In many places around the world, it’s easy for Christians to take peace for granted. But for much of history and even in many current contexts, Christians live with the real fear and threat of violence. One of God’s great provisions in this world is the establishment of nations and national powers. These powers are intended to provide defence for their people, as well as just rule. But Christians can often question whether national defence should be a priority and whether defence is simply a means of justifying violence. Shouldn’t we simply advocate for peace?
In this episode of the CCL podcast, together with Akos Balogh, Manager of External Engagement at Moore College, we think more about the place defending nations—especially considering the Russian attack on the Ukraine, and the rise of Chinese power and its expanding influence in the world.
Links referred to:
- “An urgent political issue Australian Christians should be talking about” by Akos Balogh
- Akos’s blog
- Previous episodes with Akos:
- Commanding the heart: Deception (24 August)
- 2021 CCL Annual
- Support the work of the Centre
Runtime: 30:23 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Chase Kuhn: In many places around the world, it’s easy for Christians to take peace for granted. But for much of history and even in many current contexts, Christians live with the real fear and threat of violence. One of the great provisions that God gives in this world is the establishment of nations and national powers. These powers are intended to provide defence for their people, as well as just rule. But Christians can easily question whether national defence should be a priority for them. Some may question whether defence is simply a means of justifying violence. Shouldn’t we simply advocate for peace?
Today on the podcast, we’re hearing more about the place of thinking about defending nations—especially with consideration of the Russian attack on the Ukraine, and the rise of Chinese power and its expanding influence in the world.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn and I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. Today, my guest on the podcast is someone who has been a regular guest on this show: Akos Balogh, who used to be the CEO for The Gospel Coalition Australia and who has recently changed roles now to being manager of external engagement here at Moore College. Akos, welcome!
Akos Balogh: Thanks so much for having me, Chase! It’s great to be on again.
CK: Great to have you back, mate! We always enjoy having you here. Just tell us a little bit about your new work: what is it that you’re doing and how does it excite you right now?
AB: Yeah, definitely. What I did with The Gospel Coalition Australia was try and get some really great content out to the world from a variety of writers, from a variety of people. That was part of my role as the CEO. I’ve moved across to Moore College and I’m doing something similar in terms of promoting the resources that Moore College has in terms of helping people come to Moore College as students, and communicating the great things that Moore College is doing to the rest of the world. So there’s a great overlap between the two, and I’m very excited, because Moore College, as many of the listeners will know, is greatly resourced. It’s a wonderful place of scholarship and learning, and there’s so many good things that I want the world to know about what’s going on here at college—both for the sake of the wider world, but also to resource Christians and equip Christians to live a life that’s honouring to Jesus.
CK: That’s great. Well, thanks, mate. Here on the podcast, that’s obviously what we’re trying to do: we’re trying to resource Christians, wherever they are, for thinking well in the Christian life. This is something you’ve been personally dedicated to for a long time, through your own blog and through your writing at The Gospel Coalition—even through your own studies in multiple theological degrees and in theological ethics, in particular, recently. So I’m really glad to have you on.
Today what we’re going to be talking about is really about whether or not Christians should think about national defence, and how Christians should think about national defence. It’s a strange thing for us in Australia: we talk about defence, we talk about nuclear submarines and things, and broken deals and new partnership, etcetera. But there are more imminent threats that get raised, especially as we start thinking about the invasion of Ukraine by Russia that’s happening right now. I would love to talk to you about this not only because of your interest in what we would call political theology, but also because of your personal history: many people may not know your story, and I’m very glad you’re willing to share a bit of your story. Tell us what it was like, growing up in Hungary and coming out of that space, and give us a window into your life and history.
AB: Thanks Chase! I was born in Hungary during the height of the Cold War in the late 70s. I was four years old when my parents decided to flee Hungary. It was a communist state at the time. We decided to hop on a train—get a tourist visa to Austria next door—and we managed to get to Austria and apply for political asylum to come to Australia. That was a great joy to be able to leave communist Eastern Europe—leave the Iron Curtain—and come to a free country.
