In this week’s episode, the editors discuss Mark Tooley’s conversation with Nigel Biggar, a Presbyterian’s look at nationalism, Mark Melton’s review of a book on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s call for Christians to feed and clothe the defeated Germans in 1946.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Mark LiVecche and Mark Melton. Today we’ll touch on three or four pieces from Providence over the past week, the first of which is my interview with British theologian and scholar Nigel Biggar on human rights, on Presbyterian Church in America pastor and theologian James Wood’s piece defending a sort of Christian nationalism, a piece by our revered patron saint Reinhold Niebuhr on the imperative of helping enemies in the aftermath of World War II, and then finally, a piece that our own Mark Melton did reviewing a book on the 1970s-1980s troubles in Northern Ireland. But first, we’ll start with Nigel Biggar, whose new book is What’s Wrong with Rights, and my interview with Nigel Biggar at Oxford, he says that he is responding to critics, Christian critics, of human rights who believe the concept is overly individualistic and minimizes the needs of the wider community. So, he admits there are some, obviously, misunderstandings about human rights in contemporary Western society but defends the basic premise rooted in Jewish and Christian teaching, but also much wider than that, as he specifies. And if I understand correctly, he would date human rights to the Middle Ages in terms of how we currently understand it. But Marc LiVecche, you studied under and with the great Nigel Biggar. What were your thoughts about his comments?
LiVecche: Yeah, important book, one important thing to remember, as I think Nigel points out in your interview, What’s Wrong with Rights does have a question mark. So, he’s exploring these, exploring as an open question. Obviously, he has his position. One of the things I have long admired about Nigel is that he rarely, if ever, goes on a sort of ideological diatribe. I think throughout the book, throughout your interview, he models what sort of a nuanced, fair analysis of a controversial subject looks like. And so, he doesn’t present it as an anti-rights idealogue. But he is concerned about a number of things, and the one that I found maybe most interesting, both in the book and in the interview, is that his concern that rights talk very often crowds out both virtue talk and virtuous action in that in a given situation, if I too strenuously harp upon my own rights, I can do so in a way that’s not just uncharitable, but in a way that demands other people make sacrifices that are beyond the pale. I might insist that I have a right to education and that education should be paid for by the government. And I can insist on that all day long, but at some point, charity would demand that I figure out, or at least reflect upon, if I get this right met, where’s the money going to come from? What else can the government do if they’re spending money on these rights? And so, his larger analysis is that rights talk very often is done in a way that it promotes self-centeredness and other sacrifice. And that’s a problem. A society that cares only for rights can abandon things like generosity, and charity, and prudence, and forgiveness, and that’s a problem, right.
Tooley: I should point out that Marc LiVecche is addressing us from his Florida hotel balcony overlooking presumably the Atlantic Ocean, so his picture is a little bit choppy. But we can hear him clearly. Mark Melton, you reviewed a book on Northern Ireland troubles. Tell us a little bit about that.
Melton: Alright, so this is a book that really looks into a specific murder that happened that the IRA later admitted to doing. And not only was this woman, a mother of 10, murdered, she was disappeared, which is considered a war crime. And so, the book kind of focuses in on that murder. But the people involved are part of what was known as the “Unknowns” of the IRA, and they were a special squad and they would execute people and do very clandestine operations. And one of those members was actually this woman who carried out a bombing in London. I think it was the first bombing in London. And she was convicted, went to jail, did a hunger strike, got out of it. Her sister continued to do IRA activities. In fact, she was arrested in 2009 or some time for a bombing and shooting in 2009 that the IRA did. And so, in this story of like talking about these characters, it stretches the whole breadth of the most recent troubles of the IRA from like the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and then briefly into the Good Friday Agreement and a couple of things more recently. So, yeah, this is probably I think one of the more interesting history books I’ve read lately. It uses like a narrative history, so it does scenes that are very detailed or reads almost like a story. And so, I kind of said it’s like not very many writers can turn a 450-page history book into a bingeable read. I think this could be interesting material for an HBO-type series. I think you would have to have like three or four seasons to really get a good representation of it, but it does focus in on the IRA a lot. It doesn’t talk about the Loyalist militias very much at all, just because of the nature of what it was covering. But it does talk about some things that the British state did, basically the British state was using tactics they developed in Kenya, and using it against insurgencies, against its own British subjects in Northern Ireland. So, I’ve always found how nations, or how conflicts amongst people in the same country, can develop, and how do you get to the point where you were together at a certain point, and then you just start killing each other, and I find that fascinating topic. And this is a good example of that, and so I highly recommend the book.
