13 thoughts on “Love your Niebuhr

  1. I still don’t understand how Obama can be such a fan of Niebuhr as well as Dr Martin Luther King Jr. That seems highly conflicted and double-minded to me
    And despite that I still regard Obama along with the writer of the article, as “one of the good guys”.
    Is Obama still listening to Christian advocates of non-violent activism and diplomatic options such as Sojourner’s Jim Wallis who heavily supported him in his presidential election?

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  2. To be postmodern is to cherry pick. I’m sure Obama would want Americans to practice nonviolence at home. If just not sure at what point offshore the ethical flip happens. I’m not sure I’d label him a good guy (we’re all sinners after all), but I still prefer him to his predicessor.

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  3. Yeah. I think Obama’s escalation of military resources into Afghanistan to supposably `de-escalate’ the USA’s future war involvement there in a few year’s time is fraught with ethical and logical conflicts.
    (Got Friday off Matt, so blogging late because I can sleep in for a while in the morning).

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  4. Andrew, You’re overlooking the fact King himself was very influenced by Niebuhr. He said at one point that Niebuhr and Gandhi were his two greatest influences. He also makes comments in “Stride Toward Freedom” on the influence Niebuhr had on his thought.

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  5. In responding to you Scott I will refer to Robert Inchausti’s comments in his book Subversive Orthodoxy (2005), Brazos Press
    p.106
    King understood the problem with of Niebuhr’s view that “private virtue was possible, while public virtue was impossible”. In the Montomery situation he learnt what Inchausti describes as “the reverse lesson: he performed a miracle of public virtue”.
    He understood and clearly advocated very publicly that “to change the world we [as a `beloved community’ shaped by the agape of Christ’s love for our neighbours, as well as for our enemies] we must become receptacles of God’s love, understanding and goodwill. We must have faith, not merely of the mind, but of the heart that surrenders the whole man to the divine inflow. This is a departure from Niebuhr’s dualism, which admits a metanoia of the soul but not of community: in King’s view, moral action links personal salvation to social responsibility” (p.109).
    Sure he was influenced by Niebuhr, and also by so many others (eg. Tillich, Kierkegaard). However, if you read King’s essay about his pilgrimage to non-violence which was published in the Christian Century under the series on “how My Mind Has Changed”, as King evolved as both a theologian and social activist he transitioned from [how he describes himself] a fundamentalist to liberal, to existentialist, to neo-orthodoxy…until he finally came to the conclusion that “the truth about man is found neither in liberalism nor in neo-orthodoxy. Each represents a partial truth [but not the whole truth, and what is required is] a synthesis which reconciles both”. He says that Rauschenbusch’s “Christianity and Social Crisis” “left an indelible imprint on [his] thinking” but stated that “there were points at which I differed with Rauschenbusch” which he said “came perilously close to identifying the kingdom of God with a particular [US] social and economic system”. So there were many other significant influences besides Niebuhr during his theological formation. But is very clear from his own words that he was not uncritical in his own processing of those sources. And quite clear that his thinking about how human nature was defined and the value of building social activist faith communities was quite a departure from Niebuhr’s.
    King’s embrace of the “Ghandian method” was a huge departure, because it interpreted non-violence from the collective as “one of the most potent weapons available to people in their struggle for freedom” and it came with a collectivised and positive [in terms of human nature] social conscience.
    King did say, “I am no doctrinaire pacifist. I have tried to embrace a realistic pacifism. Moreover, I see the pacifist position not as sinless but as the lesser evil in the circumstances. Therefore I do not claim to be free from the moral dilemmas that the Christian nonpacifist confronts. But I am convinced that the church cannot remain silent while mankind faces the threat of being plunged into the abyss of nuclear annihilation. If the church is true to its mission it must call an end to the arms race”.
    MLK appears to have been diversely influenced, and was never “a closed book” in terms of the evolution of himself theologically. He appears to describe himself throughout the essay as a work in constant progress – just like us.
    I think it is inaccurate to state that because he mentions Niebuhr as one of the influences on his theology, that he totally embraced and agreed with Niebuhr’s theology of human nature and Niebuhr’s approach to social action or just war. I think if MLK was alive today he would probably be closer to John Howard Yoder who could be described as the theological archnemesis of Niebuhr, but quite heavily positive about MLK as a peer non-violence advocate regarding social action and attitudes to warfare.

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  6. I guess I should add this further comment to my previous blog. Although I am an ardent King fan and scholar, I have not read a great deal from Niebuhr apart from what I have read from others like Incausti and MLK, Moltmann and Yoder writing about him. So I don’t wish to be unfair to him in my comments about him. However, I possess a number of his seminal books. So I will now be studying up on him in order to be more directly conversant with his approaches to ethics, human nature, social activism and attitudes to war. I am mindful, like King was, that the Niebuhr brothers were products of their turbulent political times often writing in the face of a developing Nazism and Russian communism threats to humanity in the 30’s-50’s. Also they seem heavily influenced by existentialism and the strong psychological movements which were emerging influentially upon Christian theology and ethics during those periods.