I was four years old at the time, and I grew up here in Sydney among other refugees. There were a lot of Eastern European refugees, of course, in the Western world, and there was a Hungarian community here in Sydney. I grew up hearing the stories both from my own family—so my father’s family was very much affected by communism—but also the stories of the other Hungarian refugees. So I grew up in an environment where people were very aware of the dangers of communism. There was very little sense of “Isn’t communism nice and wonderful? We’re all Kumbaya”—collectivism, that sort of thing. People saw the ugly side of it. It’s given me a great awareness of the threat that communism can pose to people, in terms of the way it’s ruined so many people’s lives, both in Eastern Europe and across the world and today, as we’re seeing in China and other parts of the world as well.
CK: For those who didn’t grow up during the Cold War, or to whom it seems like a distant memory, just give us a few windows into some of the horrors of what you know of society under communism.
AB: Yes, certainly. There’s been various periods when communism was particularly bad. For those who know modern history, they’ll know the name of Joseph Stalin: under him, communism was probably at its worst. Certainly from the 1930s to the early 1950s, up until he died—certainly in the Soviet Union, but also in the countries that he occupied after the Second World War, including Hungary. Stalinist communism was awful: people would be taken in the middle of the night and imprisoned without charge. Their families wouldn’t know where they went. That actually happened to a great grandfather of mine: suddenly in the middle of the night, he was taken away, and for months on end. The family had no understanding of where he went to. It turned out he was a prison in another part of Hungary and taken to places like Siberia as well. There was the Gulags that people might have heard of—terrible, terrible places. It was just one of those environments where people lived with constant fear, constant anxiety and constant tension as to whether they would be next. It was just a really difficult place to be.
Hungarian communism wasn’t as bad—particularly when I was born. But it was still a very dehumanising experience, where people didn’t have freedom of religion, freedom of thought or freedom of political expression. It was just a really difficult place to be. Which is why people like my parents decided to get out, so they could give my brothers and I a better place to grow up in.
CK: Was faith part of that reason? Were your parents Christian? Was that a reason why they were seeking asylum?
AB: Not for my parents in particular. For them, it was a purely political reason—economic reason—which, can I say, is one of the reasons that Christians should be concerned about totalitarian states—not just because of the way it affects us as Christians, but because of the way it affects our non-Christian neighbours and the damage that it does to them.
CK: Yeah, that’s very helpful. I’m really grateful to hear your story, because when we grow up in a free, liberal society—democracy—we experience things that we obviously take for granted. Here in Australia or America, where I’m from, these are things we take for granted on the daily. But as we hear about the experience of somewhere like Ukraine—somewhere that had come of Soviet rule and now feels the threat of Soviet rule again—we’re often seeking to feel some sort of empathy. I guess the two ways that I think about people going back and forward is either they really want to do something to help, but feel powerless, or they feel totally apathetic, because they just don’t have any knowledge of what it would be like to be on the ground. So I’m glad to hear a bit of your story.
What do you think it’s like, then, as we think about the imminent threat of invasion and things like that: is that something we should ever think about in a place like Australia, where we’re more or less an island nation, even though we’re a continent? How would you encourage Christians to be thinking about this today?
AB: That’s a great question, Chase. I’ve written a piece for my blog, and hopefully it will appear elsewhere as well. I think that national defence is something that Christians should think about partly because I would argue that the Bible encourages us to think about the role of government in places like Romans 13—the role of government being to bring about justice within a government’s jurisdiction. But I would argue that the role of government is also to bring about justice against external invaders: people who would want to invade a country. A government has a role in protecting and defending its citizens.
When it comes to Australia, thankfully we haven’t faced invasions since World War II. We’ve been very blessed in this nation. But many astute observers are saying—and not just astute observers; I think it’s becoming quite obvious—that the Pacific order around us is changing a great deal. We have the rise of China under the leadership Xi Jinping. They’re becoming much more aggressive. We’ve certainly felt this economically here in Australia, and politically. We’ve what’s known as “wolf warrior diplomacy”, where the Chinese Communist Party is saying some very aggressive things about us and towards us. I think that’s also slowly being backed up more and more by an expanding military that could well pose a threat to Australia’s sovereignty in the very near future.
CK: Yeah, we see this obviously within the Solomon Islands—defence contracts there. We see former places that would have been part of the British Commonwealth, like Hong Kong, being reclaimed by China recently.
