TURES COLUMN: Realism vs. Christianity during Easter week

Published 10:30 am Thursday, April 14, 2022

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Throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I’ve received several emails touting either realism, or a noted realist scholar. The sender usually adds some words of enthusiasm about the theory. It’s often because we hear little of the costs of following this path of power politics, especially as this theory would treat Easter as a day without any special importance for our lives.

Realism is one of the oldest theories of political science. Scholars often trace its origin to Greek historian Thucydides and his account of the “Melian Dialogue,” in his writings on the Peloponnesian War. As my students learn when the read the account, the tiny town of Melos insists they be allowed to be neutral in the conflict, rather than submit to powerful Athens.

When faced with annihilation, the Melians appeal to their gods and the injustice of the Athenian position. The Athenians shrug off those arguments, with a “might makes right” counter-argument, and claims that the gods either don’t care, or will smile upon them if they win. Athens eventually does slaughter the Melians, which realists claim proves their point.

In fact, whenever a stronger side crushes a smaller side, some adherents of power politics count those as a win for their theory.

They seem to forget that Athens was wrecked during the Peloponnesian War, either showing God did take notice, or others saw the cruelty of Athenian actions and motivated them to fight harder, knowing what fate lay in store for them otherwise.

Realist theorists count Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Von Clausewitz as their prophets. It’s an amoral theory, which claims that religious values just don’t matter, and shouldn’t be part of our foreign policy. Massacres are dismissed by quotes like those from General William T. Sherman, who claimed that “War is hell, and you cannot refine it.” It allows some to wash their hands of the conflict, and purport not to be responsible when an innocent life is faced with torture and brutal execution. It’s not my problem, they can say. “The strong do as they will, and the weak suffer what they must,” Thucydides wrote of the Athenian position.

Certainly the weak could form alliances to strengthen themselves, and protect their lives, bonds formed around common political, economic, and perhaps even moral values. Those are countered by another realist politician, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, who once remarked “England has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.” Perhaps no image could represent that better than Vladimir Putin at the end of a long table, powerful and alone. There’s no room for self-sacrifice, helping the weak, or standing for anything other than the acquisition of, and usage of, power. Atonement? Forgiveness? Those values are non-existent in realism. And in realism, power isn’t really reflective of anything spiritual. Only hard, tangible assets, land, instruments or war, money would count for value, not soft power or anything divine. It gives to Caesar what is Caesar’s, so to speak, not to God what is God’s.

In a similar vein, Romans were able to execute Jesus.

Nearly every Apostle and early disciple met some form of brutal martyrdom. “Lions 35 Christians 0” a friend wrote on the board once at my Catholic high school, in jest, of course. But who really won that conflict?  Like the Athenians, the Romans had their day in the sun, but it came and went, while Christianity remains, having adherents across the globe, covering more territory than any Caesar could conquer. We can name more 12 apostles, prophets, judges, disciples and men and women of the Bible than we can recite any Athenian leader or Roman emperor. And that’s the reality today.