In this week’s episode, the editors discuss a 75-year-old article by Reinhold Niebuhr in relation to events in Afghanistan.
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, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. Today we’re looking at a piece we’ve published from our patron saint Reinhold Niebuhr that he wrote for our model journal Christianity & Crisis 75 years ago, on the judgments of God between nations and between the nations and God himself, in which he makes several points. Obviously, he’s reflecting still in the wake of World War II amid judgments concerning how America would relate to its defeated enemies, and he warns that obviously there are righteous and less righteous causes in the conflicts among nations, but the chief conflict is between the nations, or humanity, and God himself. And he warns that God judges not just the wicked and defeated, but also the victorious and those who are contending for relatively more righteous causes. And he concludes by appealing that ideally, men who are wise and seeking righteousness will understand and insinuate God’s judgment into their own judgments regarding statecraft and governance. So, Marc LiVecche, student of Reinhold Niebuhr, your thoughts on this analysis by Niebuhr, and perhaps some of its application to today’s events, including topic A for this week, which of course is Afghanistan.
LiVecche: Right. So, reluctant student of the patron saint of Providence because he’s an imperfect patron saint. This is my ongoing broken record. On the one hand, there’s nothing to be disagreed with, Niebuhr is absolutely right. Back when I was struggling to remain agnostic but I was probably becoming a Christian, one of the things that pushed me towards Christianity was the study of the Holocaust and a recognition of the evil of the Nazis, and somebody challenging me in the midst of this sort of crisis of trying to figure out how an agnostic judges what is evil and what even means by evil, etc. Somebody challenged me and said, “Look, the bad news is that you’ve identified that the Nazis are evil. That’s great; nobody should contest that, but the real crisis is that you don’t necessarily get to measure their evil simply because they’re worse than you are. You don’t get to measure your own justice simply because you’re less bad than the Nazis. You have to judge your own righteousness against the sovereign God of the universe.” And okay, so, there’s truth in that, and that’s chastening. And Niebuhr also recognizes that, at the same time, we can still say look, Nazi morality is deficient in a way that American or Allied morality simply was not. So, all that’s okay, but some of the conclusions and some of the judgments that he makes I find a bit frustrating. He often acts as if now that victory is at hand, there ought to be some sort of an easy, or at least an easier, application of New Testament laws of love and such, where he talks about in conflict situations, human beings are probably happy that there’s the Old Testament because we can refer to it and then do responsibly with the conditions of the world. Whereas if we had to only contend with the New Testament ethic, we would be hamstrung, and there wouldn’t be anything that we could do in human conflict. Because in the laws of love in the Old Testament, we see something a little bit more kinetic. And so, Niebuhr has the bizarre distinction of, whereas most people seem to behave as if Jesus saved us from the Old Testament God, Niebuhr too often sounds as if the Old Testament God occasionally saves us from Jesus, because we get to do the things because of the Old Testament God that we wouldn’t be able to do if we only have Christ. So, there’s more to be said, and I’ll let you ask further questions, but that’s my opening salvo. I’m not going to connect that at the moment with anything else. Let’s get Melton’s response, and then we can continue the conversation about contemporary events.
Tooley: Mark Melton, Reinhold Niebuhr, divine judgment, Afghanistan. Your thoughts?
Melton: Well, I mean, one of the things, kind of to carry off of what LiVecche is talking about, I think there is truth there that if we believe we’re all sinners and we’re all fallen, then we’re all subject to judgment. But, and as I say at the end of my intro, that we are to measure our goodness and faithfulness not by comparing myself to our sinful neighbors but to the faithfulness of God. I think there’s a very good religious reason for that. And another piece I think that Niebuhr wrote that I think I linked to that I posted last year, talking about why should we criticize America? Why should we criticize our own country? And I wrote this in the context of COVID-19, in the beginning stages when people were saying we shouldn’t criticize America; we should only criticize China. And China deserves a lot of criticism. And I think there was a political connotation with that, where they didn’t want to blame the Trump Administration for stuff. They wanted to divert it and focus it all on China. And I think that with not just the Trump Administration but also the governors across the country, there were tons and tons of mistakes made. I think that it was good to critique those things, because that’s how you get better in future instances or in future crises by being able to criticize yourself. So, I kind of linked to that article that Niebuhr wrote before the end of World War II, when he was warning that we need to be able to criticize ourselves, we need to critique what we are doing, and he did it in the sense of like we’re not good either. I think the problem that Niebuhr runs into, especially in this phase, in 1946, he’s too lenient toward the Soviet Union. And even when he’s gradually, you see a little bit here, but he’s gradually starting to realize that the Soviet Union doesn’t want to be our friend. And a lot of people on the left in America wanted the Soviet Union to be our friend; they wanted the United Kingdom to be our adversary. And that’s not how it turned out because that’s not what the actors wanted done at that time. So, I think Niebuhr is too lenient at this point, and even as he’s realizing, he’s still kind of like well, they still have their problems. They are afraid of us because we have nuclear weapons. And so, that’s where I kind of have a problem with Niebuhr a little bit is that I think when he talks broadly on different things, he’s getting into some truth. But when he gets into like the policy of that particular day, I have some problems with his recommendations. And I’m not sure exactly what his politics are at this point; he seems to be a little more left of center. But to kind of get into the question of what about Afghanistan today, the same way I think we should criticize not just the president but many governors and local officials for how they responded to the pandemic, I think we should also criticize how Biden and our administration is responding to the crisis in Afghanistan. And I think when I see people on Twitter who are basically trying, like Biden can do no wrong according to some of these commentators on especially MSNBC, I think CNN is much more critical, but I think it’s good to ask tough questions about why did we abandoned Bagram Air Base, why is it that we’re having to airlift people out of an airport in the middle of a congested city that is vulnerable to attack? And again, it’s part of that, yes, the Taliban is a lot worse, ISIS is a lot worse, but we still should be able to criticize our government, because we can hold their feet to the fire. That forces them to develop better policies.