AB: Absolutely. Yep.
CK: So we can imagine, then, the kinds of moves that could be creeping outwards and towards us in our borders. Plus when we’ve got an economic advantage: so many of our raw materials are exported to them for the development of their goods and manufacturing. It would be very easy to see justification for why invasion would happen.
This isn’t meant to be scaremongering, of course. But how do we, without being just afraid all the time, think responsibly about this?
AB: I think it comes back to the responsibility that government has in terms of looking after its people—ensuring justice within its people, but also against those who might seek to attack its people. I think government has an important role, and Christians in a democracy play a role in that government and in the national conversation. I think we have a lot to contribute to that conversation about the wellbeing—the common good—in Australia. Part of the common good is ensuring that we’re protected against external aggression.
CK: Yeah. Now when you talk to Christians, what are the hurdles in this conversation? I can imagine there being at least some imagined virtue of pacifism and peace and everything else. But when you’re advocating for a defence system, you’re not actually advocating for violence. You’re actually advocating for a means of peacekeeping. Is that correct?
AB: That’s right. History has shown us that aggressive nations—well, we see it in the Ukraine; we don’t need to look any further there. We see it in people like Vladimir Putin, who have a desire to expand their sphere of influence—their autocratic sphere of influence. They attacked Ukraine because they saw Ukraine as a target that they could take over. They saw Ukraine as weak—as fairly defenceless. We now know that Putin thought that Ukraine would fall within three days. Obviously that didn’t happen.
But Putin would not have attacked Ukraine if he thought that Ukraine would have put up a strong fight. Would Putin have attacked Ukraine if he knew that Ukraine was going to put up the current fight? We’re not sure. But if he saw Ukraine as a very strong country that’s able to defend itself, then it would have been much, much less likely that Vladimir Putin would have taken out Ukraine.
CK: Yeah, in some ways, that’s been the argument for nuclear armament for so long. I mean, if you possess major weapons that can do serious damage, that is a deterrent for other nations, then, to attack you. In one sense, it gives you power of defence and it serves just to almost remove the chances of war further and further back.
When you’re thinking about what Christians should think about in terms of national defence, even politically, what kinds of things are you arguing for? Or what do you think Christians should reasonably be lobbying for?
AB: Certainly a couple of things. Firstly, a defence force that’s able to meet the challenges that we’re in—that’s able to actually protect its people. I think that’s a reasonable thing that Christians should be able to lobby and advocate for. Certainly in terms of the way we do politics: so we want to have politics that builds relationships with friendly countries—builds alliances that puts us in a place where, if we are attacked, then we have people to come help us. Also, a politics that’s not aggressive and provocative towards other nations: we don’t want to be the bully boy in our area; we want to be someone who builds relationships with other countries and is a country of goodwill—such that if someone does attack us, it’s really only because they’re an aggressive nation that wants to take what we have. It’s not because of anything we’ve done towards them.
CK: Yeah. That’s really helpful, and I really like the ways that you’ve given us parameters for thinking about these things—that there are good things to pursue to certain ends, but not other things, because we actually aren’t trying to be aggressive and attacking, but we’re trying to avert those kinds of attacks.
When you think about alliances that exist—that was one of the key things you mentioned—one of the questions I can imagine people having is, “How do we make judgements about which alliance is right? So much today is about political spin in media and everything else, for example, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). NATO is a powerful alliance of nations. It has served as an deterrent for wars in other places and has been a peacekeeping organisation. But how could you not be cynical about that? Or should we have some kind of realistic expectations in our minds about, maybe, economic agendas, for example, if we’re playing devil’s advocate? What kinds of things could be seen on the other side?
AB: Very interestingly, I think there’s a lot of cynicism on the other side towards NATO, which countries like Putin’s has had. I think it’s worth mentioning, though, that NATO has expanded eastward towards the former Iron Curtain countries like Hungary. But it did so—those countries entered voluntarily, so they applied for NATO membership. NATO isn’t this hegemonic imperialistic organisation that just wants to expand the same way that Putin’s Russia, for example, wants to expand; it’s an organisation that is voluntary, and people join—countries join. They apply to join. Some countries are knocked back for certain reasons, but it’s very much a case of it’s a voluntary organisation.
