Whose Side is God, god, g_d On?


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Lessons from 19th Century Imperialism

In 1877-1878, as Britain struggled to expand its imperialistic global empire spanning six continents, two men – dramatically different from one another in political ambitions and moral values – were pitted against each other in a fierce election struggle to become prime minister. At the time, Britain and Russia were at war against each other in Afghanistan, in what was euphemistically called the “Great War.”  The two nations were fighting over the division of Afghanistan by an equal line.  Little concern was given to the wishes of the Afghan people, who were considered by both sides to be war-like uncivilized hill tribes.

One man, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), believed Britain should continue to expand its colonial wars and occupations. He argued that the pursuit of “empire” reflected Britain’s destiny to lead the world, and its moral responsibilities to civilize the world.  He also pointed out the extensive economic wealth brought by empire as evidenced by the emerging profits of the industrial age.

The other man, William Gladstone (1809-1898), leader of the opposition Liberal Party, argued in favor of re-considering Britain’s imperialistic expansion because of its social and moral consequences for both the people colonized, and for moral standing of Britain’s citizens. Gladstone considered the colonial wars a “criminal assaults on innocent people” (Porch, 2001, p 42).  He appealed to conscience at a time when Western imperialism was colonizing Africa, Asia, and South America, exploiting natural and human resources, and killing conquered people with impunity.

The results of the election would have profound implications for the entire world.  Amidst the accusations, character insults, and personal attacks, fundamental questions emerged regarding the morality of wars, colonial domination and exploitation, and national economic growth and development.

The two men disliked each other intensely, and their quick wit made for memorable political insults. At one social gathering,” Gladstone said to Disraeli, “I predict, Sir, that you will die either by hanging, or of some vile disease.”  To which, Disraeli replied, “That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress”


Although quick-witted insults of character would brought laughter and applause (“Hear! Hear!”), the election came down to Gladstone’s view that the Zulu War and Afghan War (“The Great War”) were “slaughters of innocents by British Redcoats.”  Gladstone, at the height of the debate, appealed to the conscience of the British public: “Remember the rights of the savage. . . . Remember the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own.”   Any way you spell it, g-word,he/she/it does not play favorites.

Disraeli lost the election. Britain’s pursuit of empire continued, but not with the same resolve and support of its citizens.  Imperialism also continues via violent wars, and immoral economic exploitation and abuses.  But “‘conscience” also continues.  Gladstone’s words remain one of the most powerful arguments against the “exceptionalism” used by the USA and allies (e.g., NATO) to justify invasions, occupations, and domination.  Are there any enduring lessons to be learned from the fateful words of this 19th Century election in Britain?   I believe so.

Some lessons come from sacred religious texts, too often forgotten amidst carefullu selectively interpreted pontifications and proclamations from Monotheistic religion pulpits and lecterns. Some come from secular texts (e.g., Magna Carta, UDHR, and USA’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution), which speak of the enduring human values of peace, liberty, freedom, beauty, and god-given rights.  And some lessons are the utterances of those people who see clearly of the consequences.

Enduring Lessons

The following is a listing of some of the enduring lessons that came to mind as I reflect on the endless mass violence and wars of our times.  With Gladstone’s words ringing in my ears, I offer them to you.

  • You reap, what you sow.
  • Who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.
  • “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed,
  •  For in the image of God, He made man.
  • Thou shalt not kill.
  • What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?
  • They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
  • Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you (every religion)
  • Violence begets violence, hate begets hate.
  • Every empire in history has collapsed.
  • Empires collapse from within.
  • As empires collapse, leaders impose domestic controls.
  • It is easier to conquer a people and their land, than it is to leave them.
  • Wars are easy to start, difficult to end.
  • The legacy of imperialism is resentment.
  • Wars require money.
  • The major beneficiaries of war are war industries.
  • Exceptionalism is self-deceit.
  • There are no winners in wars.
  • Wars leave long-lasting scars on all sides.
  • When you go forward for revenge, dig two graves.
  • Oaths of office are not excuses for war.
  • War socializes a “culture of war; a “culture of war” socializes its members.
  • Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.


The national dish of Britain today is “Curry.”  Britain and Russia are still rivals. The United States of America has been at war in Afghanistan for 12 years with the following low-end estimated costs: (1) 13,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, (2) 2,000 Americans have died; (3) 17,000 American troops have been wounded; (4) President Obama stated that USA troops will remain (forever?) in Afghanistan after the formal withdrawal in 2014 to train the Afghan military, and to engage in counter-terrorism operations; (5) the economic cost of the war exceeds 597 billion dollars, the human costs and moral costs of the war, “priceless.”  And guess what? The USA has just announced it will send troops to 35 African nations.


Marsella, A.J. (2011).  Nonkilling psychology and lifeism: I am what am.  In J. Pim & D. Christie (Eds.) Nonkilling Psychology (pp. 361-378). Honolulu, Hi: Center for Global Non-Violence.

Marsella, A.J. (2011).  The United States of America: A “culture of war.” International Journal of Intercultural Research, 35, 714-728. .

Porch, D. (2001). Wars of empire. London, UK: Wellington House.


Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a  member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at marsella@hawaii.edu.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Jan 2013.

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