Why the Niebuhrs Still Matter (Part 3)

"Christendom has often achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its founder." ~ H. Richard Niebuhr (Social Sources, p. 3).

"I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies." ~ Amos 5:21 (NIV).

"All theology really begins with Amos." ~ Reinhold Niebuhr (quoted in Paeth, p. 4).
In the eighth century BCE, the prophet Amos, herdsman and pruner of sycamores, left the comfort of his day jobs in the southern kingdom to deliver urgent oracles of judgment to the northern Kingdom of Israel. We might well think of him as the first "crisis" theologian.

Israel was enjoying unprecedented prosperity while the Assyrian threat was held at bay by infighting within the empire. Amos' message was stark: The nation had squandered the spoils of its covenant with God, despoiled its cultic purity through religious syncretism and, amid great abundance, had exploited the poorest and the weakest members of society. "For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate" (5:12, NRSV). The prophet's prognosis was bleak: Doom and national destruction for all but a remnant who might yet repent (Kraft).

* * *

In the era between two world wars, two German-American brothers came of age as pastors, teachers and intellectuals. Like the prophet, they began their vocations somewhat as outsiders within the small German Evangelical Synod. The elder brother would become, arguably, the leading Christian public intellectual of the 20th century, spending most of his career at Union Theological Seminary in New York; the younger, less famous one would train generations of pastors, theologians and ethicists at Yale Divinity School. As Fox convincingly shows in his superb biography, the former, Reinhold Niebuhr, was driven in part by an anxiety to fit into North American society and to prove his loyalty as a defender of liberal democracy and a patriot of the United States. His brother, H. Richard, seems to have shared this attitude; he taught classes in English at the synod seminary and, during adulthood, he stopped going by his first name, Helmut.

I think Fox perhaps has put his finger on a possible root some common worries that critics of the Niebuhrs voice. The most ostensibly damning criticisms (in my view) are as follows:

  1. Such posliberal thinkers as Yoder, Hauerwas and Willimon have faulted H. Richard for uncritically embracing a "conversionist" model of the relationship between Christ and culture; this "Constantinian" strategy (say Hauerwas and Willimon) ostensibly has the affect of promoting the socio-political status quo (Paeth, p. 155). I think this criticism, stated so baldly, is probably unfair.
  2. If anything, the critiques Reinhold tend to be sharper than on his younger brother: Numerous critics chide him for taking on the mantle of the establishment theologian -- who, as a preacher, teacher and writer ostensibly becomes a tool of U.S. imperialism in its struggle against Soviet communism (Paeth, p. 157, citing an article by Bill Wylie-Kellerman as representative of this viewpoint). I too share this worry and, indeed, would argue that any contemporary appropriation of Reinhold's work would have to account for and correct this tendency to downplay the problems in U.S. policy post World War II.

Such critiques notwithstanding, though, I think it's unwise to dismiss the brothers Niebuhr so summarily as "establishment" theologians. The main reason I continue to wrestle with the writings of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr is that I believe we need to come to terms with the history and prospects of theology and ethics within our North American context. In a time when postliberal, postmodern and contextualist paradigms have come to the fore in constructive Christian thought, are some of us too quick to abandon the Niebuhr legacy? I think so, and I hope to retrieve the more radical and prophetic side of the brothers' lives and though.

In brief, the Niebuhrs offer us an unflinching commitment to understanding the churches as fallen human institutions, through which the Word of God for today may yet shine. Tillich, similarly, referred to this openness to honest criticism from within or even from without the community -- and thus, the willingness to accept the need for change -- as "the Protestant principle". The church, as the Reformation slogan has it is always reformed and always reforming (Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda!). Any prophetic word the churches might offer to the broader world must be grounded in this prior, self-critical movement under the cross of Christ, or else any agenda we promote will be an exercise in propagating hypocrisy.

Woe to them that are at ease in Zion

Back in the day, I read a few of the Niebuhrs' writings in graduate seminars. Now that I'm trying to study their work more systematically, I'm especially drawn to their early books. For anyone who cares about the vocation of the churches for justice in the polis, Reinhold's autobiographical Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic (1929) is a must read. Here we see the young, fiery pastor and activist seek to navigate the perilous politics of Henry Ford's Detroit. He bravely takes the side of labor against the capitalist, who was favored by many liberals for his ostensible benevolence to his workers. This German evangelical pastor -- who later would befriend Rabbi Stephen Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism -- comes to appreciate the commitment of prominent Jewish leaders to social justice causes and develops a keen eye for the pervasive anti-Semitism of which most liberal Protestants at that time were barely aware. Throughout these diary entries, he struggles with the problem of how to motivate the faithful to step outside their religious solipsism to engage the pressing problems of the real world.

H. Richard Niebuhr's first book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), mines the best social scientific research of his day to paint a blisteringly honest critique of fractious character of the Christian sects and denominations, a series of divisions rooted in interests of class, race and national identity. We learn, for example, how the Methodists and Presbyterians muted their earlier objections to slavery as the Southern economy became increasingly dependent upon slave labor throughout the 19th century. We Episcopalians like to brag about the activist and martyr Jonatahn Myrick Daniels and others of our fold who stood up bravely for racial justice in the 1960s, but what the things I learned here about our earlier legacy in the 18th and 19th centuries are almost too painful and humiliating for me to write about. We learn from H. Richard Niebuhr to second guess the notion that purely religious concerns forge the key distinctions in church doctrine that can be mapped out along lines of social class.