And it’s purely defensive, so Article 5 of the NATO charter is a purely defensive article that says if one country gets attacked within NATO, then all the other countries are obligated to come to its defence. But it’s purely a defensive organisation. So I think that’s a fairly clear one, as opposed to maybe some other alliances that are around in the world.
Likewise the ANZUS Treaty that Australia is a part of: my understanding is, again, that’s a defensive alliance, where if we were attacked, then the United States would come and help us. Obviously there’s complexity around this: we live in a fallen world. Nothing’s perfect. So one could argue that because of our desire to be on America’s good side, we’ve involved ourselves in wars, perhaps, that we might not have otherwise—for example, Vietnam, Iraq and so forth. So there’s complexities around there.
I guess I want to say we’ll never get it completely right—perfectly right. But I think history shows us that organisations like NATO have kept the peace in Europe—up until recent events with the Ukraine. They’ve kept the peace in Europe for the last 70 years after some two pretty devastating wars. So I think in one sense, the proof is in the pudding: it’s been a very peaceful alliance. ANZUS has kept us safe and kept the region relatively safe as well. So I think, looking at the history of it, there’s a sense in which we can say, “These are good alliances that we can a part of and support”.
CK: Yeah. I guess people are always afraid of alliances, because they seem to be amassing power. But if people are understanding—you can easily ascribe motive to the alliance and think it’s actually trying to shore up power so that it can attack somebody else. But if the alliance is based on a defensive premise, then that’s actually a very different story. There are safeguards built into that kind of power team, if you will.
AB: So much so that the Australian Defence Force—for people who don’t know, we’ve only got 65,000 full-time personnel. We don’t have much by way of equipment: we’ve perhaps got 100 fighter jets to defend our nation. We are not a strong power at all. Part of the reason is because our defence posture up until recently, and I can argue even now, is very much reliant on the Americans. Same with NATO: NATO countries are very much reliant on America being there to help them and protect them.
So if nothing else, those particular alliances—NATO and ANZUS—have incentivised people not to worry about their defence, because we’ve got someone like America backing us up.
CK: Yeah. Again, cynics would question these alliances, thinking that we then play puppets to the master and do whatever we’re told, and have to then play according to their rules. But again, all of this is bound up in what is signed off in our treaties and things like that.
CK: On 24 August, we’ll be hosting the third in our series on “Commanding the heart”—this time, considering deception. Integrity seems almost mythical in our current culture. Suspicion runs deep largely because of a history of lying and deception. At some points, our culture celebrates this kind of sleight in order to gain the upper hand. The problem, of course, isn’t novel: there are many guarantees that we’ve been using to establish our own words, like “I swear” or “On my mother’s grave”.
But Jesus says that kingdom living leaves no room for deception. As recipients of the truth, disciples must live a life of truth. I invite you to join us on 24 August as Dr Tony Payne leads us to discover discipleship without deception.
One further resource that I’d like to bring to your attention is our 2021 CCL Annual. Each year we compile an annual, which collects the highlights from the previous year’s resources from across our events, our podcasts and the essays that we publish. Last year’s main theme was on community, and in this annual, you can especially find resources from each of our four events on the theme of community, as well as so many other resources. Each entry is short and digestible, and is a really great way for you to keep on engaging with deep thinking on the Christian life from the biblical perspective. I encourage you to check that out on our website: ccl.moore.edu.au or wherever you would get your ebooks.
Finally, in view of our conversation on the podcast today, I’d love for you to consider joining us later on this year on 19 October for the final part of our series on “Commanding the heart”—this time, looking at vengeance. From the dawn of time, systems of justice have demanded recompense for wrongs. The most fundamental systems have been the kind-for-kind, like “an eye for an eye”, “a tooth for a tooth”, “a life for a life”, etcetera. In fact, this sort of basic justice system is biblical and at the foundation of so much of the law in Scripture. But in the kingdom, Jesus tells us that there’s no room for vengeance. Indeed, life in the kingdom demands forbearance and forgiveness.
