Thinking about peace and reinhold niebuhr on my sabbath...

Last night I finished the heady and insightful book by Daniel F. Rice: Reinhold Niebuhr and His Circle of Influence.  It literally kept me up way too late this past week both because it treated Niebuhr's thinking so carefully and because it clearly located him within his tumultuous social context. I also found the structural strategy Rice employed in presenting his case to be artful and illuminating: he explored the intellectual and personal relationships between Niebuhr and seven giants of his milieu including Paul Tillich, John Dewey, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and George Kennan.  This was a thoroughly researched collection documenting the influence a modern Neo-Orthodox Christian theologian had upon his secular peers.  

Moreover Rice shows how the evolution of Niebuhr's thinking matured and helped guide the American experiment with democracy during some of our darkest hours.  In the afterward, Rice writes:

At the start of America's longest war - the debacle in Afghanistan - I wondered why Niebuhr's insights had vanished from consideration.  It was as if they had been banished to some secret and well guarded, lead-lined bomb shelter in Idaho never to be revisited by scholars, politicians or people of faith. Indeed, their very memory seemed to have been erased from our public discourse like an eerie sci-fi  B movie.  And not much has changed in the ensuing twelve years:  we are still carping about American exceptionalism, we are still hop-scotching between naive military adventurism and sulking isolationism as the recent debates over intervention in Syria shows all too clearly, and we are still beating our chests about our unique moral purity when all evidence suggests something to the contrary.

Early in this book, in the chapter regarding Paul Tillich, Rice surveys the public and private insights Niebuhr shared re: the role of the United States in rebuilding Germany after WWII.  Sixty eight years later Niebuhr's fears warrant another hearing:

Niebuhr... voiced fear that there was 'a fateful significance in the fact that America's coming of age coincides with the period of world history when the paramount problem is the creation of some kind of world community.' Recognizing the urgent need for a workable system of mutual security in the postwar world in order to avert a return to international anarchy, we worried that the two contradictory impulses in American political history, which he labeled 'isolationist imperialism' might come together to produce an arrogant and irresponsible policy.  Niebuhr was already observing sings that 'the isolationists of yesterday are the imperialists of today' and were threatening to use America's emerging power as an instrument for avoiding mutuality and compromise. With all the other difficulties facing the achievement of a workable arrangement for postwar Europe  America's contradictory impulses and its inexperience in matters of foreign policy simply compounded an already complex situation.

In a word, American ignorance and arrogance were being wed to our theological naivete and moral superiority in ways that were excessively punitive to the vanquished.  In the years following WWII we created countless unnecessary political enemies and untold suffering for the innocent as we trumpeted our victory as the will of God. I believe that in 2013, the vanity of our fathers and mothers is still being visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.  A simple folk song cut to the chase:  when will they ever learn...?

American social and political conservatives in the 1980s tried to take the wisdom of Niebuhr hostage by insisting that their uber laissez faire policies dovetailed nicely with Niebuhr's insistence on political realism.  But such clumsy manipulation ignores Niebuhr's life-long commitment to economic equality and social justice.  There is no way Reinie could ever be squeezed into a supply side mold.  Nor could Niebuhr celebrate the current state of liberal politics wherein almost everyone is owned by corporate interests who buy and sell "deals" for short term profit without regard to the common good. Like Schlesinger once said about himself, Niebuhr was a political and theological cynic when considering any immediate problem, but a cautiously optimistic soul from the perspective of history. 

After all, Niebuhr trusted by faith that God's love ultimately shapes the ebb and flow of life.  Who else could have written the Serenity Prayer?
Sometimes on a Sunday morning Niebuhr's son, Christopher, is sitting in my congregation.  He lives in the area (after years of vacationing with the family in the Berkshires) and is active in our local Congregational/United Church of Christ association.  I give thanks for the chance to visit with him from time to time.  And today I give thanks for the living wisdom of his father, Reinhold, whose insights are needed today as much as ever before. 


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