Trying to be Neutral in a Very Small World


Is it OK just to sit on the fence in a world gone mad?

Confession: As an American, I don’t like getting involved with the problems of other countries. I don’t want to be the world’s police force.

There’s a precedent for that sentiment. Today—August 31—is the anniversary of the neutrality act signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935. Two European leaders—Hitler and Mussolini—were beginning to rear their fascist heads and rattle their swords, but FDR was determined to keep us out of whatever was brewing in Europe. Neutrality, though, did not mean the United States would simply bury its head in the sand. For example, the act stated:

  • Americans could not sail on ships from hostile nations.
  • An embargo was imposed on selling arms to “belligerent” nations.
  • The U.S. would increase its patrol of foreign submarines near American waters.
  • The U.S. could cooperate with other “similarly minded Governments to promote peace.”

Most Americans agreed: Let’s be neutral. And George Washington would’ve agreed too.

In 1793, Washington issued the Proclamation of Neutrality, declaring that the United States would remain neutral in the conflict between France and Great Britain. Our country was divided between those who wanted to support Britain, and those like Thomas Jefferson who wanted to support the French. (After all, it was the French who helped us in our own fight with the British.) But Washington remained adamant: it’s not our continent. It’s not our war.

Washington’s issue was not simply with Britain or France. It was with any long-term entanglements—whether friendly or hostile—because such relations would cloud our judgment.

And for most of our history, that has been the stance of the United States. We stayed out of World War I as long as we could, and we were pulled into World War II because we were directly attacked.

So, again, I like the idea of keeping our nose out of other country’s business, but …

… our world is significantly smaller now.

Satellites, air travel, and technology have made our world extremely small. When one country falls politically or economically, it has a domino effect. I can bury my head in whatever sand I find in Middle Tennessee, but I am still affected.

Even if we could be neutral as a country, should we? To what degree should we be neutral, and to what degree should we step in and help? That is a discussion with a lot of political and economic layers, but it’s a discussion worth having.

Let me take this to the personal level. As a follower of Christ, I cannot be neutral to the needs around me. I cannot pretend I see no injustice. Of course, I can’t step in and feed every homeless person … stand up for every bullied and harassed person … or right every wrong in a sin-filled and unjust society—but I can do something. 

Martin Niemöller was a German pastor in Nazi Germany. He initially supported Hitler and shared some of his anti-semitism. However,  Niemöller changed his tune and became an outspoken critic of Hitler. Consequently, he spent seven years in a concentration camp. He survived and, after the war, he often shared this poem.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I can’t be neutral.

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).

I can’t be neutral.

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

I can’t be neutral.

To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3).

I can’t be neutral.

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