What does this mean for us practically as Christians? Is there any justice? Again, I invite you to plan to join us on 19 October as Dr Andrew Errington leads us to discover how Jesus transforms our expectations and pursuits of justice, and leads us away from vengeance.
Now let’s get back to our program.
CK: Now, just back to your personal story, you served as defence personnel at one point in time. My first church posting, by the way, was in a military community, and we had a lot of armed service men and women in our congregations. I was actually introduced to, in one sense, the virtue of serving in that kind of role a while back in that church, and learned a lot from the experience of those men and women. But tell me about how you thought about this. You entered into the air force in Australia. How as a Christian did you think about these things? What did you think you were doing? How did you—not justify, in a sense, that this is a bad position, but how did you find justification for that role as a good thing to do?
AB: Certainly. So if we take a step back, after high school, I joined the Australian Army. I joined for a year in what was known then as the Ready Reserve scheme, so you were a full-time soldier for a year. Prior to that, I did a lot of thinking in terms of, “Is it right for me to want to serve in the army?” because I’d just become a Christian and that brought that question to the fore.
I came to the conclusion that the Bible isn’t against serving in a military. It asks bigger questions about what that military does. But I thought to myself, “Australia is a country that is signatory to the Geneva Convention. It’s a responsible player on the international scene. And it’s a great country to defend.” So me as an immigrant, I thought I’d play my part and sign up to defend this great nation of ours, because I thought it was a responsible thing to do.
Then during university, I got a scholarship with the Air Force and worked in the Air Force after university for five years, fixing broken aeroplanes as an officer. Again, the same justification was there: I saw that the Bible allows for—even commends—military service. You can be a faithful Christian and a faithful military serving personnel. Again, for the same reason, I thought this was a good use of my time to defend the good things that we have here in Australia against foreign aggressors.
CK: Yeah, that’s helpful. Thank you. Where would you have felt the clash with your faith in that role potentially?
AB: Certainly the idea of killing someone else—the idea of taking another life. There’s no bones about it: from day #1 of army training, we’re there to shoot and kill people, and we’re there to be ready to be deployed. I never got deployed overseas. I’ve never actually been in a situation where I’ve had to take another human life. But obviously that’s a very big thing to do—taking a human life on behalf of the state. I’m sure if I’d been deployed overseas, that question would have become very much front and centre in my mind: is it right for me to take this life for the sake of Australian foreign policy—for the sake of what the state is asking me to do?
CK: Yeah. Just moving that back even a step closer to home, many people will question about the right not just to protect a nation, but to protect themselves. Do we have a right to self-defence as Christians, and to what extent does that right carry itself out—play itself out?
AB: Yeah, it’s very interesting, because if you look at Romans 12, for example, it talks about not taking vengeance. We ourselves—I think we have a right—to be honest, as I think about this—as you’ve asked the question—I think we have a right to defend ourselves. Jesus does tell us to turn the other cheek. So I’m sure there’s a conversation there about what would be the right thing to do if someone did attack us, and I think it’s perfectly right to be someone who does turn the other cheek and allows yourself to be assaulted.
But it’s interesting that Romans 12 is followed by Romans 13, which says that it’s the state’s role to execute judgement. So at the very least, if I was assaulted on the street, it would not be up to me to be the judge, jury and executioner, as it were, trying to bring justice to the other person. It would be me, if I defended myself or if I turned the other cheek, to then pass this person across to the state authorities and let them execute the judgement on that person.
CK: Yeah, that’s very helpful. Thank you. We can make a quick plug for an event we have later on this year on vengeance: we are thinking about what Jesus does in thinking about the law of retaliation, and whether or not we should take an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, and how that changes for us as Christians.
I wonder if it comes back to—again, we’ll explore this later—but I wonder if it comes back to how we think about the function of each. So if I am attacked because of my faith, I have a freedom, in one sense, in Christ, to turn the other cheek, resting assured of that ultimate justice. But as I’m thinking about belonging to a nation, it’s not especially Christian that we’re thinking that way. We’re actually thinking about a basic system of justice for the world being sustained. So our participation in that space, from a defensive perspective, is actually for maintaining peace and establishing justice in the land. I guess there’s different ways of thinking there about what we have—personal freedoms and rights versus those other things. We could have a whole long conversation, I’m sure, too, about bearing arms and other forms of violence, which are more native to my homeland than they are here.
