A Man for All Reasons

In the debate over the war on terror (and just about everything else, too), neocons and liberals, theocons and Christian pacifists, idealists and realists have all called upon the writings of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. What does the promiscuous invocation of his work tell us about the man—and about his would-be acolytes?
The Sage of Nonviolence

“The beginning of wisdom,” Niebuhr wrote, “lies in recognizing that history cannot be coerced.” But history can be changed by the force of righteousness; of this Niebuhr was sure, and of this Martin Luther King Jr. is modern proof. When King read Moral Man and Immoral Society in divinity school in 1950, he was struck both by Niebuhr’s frank appraisal of the role of power in society and by his application of it to race relations in the South. Having rejected pacifism, Niebuhr made his case for Christian participation in war by distinguishing between “non-resistance” and “non-violent resistance.” He argued that because Jesus counseled nonresistance (urging his followers to turn the other cheek), nonviolent resistance was no more faithful to the Gospel than violence—after all, it did resist. Nor was it practical, for it ceded all force to people who would use it without scruple. But Niebuhr, with characteristic subtlety, saw some merit in nonviolence even so. In peacetime, he allowed, nonviolent resistance could be an effective way to close the gap between the powerful and the powerless—as Gandhi had recently shown with his campaign of strikes and boycotts against the British in India. He added:

The emancipation of the Negro race in America probably waits upon the adequate development of this kind of social and political strategy … The white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so. Upon that point one may speak with a dogmatism which all history justifies.

In jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, King drew on the passage from memory in his open letter to eight of the city’s white clergymen, recalling:

As Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

In a striking paradox, King had identified the philosopher of armed conflict with the cause of nonviolence.

When Stanley Hauerwas found himself “silenced” during the war on terror, he too sat down and wrote an open letter, and he too had Niebuhr in mind. Hauerwas, who teaches in the divinity school at Duke University, is the most prominent voice for Christian pacifism in America. A September 2001 issue of Time declared him “America’s Best Theologian.” Then the terrorists struck. A First Things editorial, “In a Time of War,” set out the journal’s stance. The target was recognizably Hauerwas, a member of the First Things editorial board, and the rhetoric was recognizably that of the editor in chief, Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who is to theoconservatism what Hauerwas is to pacifism. Support for the war, Neuhaus proposed, was not a matter of debate “between idealism and realism, nor between moral purity and moral compromise”; it was a matter of duty. Anyone with a “decent respect for mankind” would join the war effort. As for the “fraudulent” pacifists who promoted “nonviolent resistance,” they were living in “an unreal world of utopian fantasy that has no basis in Christian faith.” As opponents of military force, they should have no say “in the discussion about how military force should be used.”

“I have been silenced,” Hauerwas responded in a letter to the editors. He found it “almost beyond belief” that First Things had resorted to “the Niebuhrian distinction between nonviolent resistance and non-resistance in order to silence the pacifist voice.” As he saw it, that distinction affected more than pacifists; it forced all Christians to “leave Jesus behind when they come to the political realm” and reconcile themselves to “the order of disguised violence”—the world of legislatures and politics that leads, inevitably, to the order of undisguised violence that is war. His point made, he resigned from the editorial board.

Niebuhr’s “hold on Neuhaus’ soul seems permanent,” Hauerwas later wrote, and so it is on Hauerwas’s. It was from Niebuhr, he says, that he learned “that if you desire justice you had better be ready to kill someone along the way.” But an encounter with the work of the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder convinced him that “if there is anything to this Christian ‘stuff’ it must surely involve the conviction that the Son [of God] would rather die on the cross than have the world to be redeemed by violence.”

Since then, Hauerwas has been what might be called a Niebuhrian inside-out, laying the problems of American Protestantism at Niebuhr’s feet. In his view—set out in his Gifford Lectures, given in 2000 and 2001, 60 years after Niebuhr’s—the Christian Church must bring the power of the Gospels to the world rather than seek accommodation with worldly power, and Niebuhr, in an attempt to make faith relevant to the age and acceptable to the cultured despisers of religion, became “the theologian of a domesticated god capable of doing no more than providing comfort to the anxious conscience of the bourgeoisie.”

Published in a book shortly after the terrorist attacks, Hauerwas’s challenge to Niebuhr could be seen as a critique of the Bush administration and of the close ties between Christianity and patriotism. Six years into the war, Hauerwas is firmer than ever in his conviction that Niebuhrian realism is not realistic. As he sees it, the war on terrorism is not only not winnable; it isn’t even a war, for it has no clear enemy, purpose, or end. As in all wars, however, violence and the threat of violence are everywhere, from Baghdad to Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo. The ubiquity of violence, he insists, shows the emptiness of Niebuhrian realism, for all Niebuhr’s further arguments lead to the crude conclusion that “the nations with the largest armies get to determine what counts for ‘justice’”; and the diversity of Niebuhrian opinions shows that Niebuhr has no clear answers to give us.

A ‘Realist of Distances’

In 1943, with the Axis powers still strong in Europe and the Pacific, Niebuhr began to plan for the postwar situation, sketching out a peacetime alliance that would represent a mean between the extremes of anarchy and world government. As the military intervention he’d sought was becoming a fact on the ground, making American predominance in world affairs felt as never before, he was looking ahead to a time when the United States would need to “establish community with many nations.”