Tooley: Well, on a somewhat related topic, James Wood, the Presbyterian minister, not the actor, wrote a column for us, a qualified defense of Christian nationalism, which has become a major bogeyman, justifiably so given some of the extremism present in our current moment. But Wood defends the concept of a certain form of nationalism and loyalty to the nation state and an understanding of special duties and responsibilities to those neighbors to whom we are most proximate. And that Christians should cherish and nurture their own societies at some basic points. That’s same with the overall themes of Providence, don’t you think, Marc LiVecche?
LiVecche: I didn’t hear all the question. I’ve got a lot of background noise here, so apologies if I’m shooting in the dark and I miss completely.
Tooley: Well, in terms of Christian nationalism, James Wood gave a qualified defense of it in terms of yes, Christians can be nationalist of a certain sort in terms of cherishing and nurturing their own societies and wishing well for those with whom they are most proximate.
LiVecche: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with that completely. I think that follows the best stuff that I’ve seen in Joshua Mitchell’s analysis, right. In that nation comes from nathio, mentality, places of birth, it would be anathema I think not to have the minimum feelings of warmth toward one’s kin. And that is appropriate. I think we have a special obligation, humanness, not just permission to care for approximate neighbors, but a special obligation to care for those who are our own. As a father, I have a special obligation to my children. As a neighbor, I have a special obligation to those in my neighborhood, and those obligations radiate out from there. If I can’t be faithful and loyal to the nearest to me, it seems far more difficult to expect that I could be generous and charitable toward those further off. That’s qualified. Again, if I’m in apartheid South Africa, if I’m in the slave holding South, if I’m in Nazi Germany, those obligations look very different. But I would still contest that those are obligations. So, even in Nazi Germany, because I love my nation, I want the best for my nation. I want my nation to flourish. Nations can only flourish in particular ways, not any old way. And so, my special obligation to Nazi Germany is still in existence, it just looks a little bit different, if you take the form of resistance and take the form of protest, things like that. So, he’s absolutely right to stress the importance of that. And those who continue, both within and without the Church, to insist that it’s a binary choice that has to be made between nationalism and globalism continue to miss the point. I get that a lot of it is still semantics. We are now talking about nationalism the way we talk about patriotism, but I’m increasingly convinced that nationalism as a term has a useful place. Because patriotism I think, and again some of this is semantics, but patriotism is very often sort of the occasional roughly symbolic zeal one has toward one’s home. And Fourth of July, national holidays, the Super Bowl, things like this. But I think there’s something deeper that is very much grounded in nationhood and what that looks like. So, I thought it was, I think he’s spot on.
Tooley: Well, speaking of nationhood and Nazi Germany, we posted a short piece that Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1946. Obviously, in the aftermath of World War II, when Germany is prostrate, our former enemy, and he urges the imperative of feeding a potentially starving Germany, though they had been an enemy nation who had inflicted great suffering on Europe and the world. Nonetheless, Niebuhr saw the imperative of feeding these defeated enemies. Tell us a little bit about this piece, Mark Melton?