Still, Richard's interest is not merely descriptive and critical; it is also constructive and normative, a work of Christian social ethics. In that vein, I like to read it alongside Rauschenbusch's Theology of the Social Gospel; in some respects, Niebuhr offers the more critical, penetrating and mature example of that genre of Christian activist literature. He writes:

In its denominational aspect, at least, it [Christianity] has become part and parcel of the world, one social institution alongside many others, a phase of the total civilization more frequently conditioned by other cultural tendencies than conditioning them. The old vision of the time when the kingdom of this world should be transformed into the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ has faded into the light of a common day in which the brute facts of an unchanging human nature, of the invincible fortifications of economic and political society, of racial pride, economic self interest and Realpolitick appear in their grim reality (pp. 264-265).

I'm not a sociologist of religion, but as I read it, much of his interpretation seems plausible. When it comes to his constructive conclusions in the final chapter, however, his proposal seems to me less compelling. Here he offers his own vision of Christianizing the social order that to me seems still too dependent upon 19th century liberal Protestant notions of intrinsic human solidarity as being self evident. Richard's social gospel vision, at this early stage, is still based on model of faithful praxis within the realm of Christendom.

Richard himself soon perceives this problem and tries to correct it in his seminal work in American Christian history, The Kingdom of God in America (1937). Despite its presentation as a work of historical interpretation, this work is deeply constructive and theological in character. Theologically, Richard has discovered the Reformational motif of divine sovereignty as a driving force within the history of North American Protestantism, a motif that weaves from the Puritan emphasis upon an ineluctable providence to the revivalists' theme of the reign of Christ in heart and society to the notion of the coming kingdom that has driven modern social reformers. The present and coming Kingdom, in his view, is a revolutionary force for ongoing renewal and transformation; it never comes to rest in any settled ecclesiastical-institutional framework but always remains in motion and imbues the Christian life with an attitude of humble expectancy and openness to the future. As in the work of Karl Barth, which Richard had come to appreciate more deeply in the late 1930s, and, more recently, of Kathryn Tanner, a robust notion of radical transcendence is explored linked to a notion of perpetual critique and reformation in theology and ethics.

Let justice roll down like waters

How might we start to re-read the work of the Niebuhr brothers in our day, when our nation is embroiled in dissention and strife about issues of racial injustice, the militarization of the police, runaway economic inequality and ubiquitous surveillance? What if we took a fresh look at his 1934 manifesto, Moral Man and Immoral Society? In this text, the critical and prophetic vistas that, I have suggested, must first begin with a critical look at the churches themselves, are turned outward, toward the struggles between classes and nations themselves. (For some hints about how we might situate this book among the classics of modern political theology, see this helpful bibliography.)

Though it is a work of political philosophy and not theology proper, we find in this text the early threads of the Christian realism for which Reinhold would become famous (or perhaps notorious), a critical stance that, for example, takes orthodox Marxism to task as a form of secularized, yet quasi-religious idealism. Thus, "The hope that there will ever be an ideal society, in which everyone can take without restraint from the common social process 'according to his need,' completely disregards the limitations of human nature" (p. 196). Does this put the early Reinhold, then, firmly in the camp of those who advocate gradualism in social reform? Does he advocate limiting our praxis to reform of existing institutions? To some extent, perhaps: For example, elements of democratic socialism have been introduced by parliamentary means. But the groups and individuals who benefit from holding onto privilege and power are loathe to voluntarily forgo these advantages without some measure of coercion, even if it be in the form of economic or political action rather than physical force.

Such questions of political ethics are complicated enough in themselves without even raising the question of how the praxis of Christian communities might relate to these broader social concerns. That latter concern bespeaks a broader debate within Christian social ethics -- a heated conversation that was prefigured in a debate between the Niebuhr brothers themselves (see my second post in this series). Clearly, though, what we see in the early Niebuhr is a stern refusal to accommodate the social status quo as a given of divine providence.

Whether or not the Niebuhrs can serve as Amos-type prophets for us today, 40 years after theologians of liberation began to carry such a banner more explicitly, I'm not sure. Still, as we try to get our bearings with the pressing challenges of the 21st century, I think we could all stand to do a little work of critique and retrieval in historical theology and ethics. To that end, I think we need to try to hear what Richard and Reinhold said afresh. In this vein, I take a cue from someone who claimed to be influenced by Reinhold's work and who, himself, quoted Amos in one of the most famous speeches of the 20th Century -- the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Works Cited:

Fox, Richard Wightman, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biograhy (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987).

Kraft, Charles F., "The Book of Amos" in Charles M. Laymon, ed., The New Interpreter's Commentary on the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1971) pp. 463-472.

Niebuhr, H. Richard, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York, Meridian: 1957).

-----, The Kingdom of God in America (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan, 1988).

Niebuhr, Reinhold, Leaves from the Notebooks of a Tamed Cynic (Meridian, New York: 1957).

-----, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Scribners, 1932).

Paeth, Scott R., The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014).



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