It was at this time that he wrote the Serenity Prayer, the 33 words now uttered countless times each day in 12-step recovery programs worldwide: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

More than a prayer, this was Niebuhr’s prescription for action in the new era waiting on the far side of the war. He foresaw that the American struggle in the postwar years would be a struggle with our addiction to power, and that our national story would be a story of our efforts to distinguish between the courageous and the foolish uses of that power—a story of our reluctant recognition that power can bring about necessary change, but that it can also have brutal unintended consequences. Moreover, he saw that distinguishing the one from the other would call for wisdom, a quality born of “the triumph of experience over dogma.”

Such wisdom is needed now more than at any time since 1945. The war in Iraq is far from over, no matter what any politician says. The forces of globalization and terrorism have made the United States at once more powerful and more vulnerable than ever before, bringing the “hell of global insecurity” to our office towers and mailboxes. With the so-called American Century safely behind us, we can once more begin to see that we are just one nation among many, for better and for worse.

Where, in such a situation, is the wisdom Niebuhr called for to be found? All the recent ritual invocation of his thought suggests that the place to look is not in his aphorisms and pronouncements, not in the particular petitions he signed or the committees he founded, but in his sense of history and our role in it.

Niebuhr was what Flannery O’Connor called a “realist of distances,” and the distance that gave his realism its clarity and explanatory power was gained through a grasp of what was known in his time as sacred history. In his view, the youth and optimism of the American experience was offset by the Founders’ conviction that we are a biblical people, enacting in the New World an older history. For Niebuhr, the aspirations that shaped our common life predated the republic: They were the visions of the promised land held by the patriarchs and the apostles, described in the history of Israel’s origins and destiny, which, in our early settlers’ account, became the story of our origins and destiny as well. This history tells of a people confident of its special role yet thwarted again and again on account of its pride, and growing in wisdom through a sense of the frailty of human nature and the limits of earthly powers. This history records that nations rage and peoples rise up together—that war sets brother against brother, despoils the land, and rends the social fabric; it counsels that you go to war with a heavy heart, for the truly good war has never been fought. This history acts as a restraint on national pride, not a stimulant to it, for it is not merely history, but in some sense our history, a story that cannot but be a cautionary tale, for it tells us who we are and what we are prone to do.

The war in Iraq, and the debates about the war, suggest that this history is now lost to us. On the surface, our society is thick with religion, but it is religion whose history is merely decorative, like the fiberglass pillars and aluminum gaslights of a McMansion in the suburbs. The Christianity that has a voice in official Washington has as its patriarchs Reagan and Falwell, not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and yet it has managed to make the nation’s longer biblical history repulsive to the liberals who once acknowledged it as a basic fact of our heritage. Lacking this history, liberals have a mainly ahistorical, secular political culture—one that assumes liberalism began with the New Deal or in 1948 and that would stand apart from religion altogether at a time when an understanding of the religious outlook is crucial to our grasp of the challenges of a globalized world.

In such circumstances, it’s no surprise that we fail to hear the voices of prophets like those who, during all the U.S. wars of the past century, called the ruling powers to account. To an astonishing degree, churches have underwritten the war in Iraq, recasting the biblical tradition in accord with the policies of the White House. They’ve replaced two millennia of thinking about war and peace with grade-school tutorials on Islam and facile comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, attempting to make a usable past out of events that are hardly even past.

Niebuhr would say that a biblical perspective, once lost, is not easily recovered—cultural regeneration being an abstract enterprise doomed to failure, like most human projects. Yet it’s worth recalling his conviction that history isn’t a true measure of things, that posterity is only a proximate judgment. “There is no way of transmuting the Christian gospel into a system of historical optimism,” he observed. “The final victory over man’s disorder is God’s and not ours.”

Even so, Niebuhr insisted, “we do have a responsibility for proximate victories”—“for the health of our communities, our nations, and our cultures.” What might this mean for the war in Iraq? It would mean frankly acknowledging, first of all, that the war as fought—in the misbegotten hope that Iraq, with its fractious history, could be remade in our image—has been lost. And second, that a full American withdrawal from the country is no more possible than a swift and easy victory was. Americans and Iraqis are bound together for the foreseeable future, regardless of the terms on which U.S. forces are drawn down—even if we are driven out of their country by rival factions in a civil war. “To love our enemies cannot mean that we must connive with their injustice,” Niebuhr wrote in 1942. “It does mean that beyond all moral distinctions of history we must know ourselves one with our enemies not only in the bonds of common humanity but also in the bonds of common guilt by which that humanity has become corrupted.”

As it was in Western Europe, so it is in Iraq. Its history now has an American chapter—and the other way around—and this shared history brings a shared responsibility, whether we like it or not. The recognition of this fact would be not only realistic, but the beginning of wisdom—the first step in the recognition of the limits of our power.

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Paul Elie, a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003). His article “The Year of Two Popes” appeared in the January/February 2006 Atlantic.

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