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Which Way the Trolley: America’s Hot Wars During the Cold War, Part 2

Realistic or not, to certain persons, war with any means is always immoral.

As Secretary of State under President Obama, Clinton entered into the seedy but necessary business of building alliances to fight ISIL and other Islamic terrorists. Some of the allies available in this war are every bit as corrupt and unsavory as the allies Truman and Johnson had in fighting Communism. Clinton also had the reputation of being more hawkish than Obama, and urged more force be applied directly to combat ISIS than the President was willing to use. That is, she believed that the trolley lever had to be pulled harder for immediate increase in violence and war to avoid larger and more devastating consequences later. She may have been right, or perhaps not, and Obama’s restraint may have been wiser. We must wait for history to make this clear. In any case, there were no demonstrators against Clinton shouting, “Hilary, Hilary how many drones killed kids today!”[21] All of which means that in a position of power, Hillary was forced to come to the Niebuhr-like conclusion that to achieve a broad good and prevent the triumph of evil, some violence and political compromises are necessary – much different from her position as a student when she and her anti-war allies could posture that all violence must be ended now.

It is interesting to note that her boss, President Obama, has been a conscious fan of Niebuhr all of his political life. David Brooks, The New York Times conservative columnist, interviewed Obama when he was a senator:

Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”
Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”[22]


Biblical perspective on human wisdom

To be clear, I am not arguing that political and ideological argumentation is always wrong or misleading, but rather that any political system or ideology must be counterbalanced by a good grasp of history and the ability to correct itself if historical facts contradict its assumptions. This quality was what the anti-war movement lacked.

The Bible is thoroughly historical.

Is it most important to note that the Bible is primarily historical books. Proverbs give wise advice, but it is not a work of theological reflection or ideological reasoning. If theology is the religious twin of ideology, then certain passages from Paul and the other Epistle writers can pass as theology. But note the balance in the Bible, a lot of history, some moral guidance and encouragement, some poetry, and a dash of theology.

The Bible is so thoroughly historical that much of its history is repeated. The books of 1 and 2 Chronicles repeat and give a different perspective on the books of 1 and 2 Kings. The four Gospels repeat and comment on each other. Is this God’s way of saying to us that historical understand is a better way to wisdom than ideology? I believe the answer is obvious.

At many times in history, theology became an idol to be obeyed rather than a servant of faith.

To buttress this let me point out that in the history of Christianity those nations which prided themselves as Christian because their theology was orthodox often sinned in the most cruel and astonishing ways. I am thinking of Spain in the Middle Ages and its development of the Inquisition, which was a terror tool to enforce orthodox theology. Note that no one died at the hands of the Inquisition because they misunderstood the chronology of Matthew 1, or the sequence of the reigning Kings of Judah. But many were often tortured and burnt to death because they disagreed with the Catholic theological/philosophical consensus.

The parallels between the Inquisition and Stalin’s tribunals and torture cells are too numerous to list. This over-estimation of philosophically-driven theology and its catastrophic expectation that dissenting theologies will lead to heresy, damnation and the ruination of the Church, is by no means restricted to medieval Catholicism. The masterful works of the Christian historian Philip Jenkins have shown us that early on, Christians took differences in terminology and philosophical understanding of Biblical revelation as something serious enough to kill for. In short, theology became an idol to be obeyed rather than a servant of faith.[23]

We cannot produce perfect outcomes and utopias, but must do the best we can to limit human suffering and injustice.

But let us return to the main subject at hand. Those that are wise recognize that all of us must make trolley decisions large and small. Coaches must cut team members, company executives can sometimes only save their company by firing some excellent staff, the governor of a nation must decide between peace and war. It is an understanding that we are on earth not to produce perfect outcomes and utopias, but to do the best we can to limit human suffering and injustice – even if it means pulling the trolley lever.


Last words

America did win the Cold War, something that was of titanic importance for the long-term welfare of the world and something that should be recognized and celebrated by all Americans.

Certainly, America did not fight the hot wars of the Cold War sinlessly or without foolish elements and miscalculation. That is inherent to human political life, as Niebuhr would point out. But the ultimate achievement was of titanic importance for the long-term welfare of the world and should be recognized and celebrated by all Americans. We might even consider setting aside a national holiday and day of remembrance, as for instance the day the Berlin Wall fell (November 9).

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Category: Church History, Winter 2017

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include Quenching the Spirit: Discover the Real Spirit Behind the Charismatic Controversy (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015), and The Public Prayer Station: Taking Healing Prayer to the Streets and Evangelizing the Nones (Emeth Press, 2018). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He continues in his healing, teaching and writing ministry and is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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