God’s Security Strategy: Reconciliation Up, Out, and Down

By Lisa Schirch

As Washington tires of its faith in firepower, new possibilities arise for rethinking the relationship between religion and policymaking. Though the State should not enforce religion, the State would do well to reconnect basic and widely shared religious teachings about peace with security policymaking.

All religions share a general concept of reconciliation and peace. The very word religion means to connect, just like its Latin root lig, the root of ligament, those strands of flesh that hold together muscle and bone. Holy, likewise, refers to the word whole – being reconciled together. The word violence, on the other hand, means to disconnect, to use force and power to divide, punish, and push away. Sin, likewise, has connotations of breaking or violating relationships.

Religious texts and rituals ranging from indigenous animism to Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all lay out ways for humans to be reconciled up (with God), out (with their global neighbors), and down (with the earth and the rest of creation). Reconciliation up, out, and down is God’s security strategy.

3D: Diplomacy, Development, Defense

U.S. security is bound up with the quality of our relationships both domestically and globally. As former President Bill Clinton has said, “If you live in a world where you cannot kill, occupy, or imprison all your actual or potential adversaries, you have to try to build a world with more friends and fewer terrorists.”1

His Republican counterpart Newt Gingrich seems to agree, saying, “The real key is not how many enemy do I kill. The real key is how many allies do I grow.”2

Building real security is a religious task of reconciling people who are divided by conflict. Though U.S. security has been almost synonymous with military might in the past, the tools of diplomacy and development are gaining equal footing with defense in Washington’s new security rhetoric. A “3D” approach to security uses diplomacy and development as a first resort, holding military defense as the last resort.

Americans can be secure, or we can continue the hyper-consumeristic American Way of Life. We can’t have both.

Development and diplomacy seek to make whole (or holy) that which humans have divided. Development and diplomacy reconcile the global haves with the have-nots, and build bridges between groups polarized by religion or ethnicity. Likewise, the emerging concept of Creation Care or environmental stewardship reminds us of our connection to creation as a whole. As a tiny planet, we live in a fragile corner of the universe where religions of all brands long for holiness, for wholeness, for relationship.

Americans have heard a lot about the environmental impacts of climate change, but few media outlets are discussing the impact that climate change will have on people’s relationships with each other and on their sense of security. U.S. military experts identify climate change as a “threat multiplier” for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, stating that climate change will expand the threat of terrorism. A rising sea level could dislocate millions of people. Though rich countries have historically been the chief consumers and polluters driving climate change, poor countries will suffer most from rising seas, increased droughts, floods, and extreme weather. Some African and Latin American leaders already call climate change “an act of aggression by the rich against the poor.” As governments collapse when climate-induced chaos sets in, fears loom that violent conflict will increase.

Development that meets people’s basic needs for a home, health care, education, and jobs is a cost-effective security measure. It translates into hope. It combats the key factors that drive people to terrorism: despair and humiliation. Faith-based and secular NGOs have a solid track record of doing sustainable development projects that work in partnership with local people to develop clean sources of water, schools, and health care centers.

The UN Millennium Development Project calls for all developed countries to give .7 percent of GNP as official development assistance to poorer nations. Along with other nations, the U.S. committed to the .7 percent on a specific timetable. It has not followed through. Development expert Jeffrey Sachs claims, “The greatest puzzle in economic development is not how to alleviate the suffering but how to get rich and poor countries to follow through on their repeated promises.”3

When asked how much of the federal budget they think goes to foreign aid, Americans’ median estimate is 25 percent of the budget, more than 25 times the actual level, according to World Public Opinion polls. When asked how much of the budget should go to foreign aid, the median response is 10 percent. This is the same rate many religious traditions ask followers to tithe to the poor.

Public sentiment supports higher levels of development aid. But the public still sees development as charity abroad, a moral good. Religious and political leaders need to act together to show that development is a security strategy.

Gospel Strategy

When Jesus tells his followers to turn the other cheek, love your enemies, do good to those who harm you, he gives both moral and strategic advice. Showering the world with food and education – even in regions where the U.S. is hated – would do more to build U.S. and global security that showering those same communities with bombs and guns.

The Human Security Report, a study produced by the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, says a surge of new initiatives in peacebuilding through the UN, World Bank, and civil society has helped lead to a global decrease in deaths from violent conflict, crises, wars, and genocides over the last twenty years. Such peacebuilding programs are cost-effective, locally owned security strategies based on sustainable development and diplomacy. Yet governments have barely begun investing in these efforts.

The U.S. spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined. Out of every tax dollar, more than 60 cents goes to the military. Only three or four cents goes to diplomacy. Less than half a penny goes to development aimed at poverty alleviation, global education, healthcare, and economic aid.

