Re-reading Reinhold Niebuhr: For a Friend in Maine

Jesus did not ask to see proof of insurance coverage before he healed the blind man.

Reinhold Niebuhr

A friend of mine in Maine writes to say, “It is almost Thanksgiving. Why don’t you write something nice about somebody?”

I have to admit, I was taken aback. I have been so busy fighting New Atheists and Old Faitheists that I have forgotten the spirit of the season.

But my friend’s request is not as simple as it sounds. During the season we will be treated to stories about heroes waging war in far-off places, sometimes against conscience, for peace and security in the homeland, heroic mothers battling to keep their health insurance, assorted others who represent our seasonal tip of the hat to the poor and the victims of wealth and opportunism.

Christians did not invent Yom Kippur; their salvation-theology would not support the idea. But the holiday season, if you just dig beneath the glam, the pre-season sales, and the consumer market report for Black Friday, somewhere down there is a manger.

Repenting of the injuries the privileged have inflicted on the unprivileged (though no collection agency will be offering amnesty to its debtors) is our yearly token of contrition for our natural greed. “It wasn’t the failure of Mary and Joseph to book ahead that caused Jesus to be born in a cattle stall,” a terribly persuasive nun once explained; “it was the greed of the innkeepers.” A nice and doubtless correct exegesis of a non-existent verse.

I’m reasonably sure the word “hero” would never be used in ordinary discussion to describe the man I am writing about. He came from respectable Midwest Protestant origins and went on to Yale and then to a lifetime of teaching at Union Theological seminary.

As a young preacher, he was a community organizer in Detroit before the term “community organizer” became a disqualification for leadership on the lips of Rudy Giuliani. At great personal risk, the Klan having its financial center of gravity in Detroit, not the South, in 1924, Reinhold Niebuhr condemned it as the greatest human evil religion had ever perpetrated.

Then with equanimity he condemned Henry Ford’s repressive labor practices. He was a pacifist, a socialist, a communist sympathizer (going so far as to support the United Front agenda of the Communist Party USA), and prior to the outbreak of World War II a strong supporter of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. Through the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, perhaps Nazism’s most famous Protestant victim, Niebuhr’s thought was influential in Germany, one of the first American thinkers to make headway in the closed shop of German academic theology.

Niebuhr is best remembered for the evolution of his thought about “just war,” moving from his earlier pacifist position to a robust anti-communism in his later work—and eventually to a qualified endorsement of nuclear weapons-research. But his support of war as a “last resort” instrument of peace did not arise from the same mindset that the US military establishment used to justify both cold and hot wars across the globe.

As a Christian, and he would say as a realist, he believed in the existence of evil. It was everywhere. Its grip was as plain to him as the presence of God was sometimes obscure for its shadow.

Evil is not to be traced back to the individual but to the collective behavior of humanity….Original sin is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it.

Niebuhr’s roots in classical Protestantism–a stream that moved from Augustine to Calvin—were not grounded in speculation but in history. His Christian “realism”—the name given to his way of envisioning the relationship between theology and the state–came from a dual conviction: first, that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount had denounced all resort to violence and coercion; second, that this perfectionist ethic (which Jesus, he thought, also enjoined on his followers) is not practical in an “immoral society” where Jews can be killed by the millions and where the state assumes godlike (tyrannical) power in its own right. Alongside the pacifist ideal, he wrote, there must be a pragmatic or realistic ethic of responsibility. Humanity being humanity, that reality sometimes requires a choice of lesser or necessary evils on behalf of the community.

The Expulsion

Manifest injustice can therefore be opposed by force, and it is sometimes moral to do so. For Niebuhr, the war against National Socialism and the smoldering leftover in the form of soviet-style communism demanded opposition. By the same reasoning, Viet Nam was an immoral war, and we can guess what he would have said about Iraq and Afghanistan had he lived to see it.

For Niebuhr, perfection is never a possibility and imperfection is always a certainty: He worried about what he termed a “heretical form” of pacifism, held by his liberal Protestant contemporaries, who have “reinterpreted the Christian Gospel in terms of the Renaissance faith in man. Modern pacifism is merely a final fruit of this Renaissance spirit, which has pervaded the whole of modern Protestantism. We have interpreted world history as a gradual ascent to the Kingdom of God which waits for the final triumph only upon the willingness of Christians ‘to take Christ seriously.’”

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama cited Niebuhr as his favorite philosopher and John McCain in an interview commented that Niebuhr was right in stressing the “cost of a good war” (Paul Elly, “A Man for All Reasons.” The Atlantic, November 2007).

Niebuhr, of course, never talked about a good war. In his Gifford lectures (1940, The Nature and Destiny of Man), he reasserts that evil resides in power and the structures it inhabits. He lost neither his faith in the ability of humanity to control such structures, nor his belief that human beings would always seek to create and exploit such structures.


What is remarkable about his language is that so little of it is interpretation; so little of Niebuhr requires an elaborate “hermeneutic” to make his project accessible. At a time when the previously regnant models of theology were suffused with the German “paradoxical” style of Barth and Brunner, Niebuhr was able to introduce realism, commonsense, and clarity into the discussion.

His legacy? Hard to say. To read him is to be influenced by his “larger thought,” though many can now object to the christocentric nature of his ideas. An interesting twist that–for that tag to be a disqualification for taking someone’s thought seriously. It’s a bit like bringing up the obvious point that Jesus did not ask to see proof of insurance coverage before he healed the blind man.

So too, his emphasis on “sin”—more precisely, the imperfection of “man” and the social structures he creates–strikes many people as unprogressive, somehow opposed to the American dream of social and economic perfectibility. Niebuhr anticipated the reaction to the incongruity of his thought in an age of science and secularism: “The final wisdom of life,” he said in his Gifford lectures, “requires not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”

3 thoughts on “Re-reading Reinhold Niebuhr: For a Friend in Maine

  1. Pingback: God and We the People | The New Oxonian

  2. Pingback: God and We the People » R. Joseph Hoffmann

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s