You’ve got to give it to him. It was a great rhetorical turn of phrase. Secretary of State John Kerry said of the Russian invasion of the Crimea, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text. It is serious in terms of sort of the modern manner with which nations are going to resolve problems.”
In saying this, he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies of barbarism. They’re behind the times by more than a century. They’re diplomatic troglodytes and President Obama added that they’re “on the wrong side of history.”
So take that, Vladimir Putin!
While I’m all for clever rhetorical turns of phrase, I’m also partial toward telling the truth.
Would that “invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text” was a vestige of the 19th century,” completely out of touch with “sort of the modern manner with which nations are going to resolve problems.” But this turns a blind eye to most of the 20th century and to a central fact of human nature.
A lethal combination of nationalism, militarism, and the Industrial Revolution resulted, in the early years of the 20th century, in European nations arming themselves to the teeth and developing itchy trigger fingers. When 19-year-old loser named Gavrilo Princip blundered into assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in June 1914, the result was rather a lot of “invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text” followed by the deaths of about 37 million.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen among others points out that Putin’s snatching the Crimean Peninsula can’t help but call to mind Adolph Hitler’s 1938 annexation of the Sudetenland, an ethnically German area that had been part of Czechoslovakia. “Hitler was a monster,” writes Cohen, “but in this case his argument had a superficial appeal: Germans, he contended, ought to be in Germany. Applied today: the Crimea is majority Russian, not Ukrainian ergo it ought to be part of Russia.
And what about the Japanese seizure of Nanking (1937) and the Philippines (1942), the Chinese take-over of Tibet (1950), Argentina trying to lay claim to the Falklands (1982), Iraq wanting Iran (1980) and Kuwait (1990), and the ongoing armed conflict over and around Israel to name only a few.
And don’t forget that in the rather young 21st century, Putin has managed to get away with invading Abkhazia and South Ossetia “on completely trumped up pre-text” (2008).
“Invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text” is more than a relic from the 1800s. It was with us through the 20th century and is still a tool for empire building today.
And thus it shall be in the 21st, 22nd, 23rd and every other century until Jesus returns. Why? Because despite progressives’ happy thoughts and seemingly shakable faith in the work of “experts,” human nature has not changed.
Progressives believe that we can, should, and will get beyond sin. Human nature, they are certain, can be changed and even perfected with some government directed combination of education, social engineering, careful breeding, and tax incentives.
Again, would that this was the case. But it’s not.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, the patron saint of most progressivism, famously said, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The Church teaches to the contrary that we are born in chains—the chains of original sin and of our enduring sin nature—and that we need Christ to free us.
While some are guilty of “invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” we all share the sins of invading, violating, hating, shunning, gossiping about, cheating, harming, or [fill in the blank] other people “on completely trumped up pre-text. Anyone who didn’t learn this in middle school, should have figured it out after about a week and a half in politics.
As G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy, “Modern master of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin—a fact as practical as potatoes.” Sin, he went on to note, “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” Just look around. The behavior of spouses, children, friends, colleagues, members of Congress, or monomaniacal autocrats (not to mention our own behavior) will baffle us unless we remember this “fact as practical as potatoes”: we are all sinners.
And that starchy fact isn’t going away. People in the 3rd, 12th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries and beyond are people and sinners—whether our progressive friends like it or not.
James Tonkowich is a writer and scholar at The Institute on Religion & Democracy where his focus is the intersection between faith and the public square, where worldview makes all the difference in the world. Jim worked with Chuck Colson, managing his daily BreakPoint radio commentary, founding a magazine, writing, speaking, and developing curriculum including the Centurions Program. He is a regular contributor to ReligionToday.com and also works with The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, Oxford House Research, and other policy institutes. Learn more about Jim at JimTonkowich.com.