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Three Biblical Pillars of Non-interventionism: Sovereignty of Nations (Part I)

"There is a reason so many conservatives, libertarians, and right-wingers loved Trump’s anti-intervention election rhetoric because we had all seen how much of a disaster foreign wars could be. However, some people think we just went about it wrong, and should still try to intervene."

“Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.” (Proverbs 26:17)

The war in Ukraine has caused quite the stir. The wars in Yemen, Somalia and Syria, all involving the West and its allies, continue to be non-events as far as the media and most Aussies are concerned. But the war in Ukraine has caused a stir, and it is causing people to divide over whether or not we should intervene, or for some, how we should intervene because many just consider intervention to be what the West should do.

I want to strongly argue against intervention. I did not always see things this way, I used to be in agreement with the neoconservative position on interventionism. I thought the West could spread civilisation via military intervention. I even informed myself on the topic by reading leading advocates of neoconservative thought. For example, Douglas Murray, who published Neoconservatism: Why We Need It, in 2005. Aside from noting the different publishing dates, Wikipedia summarizes this book very well,

Neoconservatism: Why We Need It is a 2006 book by Douglas Murray, in which the author argues that neoconservatism offers a coherent platform from which to tackle genocide, dictatorships and human rights abuses in the modern world, that the terms neoconservativism and neocon are often both misunderstood and misrepresented, and that neoconservativism can play a progressive role in the context of modern British politics.

The book was described by the Social Affairs Unit as “a vigorous defence of the most controversial political philosophy of our age”.

The book is an eloquent defence of the kind of military action that George Bush and his administration took when they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. To put it simply, the book makes the case that the West should take democracy all over the world, including by force if necessary and use their might and wealth to solve the injustices of the world. As I said, the book is eloquent but is essentially nonsense, and in retrospect, dangerous nonsense.

The American wars in the Middle East have served to destabilize a region that has deep roots in the most ancient civilisations in the world. Societies with deeply entrenched patterns of behaviour and thought. You can’t change this with a battalion of Marines. We may be militarily stronger at the moment, but the idea that we can promote to these ancient peoples “superior” ideas at the muzzle of an M4 assault rifle and threat of an F22 jet fighter is completely foolish.[1]

So, I don’t reject neoconservatism without understanding it very well. I once was a big believer that we should use our militaries to solve many of the world’s problems:

The result of the Arab spring I was referring to, was the further destabilization of the Middle East. What I was ignoring at the time was the major cause of that destabilization was Western intervention in a region where we have no right to be, where we have little knowledge of how to really navigate, and where we have continually exacerbated existing problems. The idea that a few years or even a couple of decades of rule via imperial military force can wipe away millennia of cultural feuds and conflicts, and ideas about how civilisation can work is the height of foolishness and the peak of human arrogance.

There are civilisations in the Middle East that have forged their identity in resisting the invader, for millennia. Only the naïve think we can change this in even a lifetime. Eventually, many of those who had previously supported the wars realized this was the case, and that they were foolish. There is a reason so many conservatives, libertarians, and right-wingers loved Trump’s anti-intervention election rhetoric because we had all seen how much of a disaster foreign wars could be. However, some people think we just went about it wrong, and should still try to intervene.  

When I am arguing with people about why we should not intervene in foreign wars, I am not just arguing against those people, I am arguing against young Matt, who wrongly believed the West had every right to stamp its authority on the destabilized regions of the world. After all, we have a superior way of life, were we not doing the developing world a favour by seeking to show it our wars? We have the benefit of hindsight to say intervening was a disaster. We also have the benefit of the perspective of the Bible on this issue.

As I demonstrated in my previous post on intervention, Jesus shows us that intervening in foreign conflicts is not an automatic Christian concern. Here is another example: “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’” (Luke 12:13-14). Jesus knew there was wisdom in keeping out of a fight that was not his.

Jesus’ perspective here correctly reflects the words inspired by him in Proverbs 26:17, “He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears.” When someone interferes in a fight, they think they are making two friends. But more likely they are making one friend and an enemy, and sometimes two enemies. There is wisdom in not engaging in a fight that is not your concern, and a leader must be focused on doing what is necessary for their people. Even in this regard, Jesus limited himself because who better to judge between these two men than him, yet he chose not to. The Old Testament shows us why Jesus felt so strongly about this.

A lot of people who discuss this topic use vague and tangential verses like the parable of the Good Samaritan or the concept of being our brother’s keeper, or of defending the cause of the needy to seek to justify intervention. But these are all passages about how individuals should treat each other or how kings should judge their own nations. They are not about geo-political issues. Those who rely on such passages are ignoring so many direct passages which actually teach foundational biblical concepts about national sovereignty and geo-politics.

When people ignore the directly relevant passages, and simply seek to build up a case based on unrelated passages, you can know their case is weak, but their will to prove their point is strong. The Bible has much to say on this issue of intervention and sovereignty, and I want to give you three biblical pillars of anti-interventionism, with this first here, and the next two in part two. The first pillar is the sovereignty of nations, or the sovereignty of leaders over their own people.  

Sovereignty of Nations

God designed nations to be sovereign, and to be self-governed within their borders. Deuteronomy 32:8 “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.”[2] This passage is referring to the table of nations in Genesis 10. These nations are to be ruled by their leaders from among their own people;

“When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ 15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.” (Deut. 17:14-17)

Israel was to ensure that they were ruled by their own peoples, not by foreigners. This is God’s ideal state for a nation. A nation ruled by foreigners, or overcome by foreigners, is a cursed nation.

“Ashkelon shall see it, and be afraid; Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish; Ekron also, because its hopes are confounded. The king shall perish from Gaza; Ashkelon shall be uninhabited; 6 a mixed people shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of Philistia.” (Zechariah 9:5-6)

God’s intention is for nations to be self-governed. This immediately tells us that interfering in another nation is not the correct purview of national leaders, their role is to serve and lead their own people.

“The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezekiel 34:1-6)

Or as Jesus tells us, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Jesus is essentially summarizing the Old Testament’s theology of national leadership. Nations were to leave each other alone, and not to seek to rule over each other. They could trade with each other, but not interfere with each other (c.f. Deut. 2:6-8). When a nation is invaded, and overcome, this is a sign that God has withdrawn his favour from that nation.

This teaching really should be enough to ensure that nations do not interfere with other nations. The leaders of a nation only have authority within that nation. If they interfere with another nation, that did not provoke them, then they are stepping outside of their God-given authority. God allows this to happen in the Scriptures, for example when he allowed Babylon to rise to power. But many passages explicitly tell us that he did this as a means of judgement on the nation of Israel and her neighbours.

For example, in Habakkuk God tells the prophet that he is raising up the Babylonians to judge the land.

“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. 6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.” (Hab. 1:5-7)

But this does not give us the right to think we have the authority to do this, because God also judges Babylon for rising itself up above the nations.

“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! 10 You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. 11 For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.” (Hab. 2:9-11)

Nations are sovereign only over their own peoples. Anything more goes beyond the biblical intentions for nations and causes nothing but strife. This pillar should suffice, but the Bible gives us even more wisdom on this topic, which we will explore in part two.


[1] Of course, while some neo-conservatives want to spread democracy across the world, others believe the U.S. exists to protect Israel’s interests (for example the Israel lobbies and Christian Zionist movements), and there are of course economic interests. We cannot go into details about this here, but if you would like to learn more, watch this lecture: The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy: John J. Mearsheimer

[2] A divergent manuscript tradition translates this as the sons of Israel (Jacob), but Israel did not exist when the original nations were divided and established.