A little Niebuhr is good for the soulWritten by Eric McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Reinhold Niebuhr. Now there’s a name from the past for you. Almost a hundred years ago he served as a pastor in a working class parish in Detroit. If you have ever prayed the “serenity prayer” then you are familiar with a piece of his work. Today you find his name popping up on the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, and dare I say it, even the Toledo Blade. After leaving the parish he went off to teach at Union Theological Seminary. He wrote books. He became a prominent theologian and ethicist in a day when people actually read theology. He died in 1971. Today, he is seldom read by church people, and yet, every time we as a nation find ourselves in a particularly difficult situation, such as war, one fraught with ambiguity and paradox, thinkers from all over the political spectrum pull him off the self, blow off the dust, rifle through the pages of his work and use him to help make their arguments.
Many conservatives turn to him because he was not a pacifist. He acknowledged the external reality of evil, the need to confront it which sometimes requires a nation to make the tough choice to enter a war. Sometimes the human condition is such that people are placed in the position of having to choose between the lesser of evils.
Many liberals turn to him because he acknowledged the internal reality of evil, a reality that needs to be named and owned. If we do not do this, we run the danger of rationalizing behavior that is unfair, unjust, and oppressive of others. Sometimes we must oppose an action, such as war, because the need to enter it was manufactured by the reckless passions of leaders who refused to acknowledge the internal motivations behind their actions. The classic example is LBJ and his fear of being the first President to lose a war, which many believe was his prime motivation in Viet Nam.
The irony is, Niebuhr often found passionate defenders of both political movements lacking. He thought liberalism too naive and conservatism too brittle. He believed that we humans were fallen creatures. Though we have the imagination to envision a just and peaceable world, our “fallen state” will always compromise our journey there. Though we can construct (or receive) a system of values and/or absolutes, our “fallen state” will make it impossible for us to apply them in a way that will always be fair and just.
We are left to hold in creative tension these paradoxical and ambiguous realities. We must deal with the dangers external evil places on our community and internal evil places on our soul. Our failure to address one will compromise the other. Our hope in negotiating these tensions (remember is was a theologian) is found in the external reality of a divinely shared grace.
Why this matters is that I have read from several sources that our President reads Niebuhr. It shows. His acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize had Niebuhr’s fingerprints all over it. Being a person of peace and commander in chief of a nation that is fighting two wars is not an easy place to live. To do so requires making a home in the creative tension that exists between the external reality of the evil who wishes to do us harm and the internal reality of the evil that seeks to cloud our vision of what is just and right. It requires strength and humility, resolve and penitence, self confidence and the need for grace.
Niebuhr once wrote, ”Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.” To read Niebuhr is to take the longer and deeper view of things. This is not a bad thing for a leader of the free world to be about.
Eric McGlade is a United Methodist minister living in Bowling Green, Ohio.