profit is, at least, intrinsic—in the acquisition, cultivation, and habituation of and toward virtue. While not a coin may be gained for our pocket, we enjoy greater treasures.
We were formed in the image of God, and to grow in virtue—manifested in acts of other-centered self-donation—love—is a means by which we might increasingly reform into the fuller expression of that image. Only those who love will be able to stand—indeed will even want to stand—in the presence of the Holy. In the clash between self- and other-centered love, both of which are legitimate values, we find ourselves with the opportunity to go against our instincts for self-preservation and to choose to perform non-instinctual acts of self-sacrifice—for our own and other’s sakes.
Which brings us back to the events around Good Friday. Gethsemane suggests that not even in the Christ is self-sacrifice purely instinctual—at least it is not the only instinct at play. Christ’s dark hour in the garden, was centered on a plea, really, for a way out, limited only by his willingness to move forward into the passion, in the last resort. Together these point to a clash of desires—first for self-preservation and escape from the horror ahead—the horror of God-abandonment—and second, to love the lost and to give whatever necessary to rescue them.
It’s very easy to get the cross wrong. A primary temptation among modern Christians is to view all self-sacrifice as inherently good. But, as I noted in a Maundy Thursday reflection, Christ’s self-donation on Golgotha was efficacious for solution to the problem it was attending—the reconciliation of humanity to the Divine. Conditioned by the specific calamity, Jesus gave himself away to bring about in the lives of others the conditions necessary for human flourishing. This is the model. Because both self- and other-centered love are Christ-centered values, no act of self-sacrifice ought to be arbitrary. If there is no reasonable connection between self-sacrifice and increasing the real possibility for human flourishing, the act may well be a vain self- and other-denial.
No person, nor any nation, is called to waste their life. But persons, as well as nations, may well be called to spend their lives. Because it’s primary obligation is to secure the basic goods of justice, order, and peace for its own citizens, no nation–except in cases of true global calamity–can ever be asked to spend itself out of existence. But America has demonstrated, more often than detractors might like to admit, that powerful nations can spend much in pursuit of the global common good. This can well be seen in the better angels of our foreign policy: in the enormous sums we’ve spent on rebuilding defeated foes, in treasure spend on international aid, in lives given for the rescue of others, in operating under rules of engagement that risk force protection for the sake noncombatants, in kicking in doors rather than leveling villages, in the treatment of POWs, in taking POWs, and even in persecuting those of our own who harm those POWs.
Such morality action is not arbitrary—it focused on specific ends and is efficacious toward achieving those ends. Moreover, it sometimes rebounds in our favor. Not only do I believe that nations, like individuals, can grow in the acquisition of—and a reputation for—virtue, but a moral use of American power helps make that power sufferable to those international nations under it and to those allies who rely on it.
A nation, like a person—or a god—that is so interested in its own self-preservation that it will not take risks—measured, prudent, but real—for the sake of love is a nation, or a person, or a god not much worthy of being preserved. It is in our own best interests to be moral.
Marc LiVecche is managing editor of Providence
Image: White Crucifixion, by Marc Chagall, 1938; Art Institute of Chicago