Co-belligerency, Again

Barb Wire

Every now and then I need to revisit a topic because it keeps popping up and I need to keep restating some basic truths. In this case, it is on the issue of co-belligerency. Co- what? I am glad you asked. Break the word down: a belligerent is one who fights or engages in conflict, and co means with.

Usually the term refers to nations in a time of war, and a co-belligerent is a country fighting with another nation against a common enemy. So very simply, a co-belligerent is someone who fights alongside you. I speak about this often in the context of the culture wars.

That is, I think there is a place for groups who may not ordinarily work together to do so when they face a common threat or enemy. Often this means Christians being willing to work with non-Christians to achieve certain ends, and deal with certain foes.

And if Christians are normally rather sectarian, it can also mean Christians of one stripe working with Christians of another stripe for a common purpose, even though they may well have strong theological differences between them. I wish to speak to both of these cases here.

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As to the former, it can happen often. One friend who was a bit perturbed about such matters drew my attention to this article about a case of co-belligerency occurring in the UK just now. It begins:

Last night Defend Free Speech, Britain’s ‘most unlikely campaign group’, was officially launched at Parliament to oppose the Government’s controversial plans for Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs). The Defend Free Speech campaign group is supported by The Christian Institute, the National Secular Society, the Peter Tatchell Foundation and other organisations who are concerned that legitimate freedom of expression could be criminalised.

The campaign is also backed by former shadow Home Secretary David Davis MP, Caroline Lucas MP and former Chief Constable Lord Dear. Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, commented that free speech is the “most basic civil right”, which includes the right to “challenge those who rule or govern us”. He said the plans “had to be resisted”, as the Government could crack down on those deemed as ‘extreme’, “even if they have not broken a single law”.

The Christian Institute’s Simon Calvert, Campaign Director of Defend Free Speech, said: “We are deeply concerned with the Government’s plans. The complete absence of safeguards and any clear definition of what is deemed to be extreme will have a chilling effect on free speech and campaigners.

Yes odd bedfellows indeed. But, there may be a place for such temporary alliances. And that is exactly what this is all about: a temporary alliance. Co-belligerency is by definition a short-term working together for strategic purposes on a specific issue. It has nothing to do with compromising, or abandoning one’s beliefs, etc.

So while ordinarily no Christian will be working hand in hand with homosexual activists, on occasion there may be a place for working together briefly on some common cause. As one example, there were both atheists and even homosexuals marching in the mega-pro-family marches in Paris a few years ago.

Here in Melbourne one of the great champions for so many things we hold near and dear is an agnostic, Andrew Bolt. I am happy to work together with him on various projects. And even atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens was in fact quite pro-life, and very well aware of the threat of Islam.

Thus I have often quoted him and others in my articles. Indeed, we had an atheist and the former editor of a Marxist journal doing battle alongside a committed Christian against the raging hordes on ABC’s Q&A earlier this year. Brendan O’Neill is often a real champion for so many good causes, even though he is not a believer.

So such short-term arrangements can have real value. But I have written before about these matters, as in this piece:

To work with a nonbeliever temporarily for an important issue is fully acceptable in my eyes. It has nothing to do with being unequally yoked with unbelievers. That refers to vital, long-term commitments and unions, such as marriage. So that passage really cannot be applied here. But see more on this here:

I just now came upon a piece by Daniel Strange discussing the very alliance I mentioned above. He speaks to it at length, emphasising the importance of biblical truths such as common grace. Let me just take one short quote from his article, in which he discusses five rules of thumb to keep in mind when engaging with co-belligerents:

Third, our involvement in co-belligerence must be cautious. While we affirm common grace, we are still aware of the depth of the Fall and the principle of the antithesis. We must be on our guard that we are not seduced by the world or conformed to its pattern.

Some practical advice is given by John Langlois in a short paper on co-belligerence. Having argued the need for clarity in our beliefs, unity, principles, purpose, outcomes and language, Langlois notes the dangers of co-belligerence: the danger of losing control, of unacceptable compromise, of the final result being distorted by the co-belligerent and being misunderstood by our own people. He believes that such dangers can be minimized by being always alert to what our co-belligerents are doing, keeping joint control of the process, keeping good lines of communication with both our own people and our co-belligerents, and finally, trusting in

God’s strength and not our own.