LiVecche: Good. Well-
Tooley: If I could… I’m sorry, go ahead.
LiVecche: No, ask your question. I’ll dovetail into it.
Tooley: Well, weighing Niebuhr’s judgments about divide judgment and US policy towards Afghanistan, I think we would all agree that US intent towards Afghanistan was not malevolent. We were not the Soviet Union in 1979. We responded to an attack upon our nation; we removed the regime that had facilitated that attack and oppressed the people of Afghanistan. And then we tried to rebuild Afghanistan with a government that we thought would be democratic and afford certain liberties to the people of Afghanistan. That ultimately failed. Many should say we were arrogant in the attempt that Afghanistan was ever going to fit into a democratic model. So, to what extent does, at least from Niebuhr’s perspective, divine judgment fall upon America for its presumption? And ultimately isn’t the divine judgment, or perhaps it’s presumptuous to say, but certainly there is some form of judgment upon the people of Afghanistan themselves to choices they have made collectively? The regime they had chosen, the Taliban, could not have come to power 25 years ago or more recently without considerable support from the people of Afghanistan themselves.
LiVecche: Right. And then you start to go down that track and you end up, if you’re an honest human being, having to hold everything you believe loosely and being content with complexity. And not looking for simplistic answers. I think people often want simple answers, and in pursuing simple answers we end up with simplistic answers. Which simplisticness is not the opposite of complexity, it’s something that’s simplistic. It’s overly simple. It’s wrong. So, yeah, when you go down that route that you’re going, Niebuhr touches on it when he talks about God’s judgment. He says like to whom much is given, much is going to be expected. Much is owed, and people will be judged more severely when they’ve been given much. And so, you start with that, and you think well okay, so, the United States, not by accident, has developed intentionally enormous capacity in power, both militarily and economic and all of that. That wasn’t by accident. Some of that was self-interested; we want to protect our own. But as we’ve deployed it in our foreign policy across the ages, I think we are a people who have also developed our capacities in order to do as much good as we can do in the world and to limit as much harm as we can do in the world. And I think there’s a kind of divine law in that. It’s not simply to whom much has been given, as if some things come to us ready-made, but there’s also something about capacity. And I think Christ followers ought to fulfill their capacities to the degree that they are able, in wise proportion to other responsibilities. And America has done that. We don’t believe in these silly and false distinctions between having to choose between guns and butter, right. We think well, no, we can actually have both. And so, we have a higher capacity to make splendid mistakes on the international scene, and we do that magnificently. We do it all the time. And it’s heartbreaking. And we can kind of say well, we’ve got good intentions and look at what we were able to do. And nobody ever gets on Papua New Guinea for making international mistakes, because Papua New Guinea really doesn’t have the capacity to. And there’s an out in that in a sense. I think there’s forgiveness to be found in the right intentions, but I think Niebuhr would also then say that’s fine, but you can’t hide behind good intentions, because behind good intentions gone bad there’s often a lot of sin. And so, you look at American arrogance and our apparent incapacity to understand cultural differences, and the assumption that we can remake other nations in our own image. And I push against this a little bit. I’ve been trying to work this out in my own mind, but when I read Afghan history, which I’ve been doing very recently, I see that there’s an awful lot on which we could probably have built in terms of liberalizing people at least in the big cities and Kabul. In the 1970s, even right after the Second World War that Niebuhr was talking about, there were experiments in open government. They failed quickly, but they kind of stumble along. And then in Kabul, you have women with greater opportunities than they’re going to have now. And so, there’s a basis. Human beings made in the image of God desire freedom, and it would be arrogant to think that the Afghans don’t and that the Afghans are incapable of appreciating freedom. And emancipated women and girls learning the alphabet and that sort of thing. So, we’re not wrong in thinking that all the people in the world want to be like us, we just go about it in a ham-fisted, clumsy way. And I think there’s culpability in that, especially when we start down a certain road, foolishly push things too fast, destabilize, and then get out because the costs to us are perceived to be too high. So, there’s a number of errors there that we should be judged for. We seem to do it constantly. And maybe that’s a tendency of empires or strong nations, but it’s not a tendency that should be forgiven too quickly.
