Anglicans Together ...promoting inclusive Anglicanism

Ora et labora

by the Reverend Andrew Sempell, President, Anglicans Together

The Church, Politics, War and Peace

As is the case with all groups in a democracy, the church has a responsibility to participate and contribute to the ordering of society, but how should it do this? Should it restrict itself to the provision of education, welfare and worship, or might it have something to say about governance and strategic policies in the world—including politics, economics and the exercise of power? To answer these questions, it may be helpful to explore a little history and political theory.

The Reverend Andrew Sempell

Power, Ideology and World Order

The term Realpolitik comes from nineteenth century Germany and refers to political actions based on the practical exercise of power, rather than ideology or morality. Such 'realism' argues that there is no reality outside what is material and that the rightness of a cause is to be determined by its 'success' rather than by any sense of morality or value judgement. It is therefore an 'amoral' political approach, principally concerned with the achievement of outcomes based on a sovereign nation's wishes. Negatively, this approach drove both Otto von Bismarck and Adolf Hitler in their desires for control of Europe over two world wars—although their 'outcomes' may not be considered a success.

In contrast, are several theories attached to Political Idealism. Idealism argues that reality is a human construct and therefore not material. It proposes that ideas have the capacity to define, shape and direct a society and that the activities of the mind (including beliefs, values and morality) are the basis of reality. As a political manifestation, idealism argues that the state should pursue policies both internally and externally that lead to the enhancement of the human condition. If, for example, there is a desire for peace within a nation then such a desire should be pursued internationally also. Political Idealism, however, has also had its failures, of which the incapacity to prevent two world wars is an example.

The political processes of the state tend to work themselves out between the extremes of the materialist and idealist perspectives of the world, and both perspectives are present in Australian political debate today—especially in the areas of defence and border protection, welfare and international aid, foreign affairs and trade. Furthermore, modern western democracies have developed ways to manage the potential destructiveness that comes from the coupling of amorality with the raw exercise of power. This is normally achieved through 'checks and balances' that separate the activities of the executive (cabinet and public service), the legislature (the parliament) and the judiciary (the courts).

Well, that is how the theory goes, but the employment of propaganda, 'fake news' and 'spin', along with the existence of an apathetic or ignorant electorate may not necessarily lead to the level of accountability that the theory promotes. People need to be informed and discerning for the system to work.

Christians are called to be good citizens and participate in the life of the community (Romans 13)—which includes the business of government and political debate. Our goal is to be a means for the salvation of human society; bringing goodness, reconciliation and justice. We therefore have a responsibility to contribute to the processes that govern society and, by this, seek the common good. Individually, we might not all agree, yet we need to participate.

History demonstrates that the processes of social cohesion, the exercise of power, the maintenance of peace, and the implementation of change are not simple. Some examples are explored below.

The Treaty of Westphalia (1648)

Europe spent much of the first half of the seventeenth century in the midst of what came to be known as the 'Thirty Years War', also known as the European Religious Wars. It was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history in which around 30% of the population died—mostly in the German states. This is just one of the dark sides of what was brought about by the Reformation. It was a time of 'regime change', during which the full social impact of the combination of the Reformation and rising Nationalism was experienced through a series of wars fought over the issues of religious allegiance, political power and economic dominance.

The outcomes of this conflict were widespread and indiscriminate killing of both military and civilian personnel, starvation and economic impoverishment, the destruction of infrastructure and the environment, and a total breakdown in law and order. It may well have resonance with some parts of our world today.

An accord was signed in 1648, which came to be known as the Treaty of Westphalia. At the time, this document was not seen to be very important; nevertheless, it established principles for the conduct of warfare and the achievement of peace - some of which continue with us to this day. Indeed, it is a foundational document for the twentieth century creations of both the League of Nations and United Nations.

An interesting aspect of the Treaty of Westphalia is the goal of 'mutual prosperity between states'. This goal encourages an attitude that is desirous of peace, justice, prosperity, and friendship between nations. A similar concept is proposed by the early nineteenth century American President, John Quincy Adams, who argued that the United States 'must work toward fostering a community of principle among the nations of the world'.

The Treaty of Westphalia also carried within it the concept of eternal peace and the setting aside of past conflicts. It therefore proposed a process of political reconciliation. This stands in contrast with many other treaties (such as that made at Versailles at the end of the First World War), which are more concerned with restitution and revenge rather than reconciliation. Versailles, of course, laid the foundation for the Second World War, rather than any lasting peace.

