The indispensable nation

Mike Miller  ·  Mar 01, 2015

de gaulle quote

“Les cimetières sont pleins d’hommes indispensables. (The graveyards are full of indispensable men.)” —Charles de Gaulle

Like so many other great quotations, the origin of this one is disputed. Yet whether Charles de Gaulle was the source of these words, or only using his own rehashed version of an old quote, it is a sobering reminder that no matter how important a person appears to be, “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (Ecclesiastes 3:20).

The tendency to think that we are indispensable seems to be ingrained in the human heart. The president of a nation might well think he is indispensable, yet he will leave office. A company CEO may well think that if it weren’t for him, the organization would have no chance of prospering, yet he will one day resign or retire.

But it is not only the “big” people who can think like this. The temptation is there in the “little” people, too. I might believe that within my household, I am indispensable. What would they do without me? Well, there are plenty of fathers in the grave who had untimely deaths and could teach me the answer to that!

The word indispensable really means “essential” or “crucial,” so an indispensable person is someone others just “couldn’t do without.” But the Bible teaches that this is true about One Person only:

He is the image of the invisible God, the Firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:15-17

This being the case, claims of indispensability are basically idolatrous. It is idolatry to put an inordinate trust in an individual who—no matter how good or great—is sinful, weak, and will ultimately die. But the problem does not rest only with individuals. To paraphrase de Gaulle:

“The history books are littered with the corpses of indispensable nations.”

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Old Testament. Take Isaiah’s prophecy against Babylon:

Now, then, hear this, you sensual one, who dwells securely, who says in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me. I will not sit as a widow, nor know loss of children.” But the two things will come on you suddenly in one day: Loss of children and widowhood. They will come on you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries, in spite of the great power of your spells.

Isaiah 47:8-9

Babylon had come to believe her own propaganda. In her own eyes, she was untouchable and therefore indispensable. What would the world do without her? Yet in God’s eyes she was anything but untouchable, and so He showed her reality regarding her indispensability.

The same is true of the prophecy against the king of Tyre and his kingdom in Ezekiel 28:

Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you make your heart like the heart of a god, therefore, behold, I will bring foreigners upon you, the most ruthless of the nations; and they shall draw their swords against the beauty of your wisdom and defile your splendor. They shall thrust you down into the pit, and you shall die the death of the slain in the heart of the seas.

Ezekiel 28:6-8

Again we see a king and a nation that has come to believe its own propaganda. Tyre was indeed glorious, but instead of attributing that glory to God, both king and kingdom proclaimed themselves to be above all others.

So when we hear politicians using words like “indispensable,” or “exceptional” (in the sense of being above all other nations, rather than in the sense of being exceptional at something), we ought to react with shock and dismay.

In recent years, some politicians seem to have made it a point of honor to make claims of indispensability. In 1998, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said:

If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.

Although the phrase seemed to drop out of favor in the last few years of the Bush government, it has been brought back with a vengeance by President Obama, who has used it many times. For example, in an address at West Point he said:

When a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria. or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help. So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.

Even if you agree with Secretary Albright or President Obama about their policies, use of the word indispensable should still set the alarm bells ringing in the heads of anyone who reads and believes the Bible.

Imagine an individual making similar claims about himself. Perhaps a wealthy man lives in a town that suddenly finds itself with a great need. He gets his checkbook out to fund much of the need, which is all well and good, but after that, he goes around the town bragging about it and claiming that he is the one indispensable person in the town. What would you think of him? I’m guessing that you would think that no matter how big his bank account, it is dwarfed by his pride account—and we know where that leads (Proverbs 16:18).

Statements of indispensability from people of any nation ought to alarm because:

  1. They are a sure sign that there is spiritual decline in the nation. In Deuteronomy 8:11, God warns the Israelites with these words: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’” Having been given every good gift that they had from the hand of God, they are warned not to attribute their good fortune to themselves, or they face having these blessings taken from them. The claim of indispensability is similar in nature. Leaders of nations that have been granted much favor over the centuries and which are as a consequence looked up to ought not to brag about being “indispensable.” Rather, they should make a point of attributing that good fortune to God, and in humility seek to make sure they do not abuse their position.
  2. They are a sure sign that those who make the claim aren’t very interested in what God thinks. People making the claim of indispensability should be asked, “Indispensable to whom?” To God? To other nations? If they think that, they need to read some of the Old Testament references mentioned above, which testify that God is not partial to any nation, does not see any as indispensable, and has no qualms about bringing them down to the pit if they or their leaders continue in pride (Psalm 9:17).
  3. They are a sure sign that, without repentance, the nation is heading for a big fall. In first-century Judea, the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests really did believe that they were the one indispensable nation on Earth, the special people above all other people in the sight of God. Jesus didn’t agree and warns them what will happen to them if they keep on in this error: “Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43).
  4. They are essentially idolatrous in nature. Any nation or leader of a nation that makes this claim is essentially saying, “You cannot do without us, therefore look up to us.” In other words, the claim of “indispensability” is actually a messianic and salvific claim, and is therefore an offense to the God Who accounts the nations as “a drop from a bucket … as the dust on the scales” (Isaiah 40:15), and Who tells the world to look to Him for salvation (Isaiah 45:22).

Don’t misunderstand me. Loving your nation is great. Feeling pride in your nation is a good thing. Patriotism is all well and good. But believing that your nation is indispensable is high folly, tempting God, and needing repentance.

Having said this, there is an indispensable nation. No, I’m not about to claim that it is Britain. It is the Kingdom of God, which “shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:45) and which “shall have no end” (Luke 1:33). Whereas every other nation or kingdom on earth might be brought down to the pit (Psalm 9:17), with the Kingdom of God “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). This Kingdom, this holy nation (1 Peter 2:9) is indeed indispensable.

Rob Slane lives with his wife and five home-educated children in Salisbury, England. He is the author of The God Reality: A Critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, contributes to the Canadian magazine Reformed Perspective, and blogs on cultural issues from a Biblical perspective at www.theblogmire.com.