Melton: Right, so this piece came out in January 1946. Reinhold Niebuhr had already written about some of this situation I believe in like December or November. I don’t remember the exact dates, but we ran some pieces of that last year. But the ideas, after the war, you have these forced migrations, you have people starving, not having clothing, and from bombed out cities and whatnot, that you would expect in the type of total war that happened in Europe at that time. And so, in this, he’s basically saying that even though public opinion was against the idea of giving food to the Germans, that it needed to be done. In ways it’s like the right thing to do. And so, he quotes the scripture of if an enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he’s thirsty, give him a drink. And in that, it’s a simple message. It’s pretty basic. It’s actually not a very long piece at all, but sometimes the simplest command is sometimes very difficult to follow. And another kind of context in this, you might look at this as a pacifist message of well, if the enemy is hungry, then fight. No, he’s still saying you fought them and defeated them, but you still have responsibilities to that person as a human being, as an image bearer of God. And so, that’s kind of the context of this article.
Tooley: Marc LiVecche, you’re always anxious to discuss Reinhold Niebuhr. What are your thoughts?
LiVecche: Yeah, it was a great article. I mean, it’s a three-minute read, Melton alluded to. And it is so packed with things that can be discussed, either in a seminary classroom, in an ethics course, in a pub, whatever. So, for me there’s a couple things. One is the connection I think that’s being made, that can be made, between this short of three-minute article and your interview with Nigel Biggar, because one of the points that Nigel discusses is that if you have a right to something, if somebody makes a rights claim, especially if it’s a legal right claim, then that has to insist that somebody else that we can point to has a duty, responsibility, has a requirement to fulfill that right. To meet the terms of that right. So, one of the examples that Nigel uses I think in his book, maybe not in the interview, is to discuss the idea of universal subsistence. That it’s noble to say that everyone in the world has the right to subsist, but to make that a legal claim becomes complicated because that then insists that there’s somebody to whom we can point and say, “You have legation to meet.” Whereas if you approach it from this perspective, then you can abandon some of that requirement, and you just make it a universal responsibility of those who have the means or those who can cultivate them to serve, to feed and water them, etc. And so, America, because we have a food surplus, now has a responsibility commensurate with that to feed our fallen enemy. And I think he’s right on that. And when we talk about what enemy love looks like, it looks in part something like that. Where even people that have been defeated, we still have a responsibility to put them back together. Eric Patterson has done a lot on post-war justice, and there’s a lot to be said to this. One of the things that I do want to point out is that it’s an interesting historic context, right. And Niebuhr I think misses something that I think is important. He asks why is it that Germany is starving. He gives a number of reasons. He talks about the decimation of German industry by the allies. He talks about the destruction of transportation systems in Germany by the allies. He talks about the dismantling of the industrial equipment in Germany for reparations imposed upon them by the allies. He talks about the forced migration of Germans from Eastern Europe back into Germany, and the burden that that places on an already decimated system in Germany. He lists a bunch of factors. It’s important to remember that actually the reason Germany is starving is because Nazi Germany embarked, insisted upon let’s say, the prompt of another destruction of Germany in order to bring about the end of the war. So, it’s important to remember why the people are starving and that Nazi Germany as a regime was responsible not just for the first order consequences of their actions, but the second order, the third, the fourth order, etc. It’s also curious to remember that German actions against occupied lands during the war brought the starvation of millions of Soviets and thousands of, tens of thousands of, others. Something like 2 million Soviet people died in starvation because Germany redirected food supplies to Germany. So now, the people who are starving are people who had forced the starvation upon others throughout the war. And yet Niebuhr still insists we have a responsibility and a moral duty to care for them. And so, I think, especially in the context of the times, however much you want to distinguish between the German people and the Nazi government, history remains a complicating factor. And it must have been a profound imposition to insist upon the West, having just fought a war, having just sacrificed blood and treasure in the lives of their children to end Nazism, to then go to them and say we have to feed these people. Which, of course, we did. Historians are confident that we save millions of lives in Germany by doing this, so I think just packed into that little piece is an incredible analysis of what Christian responsibility in the world can look like.
Tooley: An important point in 1946 and today in always loving our enemies. Marc LiVecche, Mark Melton, thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until next week. And Marc LiVecche, enjoy South Florida.
LiVecche: I’ll do my best.