AB: Sure. It’s fairly straightforward in Australia: unless you have a licence, it’s very restricted in terms of bearing arms, for sure.
CK: Yeah. In America, you still have to have a licence, but it’s just easier to get! [Laughter]
AB: You’ve got the—is it the Second Amendment over there that gives you the constitutional right to have weapons in your homes?
CK: That’s right. It’s the right to bear arms. It’s very much a “I can protect what’s mine”, and obviously that gets twisted and distorted.
Now, Akos, as we head into the conclusion of our talk, I would love to know why Christians don’t think about this more often and why you would encourage people to think of this as a priority for them, in their political voting, in their personal advocacy and everything else. Why is this important for people to think about? Now, again, we’re not the Ukraine. We don’t feel the imminent threat. Maybe somebody listening is in the Ukraine or has come out of the Ukraine. That’s a different story of course. We don’t feel the imminent threat of another nation. But why should Christians think about this now?
AB: Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, I think there’s a biblical argument to make for the importance of a state being able to defend itself and bring justice to those under its care. So I think there’s a strong biblical argument there—which ties a fairly straight line to the importance of national defence.
But also I think there’s a wisdom argument—maybe a pragmatic argument—such that if Australia was attacked—if we were occupied by someone like a communist Chinese state—then everything that Christians cared about—freedom of religion, freedom of speech, care for the poor, the good of the environment—that would all be adversely affected by foreign occupation. So for me, it’s one of those things that if we don’t care about it and the worst happens, then everything else that we do care about—all the other issues that we rightly care about—will be very adversely affected.
CK: Yeah. This has to be thought of beyond just the hypothetical. Some people feel like it’s so far off, it’s not going to happen. Surely not! But as I’ve said, you’ve lived in contexts where it was a real thing. So there could very well be a real threat.
AB: There’s no promise in the Bible—there’s no natural law that says that a country like Australia can’t be invaded or attacked. We’ve just experienced a time of peace for which we can thank God for. But it seems, looking at our surroundings, that time is changing. So I think as Christians, it would be wise for us to think carefully about it.
CK: Yeah. Maybe one final question, then, is how do we think about the sovereignty of God in this? You said that God has given us peace; I can imagine many people would say, “Well, we can trust the Lord in all these things,” which of course, we can. But of course, there are Christians in the Ukraine and they’re literally being bombarded. So how do we actually think about, then, the sovereignty of God and our cult of responsibility in seeking a national defence scheme?
AB: Yeah, absolutely. I think the sovereignty of God is one side of the coin and the other side of the coin is our responsibility. So thinking more broadly, if we take a step back, God is sovereign, but we’re still told—we’re still commanded—to do good—to look after our families, to look after those around us, to love our neighbour in as many ways as we can. So I think this falls under the category of loving our neighbour—Galatians 6:10: doing good to all people. We’re commanded to do that, even though God is sovereign. So as a Christian, I look at this and I think, I want to pray that God’s will be done in this area of national defence. I want to—particularly I pray that war will not come to our shores or come to our region. And yet, at the same time, I know that I have a God-given responsibility to love my neighbour. Particularly being in a democracy where I have a responsibility to engage with politics as a voter, I want to use that responsibility well, including thinking about advocating for a national defence that does good to my neighbour.
CK: Yeah, that’s good. It’s not just a responsibility, which of course it is, but a privilege.
AB: Oh, look, it’s a privilege that Paul, writing in Romans 13, couldn’t have imagined. There was no sense there of Christians being able to influence the government, as it were. But we have an amazing privilege in being able to influence the government. I would argue that we do well to use that influence for the good of our neighbour.
CK: Yeah, and I think prayer is so crucial, as you’ve mentioned, and prayer for the peace of those who are suffering at the moment is definitely of high importance as we trust the Lord in these things.
Akos, it’s great to have you back, mate, and I hope that we’ll get to hear from you again sometime soon. Great to have you on the team here at Moore as well. Thanks for coming on.
AB: Thanks so much for having me, Chase! It’s a pleasure.
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