Reconciliation needs to be our goal, rather than revenge or power. As the history of conflict has demonstrated, peace and stability are delicate things that can be too easily broken and destroyed. In the modern era, trust and dialogue, along with the rule of law, has been our protection against international conflict. Even Aristotle recognised this when he wrote: 'It is more difficult to organise peace than to win a war. But the fruits of victory in war will be lost if the peace is not well organised.'

The United Nations (1945)

A great effort is often made after major conflicts to establish systems by which nations seek to minimise the rush to war again. As with the Treaty of Westphalia and the League of Nations, the United Nations was established after World War II as a way of encouraging international peace and stability. Its mission is to maintain world peace, develop good relations between countries, promote cooperation in solving the world's problems, and encourage respect for human rights.

The UN brings together countries that are rich and poor, large and small and of differing religious, social and political systems. Member nations pledge to settle their disputes peacefully, to refrain from using force (or threats of force) against other countries, and to refuse help to any country that opposes UN actions. The integrity of the UN is being challenged today, yet there are some other principles that help to guide us.

The Rule of Law

For the most part, it is through the UN that we apply the rule of international law today. It is also widely recognised that without the rule of law there can be no justice within our modern political systems. It was for this reason that many international jurists expressed grave reservations over the legality of the United States led war against Iraq in 2003. If there is no law, then there can be no justice and therefore no peace.

Just War Theory

The Just War Theory is an ancient Christian principle (originally developed by Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas) that gives guidance on when Christian nations may go to war. It is not a doctrine of faith, and is not accepted by all. Among other things, it requires that any war must:

  • be declared by a legitimate authority,
  • have a just cause,
  • use reasonable force,
  • have a reasonable outcome, and
  • only be used after all other avenues for a peaceful resolution have been explored.
Since the mid-twentieth century, it has been usual practice to have the United Nations legitimise the involvement of democratic nations in warlike and peace-making operations beyond their own boarders.


It may be argued that the optimism of the Enlightenment was destroyed by the devastating outcomes of the First and Second World Wars. Yet, these were the actions of sovereign states operating under the 'rule of law' and all arguing for the rightness of their cause. It is clear that the maintenance of peace and justice with compassion is not an easy thing. Nevertheless, we are now witnessing some challenges to the concept of national sovereignty arising from both economic globalisation and the rise of global terrorism.

Moreover, large corporations now have greater economic power than many smaller nations, and have the capacity to operate beyond the controls of many national governments. Likewise, they also have the power to influence the policies of larger nations even to their detriment, yet they are not accountable to the electorate. The rise of international terrorism has also challenged sovereignty because of the capacity of these groups to create conflict across national boundaries and beyond the constraints of national security forces.


The term post-modernism describes the current philosophical impasse of the western world. It is a reaction to the dominance of modernism (or the spirit of the Enlightenment) and has its philosophical roots in the nihilism of Sartre and Nietzsche, the psychology of Freud, and the politics of Marx.

For the most part, post-modernism has been a social critique that challenges generally accepted propositions of truth and knowledge and suggests a philosophical relativism in response. It is also sceptical of those institutions that make claims of possessing absolute truth and 'special knowledge'—especially those that claim to have a superior ethos and values. This critique clearly includes religion and the humanities, but has also extended to the sciences!

Post-modernism embraces social fragmentation and sits comfortably with a multiplicity of 'perspectives' that provide an understanding of the nature of the world and its operation. It allows for the existence of many 'goods' rather than 'one greater good' and is highly focused on the needs of the 'self'. It is therefore likely that people in a post-modern world are not going to be bound to modern institutions, or their beliefs and values. Indeed, there is a greater concern for short-term goals, rewards and opportunities. This is more expressive of the 'new world order' in which we live, at least until a new dominant paradigm arises.

A New Covenant

Where does this lead us?

The good thing about history is that it often provides an insight into our contemporary yearnings. As the ancient prophet, Jeremiah wrote:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31–34)

The Christian perspective is that a 'new world order' already exists. The 'new covenant' is one of peace and justice focussed on God. Regime change for the Christian is about bringing in the 'kingdom of God', which is God's rule on earth—'as it is in heaven'.

The symbol of this kingdom is the cross, which carries with it the ethos of self-sacrifice and unconditional love. It is not about having power and control over people, neither is it about exacting revenge or retaliation toward those who have wronged us, nor is it about persecuting or abusing the poor, weak or marginalised.

It is therefore through grace that God changes the world. This love goes on loving even when we are not loved in return. In worship, we recognise God's love for humanity in that he was willing to die for it, and we are challenged to do likewise. It is for this reason that the ordering of society is of interest to the Christian, but it should not arise out of the exercise of realpolitik or a desire to dominate.