Tooley: And these types of judgment, providential, obviously, we want to lash out and deny our own personal responsibility and name particular politicians, statesman, and administrations, but in fact there is a collective responsibility that includes all of us as a nation. Final thoughts from you, Mark Melton?
Melton: I’m trying to think of final thoughts… I mean, it’s been such a chaotic week, and I mean, we have people trying to get to this country, falling off of airplanes because they know what’s coming into Afghanistan. And so, there’s been this idea for a while that the Muslim world doesn’t want liberty, and I think that’s very true for the people who have guns. Yeah, there’s a lot of them who don’t want them to have liberty. For the people in Kabul, I think it’s going to be a lot more mixed up than that. And right now, I’m reading about like Civil War stuff, and my understanding of like Southern history is there’s a lot of retrograde values in America. I think we saw that on January 6, anti-democratic values. So, I am less skeptical today than I probably was a little while ago that this region can’t handle liberal values, at least in certain areas. It just depends on the people with guns and what they do. And again, talking about Southern history, I’ve been thinking about how there was an argument that lasted for a long time, I believe into the 1980s, I think there’s quotes of people saying that African Americans don’t want to vote, therefore, we don’t have to bother trying to give them the right to vote or worrying about it. And that’s completely racist and that is completely wrong. They did want to participate in politics and government and they wanted their voices heard, but the people in power did not want them to have that. And I think that it would be wrong for us to think that people in this area don’t want liberty. I think someone wrote, I think it was Aaron Rhodes, a while ago that if a reporter is getting his face beaten in in a different country, he knows that’s wrong. And we’ve codified that in our First Amendment, and so, I think a lot of what happens will depend on what people with guns allow to happen.
Tooley: Marc LiVecche, your final thoughts, channeling once again Reinhold Niebuhr. We have to assume that Niebuhr would have supported the US withdrawal from Afghanistan a long time ago, since he opposed the Vietnam War almost from the start. I believe he supported the Korean conflict with caveats. But what would Niebuhr be saying if alive today?
LiVecche: Yeah, I mean, assuming he allowed us to get to the stage we are now, and that we’re facing 20 years of fluctuating good decisions peppered heavily with really bad decisions that have eventually led to where we are now, I don’t know what he would say in terms of strategy like what we do now. I would hope he would say we owe the Afghan people that need to get out, not necessarily simply those who want to get out, but those who need to get out or they’re going to be facing the business end of a rifle, we owe them exit. We owe them at least that. So, he would even tell us, I hope, that we need to meet those sorts of moral responsibilities. I think he would immediately, as he did in 1945-1946, he would immediately begin trying to analyze the situation and ask what went wrong and how do we not screw things up the same way in the future. And two things that jumped into my head listening to Melton, I think the one thing he would lament is the inability apparently of the American people, seemingly unique among the nations in my mind, to be patient and to take things slowly. We’ve asked Henry Nau to write an article that I hope gets published next week, in which I hope he touches on his theory of ratcheting systems in which when you go into a nation to nation build, you remember that there are different ways of building nations and that nation building means different things. And one of the things it can mean is just slow plotting patient work and making things a little bit better as soon as you can, and not trying to assume that democratic values mean values that exists within a democracy, but that the values are probably there first. And that people who have those values long enough probably eventually create something like a democracy, not because it’s manna from heaven, but because it’s the least bad thing. And so, you can instill democratic values without trying to overturn a system or foist upon people a structure that they’re either not presently interested in or not presently capable of responsibly holding. So, you’re just patient, and I don’t know if the American electoral system that we have allows for patience. Everybody wants to win within their first term so they can get a second one, etc. All those problems. So, I think he would counsel patience, a kind of humility, a willingness to let the next guy benefit from the fruit of your wise, prudential, incremental steps, and trying to nudge things forward. He would remind us that we’re not going to be able to defeat evil in time, but he would encourage us to try to eliminate certain evils in time. One at a time. And to be content with that. Impatiently content with that, but content. I think he would do something like that, I don’t know.
Tooley: I would say in defense of the American people and their patience that the war in Afghanistan has been 20 years now, and it’s hard to think of any other nations that have waged a war against insurgency for two decades. The French fought in Vietnam for what, eight or nine years after World War II? The Soviets were in Afghanistan for a decade. The French fought in Algeria for about 10 years. Very few nations I think would have the patience to endure for 20 years before finally stepping aside and saying well, you’re on your own. But that’s my thought. Marc LiVecche, do you have a response?
LiVecche: The only caveat I would give to that, as I completely agree, I just think if we were more patient earlier on and we were content with the slow incremental change, Afghanistan might look like a very different place 20 years on.
Tooley: Yes, right.
Melton: I would also say in those examples the fighting was much more intense than the past say five to six years have been in Afghanistan.
Tooley: Perhaps it may even become more intense.
Tooley: Well, gentlemen, we’ll resolve these issues next week. Thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until then, bye-bye.