Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

The True Realists

With the onslaught of 24/7 news coverage on the horrific war in Ukraine—articles, assessments, opinions, reporters on site—it can be difficult to navigate this chaotic landscape. It’s important to think carefully, read selectively, and appraise theologically. As Bilbro advises in his Reading the Times, we need to be wise with how we consume the news.

More than ever, we need to be informed. We are witnessing the greatest crisis continental Europe has faced since World War II. It’s also imperative to get a deeper perspective to interpret what is taking place. I come back to Robert Kagan’s succinct and insightful book, The Jungle Grows Back. He has helped me to gain a bigger picture.

Kagan wrote his book in 2018, and his words were surely prophetic: “The problem Russia has faced since the end of the Cold War is that the greatness Putin and many Russians seek cannot be achieved in a world that is secure and stable.” To achieve greatness on stage, Russia must bring the world back to a past when neither Russians nor anyone else enjoyed security. Democratic revolutions that seek to create a liberal order—like the one attempted in Ukraine—work to undermine Putin’s authoritarian rule and global stature. This explains his sense of grievance and decision to wage war.

Kagan compares the liberal world order (the one we have lived under) to a garden and the violent geopolitical arena to a jungle. We have lived in this fragile peace, a bubble of a sort, experiencing several decades of relative peace and prosperity, not to mention technological advances. Some point to these post-Enlightenment achievements as proof humanity is moving forward. Kagan refers to such assumptions as myths. There has been no lasting advancement in human behavior. Watching maternity wards being bombed and civilians indiscriminately killed, we see the same atrocities that have marred history from the beginning. With threats of a larger war, I feel like I am living through the same angst brought on by the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was a kid.

It seems we are at a critical juncture. At issue is whether we in the West will rise to the occasion as we did with past autocrat types like Hitler and Stalin and Khrushchev. Will we step up to the reality before us or hide in our self-imposed bubble?  Slowly, cautiously, it seems we are stepping up and pushing back. It has taken time, for we are breaking out of an illusion that these years of peace meant we were moving into a globalist utopianism, a new heaven on earth, thanks to education and technology, and enlightened minds. We assumed that, even with ideological differences, commerce will tame the souls of men. A Starbucks in every region and a Coke in every hand will increase harmony and cooperation. It has only helped the rich to get richer.

Kagan wants the reader to see that our liberal world order is ever under siege from natural forces. He likens it to a jungle whose vines and weeds constantly threaten to overwhelm the garden. The images on the nightly news bring us back to this reality, what some call Realpolitik versus an idealistic one. But time with God reminds me we also need a Realtheology, one based upon things as they ultimately are. Building upon last week’s post, these are examples that help me discern and get perspective:

Realnature-Passages like Psalm 53 and Romans 3 drive home the point we are all flawed and broken. We cannot divide the world into good and evil, for the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being (Solzhenitsyn). No one on this side of heaven has a monopoly on trust and justice; every nation has its corruption and deceits. Though we have progressed, we haven’t gotten rid of sin. Given time, nations (and individuals) revert to old habits and traditions. Hence, we must be ever vigilant.

Realevil-Though we all are sinful by nature, there are large and terrible versions of sin, an evil pointing to a deeper, more sinister spiritual war. There is a darkness and an author of evil who continues to unleash his demonic forces. His aim is the same—no matter his instruments: to destroy God’s good world and his image-bearing human creatures. Hence, we must see this for what it is—a radical evil that must be named, confronted, and prayed against. I daily pray that shame, confusion, and divine judgment will fall over these forces.

Realleader-It’s been our preference since the first Garden to prefer kings of our choosing rather than God. In every culture, we are more attracted to a tribal Big Man to lead us and fight our battles, and punish our enemies (note Israel’s insistence for this in 1 Samuel 8). Hence, we look to Washington for the answers to our problems. We wait to hear the latest pronouncement from the White House. Reality tells us we would do much better to wait on God and place our greatest hopes in him. He alone is king.

Realprogressivism-Lots of people like to think of themselves as progressive, but real progress transcends mere social change (civil rights, social justice, gender rights). Today’s progressives might suggest they have the answers to our questions, but real change begins at the level of the heart. Such a transformation can only happen when one has experienced the saving work of Jesus and the empowering work of the Spirit. Otherwise, humanity only regresses.

Realtruth-No matter where we turn to be informed, a certain amount of our news is fabrications. Too many sensational headlines are aimed at creating what Goldberg calls “a noxious smog of feelings and desired yet fake facts.” Our best attention begins with gaining the truth God has revealed in his Word. We were made to know him above everything and every event. In him, we find that truth and meaning are not found in ourselves or in the state. When a world government is invested with ultimate meaning, we lose our way. The state can do good things, but it cannot “fill the holes in our souls.”

Realhope-There are ultimately no left or right-wing solutions. Liberal world order can take one only so far. While we are to honor the ruling authorities, our primary task, as NT Wright puts it, is to pray that they carry out their primary task to do justice and love mercy. No matter our experience and feelings, our best and only hope is in God, who has defeated evil at the cross; it is inevitable that the devil and his minions will be overthrown. In the meantime, pray for his intervention.

Leave a Reply