The Bush administration wrote in its 2006 National Security Strategy, “A world where some live in comfort and plenty, while half of the human race lives on less than $2 a day, is neither just nor stable. … Including all of the world’s poor in an expanding circle of development – and opportunity – is a moral imperative and one of the top priorities of U.S. international policy.” Despite this rhetoric, the gap between funding for the U.S. Defense Department and funding for the civilian agencies of the government doing development and diplomacy only widened during President Bush’s eight years.

The Obama administration has promised to narrow the gap. Secretary of State Clinton, during her swearing-in ceremony, spoke of a foreign policy shift toward the “soft power” tools of development and diplomacy. Vice President Biden promised a more preventive approach to global conflicts, addressing root causes of turmoil through diplomacy and development before it spirals out of control. President Obama also promised to extend an “outstretched hand” to meet militancy of the “clenched fist.” In his inauguration speech, he declared:

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

Security in today’s world has little to do with nuclear weapons stockpiled as a deterrent against an attack. The billions of dollars spent to buy security via nuclear weapons are impotent against the threats of terrorism, disease, climate change, or the mass migrations that will ensue. The price tag of security strategies is no index or guarantee of their success. Indeed, the extravagant price of traditional military security strategies has not yielded greater security. Rather, security effectiveness is tied to the quality and potency of relationships – relationships needed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, stop violent extremism, prepare for deadly diseases, and prevent conflicts.

Religious leaders should speak up in this era of new policy visions of security based on development and diplomacy. The moral guidance of the Koran, Torah, Bible, and other sacred texts and teachings are relevant to how policymakers address today’s crises. Religious leaders should talk about how the relationship between people and the planet – for instance, American addiction to oil and overconsumption – has a crucial impact on security. Jesus co-opted “kingdom” language and reframed it. So too can religious leaders today redefine security language. Unlike traditional notions of security, which focus on defending borders from external military threats, the new concept of human security is concerned with the security of individuals and communities. Human security requires a toolkit laid out in ancient religious texts that tell humans how to relate to each other.

God’s security strategy is about building better relationships with global neighbors, relationships between people of vastly different cultures and access to natural resources. Religious texts teach humans to care for the poor and do good to those who do wrong – teachings both moral and strategic.

God’s security strategy works. Policymakers in Washington are turning away from purely technological solutions for today’s security challenges. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus testified to Congress that there are no military solutions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both point to diplomatic and economic development as the key to security in these regions. Religious leaders have an opportunity now to communicate the relevance of their teachings not just for inner peace or peace with God. Policymakers need to hear more spiritual wisdom to make smarter policies to promote peace and security for human beings and our environment.

The Politics of Daily Lifestyle

Religious leaders can do more to promote security from the ground up by empowering faith communities to be involved in reconciliation efforts. Religious communities have on-the-ground networks around the world. Lifting the voices of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan into policymaking, for instance, is an important step in creating a more stable and democratic world.

People in the pews need to see how their lives relate directly to U.S. and global security. Churches reaching out to local mosques and temples for inter- religious dialogues are discovering these are practical ways to get involved in local diplomacy.

Equally important, places of worship should help participants understand how U.S. security and the quality of our relationships abroad are directly related to our everyday decisions about how we live. Americans can be secure, or we can continue the hyper-consumeristic American Way of Life. We can’t have both in a world of haves and have-nots where U.S. companies have sold guns and bombs to the have-nots for decades. And climate change makes our lifestyle changes all the more urgent.

People of faith could place more emphasis on simple living as a vital element of global security. We need community programs that help us live more simply and in greater harmony with the rest of the world. We can experiment in building peace and increasing security by buying fair-trade products or those made close to home, or renewing a passion for living more with less. Personal decisions we make about what to eat, drink, drive, or wear have impact on society and the environment. Greater awareness of how our consumption patterns profoundly affect others – particularly in an age of climate change – can bring us into redemptive relationships with God, the earth, and our global neighbors. Choosing what we eat and wear are foreign policy decisions. Religion, at its core, is about what we do with our lives all week long. It’s about being mindful of the many ways our daily choices affect the destinies of others around the world, and, ultimately, our own security.

Lisa Schirch is director of the 3D Security Initiative and a professor of peacebuilding at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA.


1 Roger Segelken. “Make Friends, Not Terrorists, Clinton Tells Cornell Graduates.” Cornell University News, 2004, 1.

2 Joseph Nye. Soft Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), ix.

3 Jeffrey D. Sachs and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, “If We Cared to, We Could Defeat World Poverty.” Los Angeles Times, July 9, 2003, B-13.