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  7. Scott, I agree, that is worth noting. I have read that Reinhold Niebuhr (one must qualify which Niebuhr as his brother was a pacifist) exerted considerable influence on Martin Luther King. But I have many questions as to what form that “influence” took. For example, it could be said that Niebuhr exerted considerable over John Howard Yoder as well, in that one could hardly enter the nonviolent activism / justified violence debate without taking Niebuhr into account, if only as a sparing partner. Then again, I’m told Niebuhr also spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan, so one could hardly blame King for finding him attractive on that score. But clearly King didn’t adopt Niebuhr’s pessimism. Martin Luther King was no pragmatist, he was an idealist of the highest grade. So I’m left with the question, in WHAT WAY was Niebuhr an influence?

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  8. Andrew, just reading your own response to Scott. Martin Luther King’s words give me pause for thought and draw attention to the important truth that the pacifist position is no more monolythic than the just war position, that there are many variations. Yoder identifies over a dozen I recall.
    In that respect, my own understandiing of pacifism is deeply eschatological, in that I agree it is difficult to say violence is never or has never been justified, particularly given God’s actions in the Old Testament and all, but I insist that the kingdom of God can not come through it. So, insofar as we are called to embodt the future in the present, we are called to live nonviolently and challenge injustice through nonviolent action. This is quote different to a universalist pacifist position that says violence is never and has never been justified. The practical import for the contemporary Christian is very similar though.
    In any case, this ongoing discussion is highlighting that I too need to read more of Niebuhr.

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  9. I highly recommend reading more of Niebuhr. A lot of his critics seriously underplay the nuances in his theology. I find this particularly in Stan Hauerwas and some of his disciples, but he becomes the bete noir of a great many Christian pacifists.
    I used to be friends with Dave Dellinger years ago, and read in his book “From Yale to Jail” about how, on the day that he was sent to prison for refusing to enlist to fight WWII, Niebuhr gave a scathing speech at the Union seminar chapel criticizing Dave and his fellow pacifists. For a long time, that influenced my take on Niebuhr. But when I actually got around to plumbing his theology carefully, I realized that there was a lot more there than I had given him credit for, and I began to see the points of contact with King.
    As for Moltmann, it’s interesting that the first book he remembers reading of Christian theology when he was a POW was Neibuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” but he doesn’t seem to have remembered much of it, as he admits himself in places. He’s definitely taken a divergent path, but particularly in his early theology, I don’t think he’s as far from Niebuhr as he has become, and in “The Way of Jesus Christ” a careful reading of what Moltmann proposes as a Christian ethic of nonviolence is consistent with a Niebuhrian conception of realism.

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  10. I have a copy of Niebuhr’s “Moral man and immoral society”, but whenever I’ve tried to read it I’ve never got beyond the first chapter. Maybe i should try again some time, but I found Christos Yannaras’s “The freedom of morality” far more interesting.

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  11. I’m just started reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Man’s Nature and His Communities” after which I will be looking at H Richard Niebuhr’s “The Meaning of Revelation”. Both were gathering dust on my bookshelf for a few years after I picked them up at a fete. I am quite enjoying “Man’s nature…” by Reinhold which was released in 1964.

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  12. Folks, thanks for engaging in this stimulating debate. Having been challenged by it to dig deeper, I have stumbled upon a fascinating article on the difference between just war ethics, Niebuhrian ethics and pacifist ethics from a classic just war perspective.
    http://www.eppc.org/docLib/20080205_palpatterson03.pdf
    Entitled “Reinhold Niebuhr, Christian Realism, and Just War Theory: A Critique”, it suggests classical just war teaching and the historic pacifist teaching share the conviction that Christians “ought not do evil so that good may come”, but differ over the question of weather bearing arms is evil or not. By way of contrast, it suggests Niebuhrian teaching and historic pacifist teaching share the conviction that bearing arms is evil, but differ over the question of necessary evils, and whether Christians “are expected to do evil so that good may come”. Now, I have many criticisms of this article, which I may post on at length in the near future, but the questions it raises are so stimulating that I’d like to draw your attention to it straight away.
    Above all else, the question I have now is: what does the just war tradition have to say to people suffering injustly under legitimate governments? Particularly since this article makes such an issue of legitimate government as war initiator as a criteria for just cause. For it now strikes me that the just war tradition is, at heart, a tradition for soldiers and governments, a tradition for the powerful in other words. Where then do the weak go for moral guidance? Where do civilians turn? What does it say in a civil war situation? Advocates of just war theology proclaim its universalism as its strength. If it is universal, where is its real world advice for ordinary civilians tempted towards armed insurrection against oppressors?
    The other question I have is, if Niebuhrian ethics leads to limp wristed responses to the problem of “collateral damage”, is their scope for pacifists and just war advocates to join forces over this issue?

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  13. Thanks for the essay. I’ll certainly be reading it.
    In the spirit of your original heading genre, I think it would only be “good Niebuhrly” for us to do so.

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