Why the Niebuhrs Still Matter (Part 2)

Modern Christian ethics, like modern Christian life, is riddled with ambiguities. The Christian moral thinker, much like Kierkegaard's knight of faith, is torn between two competing visions of what is really real. On the one hand, her faith teaches her to trust the God of creation and redemption, whose secret providence governs the ultimate course of human history, directing it to its appointed consummation in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, both her mission of reconciliation and her solidarity with the rest of humanity in joy and suffering plunge her into the conflicted, broken and often violent affairs of the world -- the real world of spirit and matter that God supposedly has created and still loves, though truth be told, it's often hard to find clear evidence of that. Theology and ethics fall into error when they sidestep the tension in that dialectic by choosing one term over the other.

Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr understood that dialectic. They wrote about it and lived it through two World Wars, the Korean War, the Cold War and, in the case of Reinhold, the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Southeast Asia. As I wrote in the first post in this series, Scott R. Paeth's survey -- The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014) -- does a fine job of tracing both the commonalities and the divergences between two leading Protestant thinkers. Nowadays, the two brothers are often lumped together -- often, I suspect, by commentators who haven't read too much of either of them. That's a pity, because they did have significant disagreements that augured debates in theology and ethics that continue to this day.

Japanese Soldiers in Manchuria

In the spring of 1932 the Niebuhr brothers carried out one such debate in the pages of The Christian Century (The exchange can be accessed here). During the previous fall, Japan had invaded Manchuria, thereby sparking a crisis of conscience among liberal pacifists about how the United States should respond. In those days, pacifist leaders were opposed not only to military action abroad but to any coercive intervention whatsoever, including economic sanctions. The Century, whose notoriety had been boosted exponentially by Reinhold's unsigned editorials and by-lined articles, was a leading sounding board for such pacifist views (For a deeper appreciation of these contexts, see Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell University Press, 1996.) (All my Niebuhr quotes are from the UCC website, and I have edited them to fix what seem to be typographical errors.)

Richard fires the opening volley of the debate with a theological essay extolling "The grace of doing nothing" (March 23, 1932). How does the social ethicist respond when there are no good options for addressing a tragic situation in public affairs? Not all forms of inaction are equal, apparently. Richard gives short shrift to the inactive stances of the ideological pessimist, who smugly views her worldview as vindicated in the rapid dissolution of the social order or of the conservative advocate for the status quo, who believes all nation-states act out of a totalizing self-interest in the tussle of the will to power. Richard also criticizes the moral indignation of the idealistic pacifists, who find in their inactivity an occasion for self justification. Closer to a proper Christian view, he claims, is the inactivity of the Communist -- the orthodox Marxist who has a broader confidence that history moves inexorably to a resolution of inequalities and injustices. The Marxist's belief in secular progress is analogous to, or perhaps parasitic upon, the traditional Christian belief in providence. (I'm not sure if most Marxists would accept as accurate this characterization of their views on human agency in history.) In the end, Richard endorses the inactivity of the theist who puts all her hope in the invisible hand of providence. He writes:
Those who follow this way share with communism the belief that the fact that men can do nothing constructive is no indication of the fact that nothing constructive is being done. Like the Communists they are assured that the actual processes of history will inevitably and really bring a different kind of world with lasting peace.
In short, God is working out both judgment an redemption in and through the conflicts of history, even if we can't discern how the final chapter of the human story will be written. Richard admits: "[I]f there is no God, or if God is up in heaven and not in time itself, it is a very foolish inactivity." In an interesting argument that prefigures postliberal communitarianism, Richard advocates for cell groups of "radical" believers who gather in prayerful hope in this God of ultimate redemption.

Reinhold believes in this God too, of course, but he is not satisfied with his younger brother's quietism in the face of naked imperialist oppression. He counters with the question "Must we do nothing?" (March 30, 1932). Reinhold shares Richard's critique of an idealistic pacifism that would deign to rise above the brutal conflicts of history, and he affirms his younger brother's ultimate eschatological hope as a rightful antidote to a paralyzing pessimism. He dissents, however, from Richard's counsel to simply wait out conflicts like the one in Manchuria, confident that God is acting providentially in and through the brutalities of imperial self-interest. He writes:
I do not see how a revolution in which the disinterested express their anger and resentment, and assert their interests, can be an instrument of God, and yet at the same time an instrument which religious scruples forbid a man to use. I should think that it would be better to come to ethical terms with the forces of nature in history, and try to use ethically directed coercion in order that violence may be avoided.
Consequently, Reinhold advocates economic measures to pressure the Japanese to relent; no military intervention is envisioned here. For Reinhold, authentic ethical action emerges from the dialectic between the ideal of agapic love, whose purity can never be instantiated in human history, and the imperative to strive for relative social justice within the compromises and limitations of social processes marred by sinful self-interest, especially on the part of collective entities such as nation-states. History, in Reinhold's view, is inevitably tragic, but even amid this tragedy we can still work for a more just social order. Doing so, however, may we temper our ethical idealism and sin boldly in the cause of justice.

Paeth writes:
What is striking about this exchange between the two brothers is not simply that they offered very different prescriptions for Christian moral action in the world, but that those prescriptions grew out of the same ground -- a disillusionment with the love, idealism, and naivety that had become central to the social gospel movement by the early 1930s. Both brothers perceived clearly that whatever the way forward for Christian ethics might be, the remedies proposed by the liberal Christianity that had been so influential for both of them were no longer effective for dealing with the pressing issues of their time, if indeed they ever had been (pp. 57-58).
The debate between the Niebuhr brothers remains relevant because this tension between idealism and realism is as intrinsic to Christian ethics as it is to life in the world per se. This dialectic also riddles the project of liberal democracy that has shaped all of us, from the peace activist who splatters blood on nuclear warheads to the drone-dispatching Christian realist (if that's what he really is) who inhabits the White House. Still, this doesn't necessarily mean that all cats are gray.

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