However, while noting this caution in our engagements with unbelievers, I believe that those Christians, like me, who emphasise the antithesis, should be more willing than we have been to unite and ally ourselves with other believers….

And that nicely leads me to a brief discussion of the second case, believers working together with other believers of differing theological persuasions. Often this comes to a head when talk is made of Protestant-Catholic co-belligerency. And it is here I will likely lose a few more readers along the way.

Some Catholics think that all Protestants are arch-heretics who should be burned at the stake. Conversely, some Protestants think that all Catholics are arch-heretics who should be burned at the stake. I am not really interested in these folks, but for those a tad more gracious and a bit more theologically nuanced, let me simply repeat what I have said so often before.

It has been my longstanding policy to let this sort of sectarian bashing to be done elsewhere by others. Obviously as a Protestant I have major theological differences with Catholics. This should be quite obvious to anyone who knows me or reads my material.

And given that I have lectured in theology and systematic theology over the decades, yes I do know a bit about both Catholicism and Protestantism, and the major differences that do exist. And I am fully aware of many concerns with the new Pope, which even many Catholics also have. So no need to cover all that ground again.

But I believe there is a crucial role of co-belligerency here. The battles we fight are too big for us to always quarrel amongst ourselves, while letting the other side get away with murder. So when and where possible, I am usually happy to work with Catholics and others on various culture war battles, such as the fight for life, or the fight for marriage and family.

As an example, I helped to set up a family council many years ago with many groups involved – including all sorts of faith-based groups. It was – and is – a very broad-based network. We meet to defend marriage and family and pro-life issues etc. We are not there for some ecumenical soup, nor to argue theology. We are there to take on a present challenge. It is a temporary and strategic alliance for limited ends and purposes.

This has worked well on the international level. For example when radical feminists, pro-aborts and homosexuals are trying to push something say at the UN, it is often a coalition of pro-life and pro-family groups, along with the Muslim voting bloc, and the Vatican, that have combined and successfully defeated their initiatives time and time again.

The truth is, in these culture wars, if we first come out with a long list of criteria and beliefs that we have to check off before we work with someone else, we will very soon be down to a very small group indeed. I have disagreements with all sorts of people at times. Very few I agree with 100 per cent. But if I demanded complete agreement on every point, then I would be a club of one. And I don’t even agree with myself all the time!

Ten years ago American pro-life champion Scott Klusendorf wrote a terrific piece about co-belligerency, with specific reference to working with Catholics on the pro-life fight. Let me quote a small part of that here:

Seventh, why shouldn’t evangelicals work with Catholics or nonevangelicals against abortion? Gregg Cunningham of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform affirms that many Christians are inconsistent on this point. For example, if a critic of evangelical cobelligerence had a two-year-old daughter who stumbled into a swimming pool and needed immediate medical attention, he would gladly work with Catholic paramedics to save her life. If she were injured and needed surgery, it wouldn’t matter for a moment if the best surgeon were a Catholic operating out of a Catholic hospital. If the critic of cobelligerence will work with Catholics to save his own child, what’s wrong with working with them to save somebody else’s (unborn) child?

Cunningham points out, “The Good Samaritan did not preach salvation to the beating victim; he risked his own life to save a fellow traveler. Jesus used this example to illustrate our duty to love our neighbor. It is cold comfort to a dead baby that we allowed him to die to avoid working with Catholics.”

Quite so. The cause of the unborn is far too important for the purists to sit around in their holy huddles refusing to even speak to each other. When the life of the unborn is at stake, or the cause of God’s institutions of marriage and family is under threat, I will readily – within reason – work with others to achieve an important outcome.

So there – I said my piece (even though much more could be said). Those who now (or still) think I am the anti-Christ and should be burned at the stake, well, God bless you too. I don’t have time for all these purists and Pharisees to be honest.

I will always stand strong theologically on what I believe, but I will also work together with others temporarily for important goods such as life and family. If that makes me your enemy, well, that is up to you. But I will fight the battles where they rage, and at times I will enjoy the company of fellow soldiers committed to the cause, even though we may well disagree on a host of other matters.

If that is not to your liking, well no one is forcing you to come here. Go somewhere else and hate on them for a while. But for the other readers who are a bit more open on these matters, you will need of course to think and pray carefully if and when such co-belligerency is necessary and can be entered into.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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