Reading Niebuhr Instead

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr

When I first moved to New York I lived on a street named for Reinhold Niebuhr, the most renowned Christian ethicist ever to teach at Union Theological Seminary. As an evangelical Christian realist, he saw politics as the place to do ethics and refused to accept economic inequality, racism, and war as inevitable human conditions. Union, where I was a student at the time, is probably the most lefty seminary in the world, so we might have studied him more. But, because his realism is seen today as idealistic, Niebuhr was given short shrift at UTS, his dated neo-orthodoxy taking a back seat to eco-theology, Michel Foucault, and The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Yet, just before graduation I bought Niebuhr’s slim book The Irony of American History from a used-book seller on Broadway just south of the seminary. No irony there–used Niebuhr, and perhaps never read. Still, the book would sit on my shelves, uncracked, for over four years, boxed up and moved from the seminary to my first apartment in Brooklyn, unpacked, then reboxed and moved again to my second, and yes, a third. It sat unread through not one presidential election, but two. So in the past months, with irony seeming a more reasonable and palatable source for consolation than pure comedy, I decided to re-shelve Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, waiting its turn atop Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, and read Niebuhr instead.

Niebuhr was born in Missouri. Like his father, he became an evangelical minister, pastor of a Detroit parish that grew more than ten-fold during his thirteen-year tenure. That he spent the four subsequent decades living and teaching in New York City can hardly be held against him. Niebuhr was an avowed Christian who loved America. His was a nation that had, in less than a generation, arrived in ways no one could have expected; following the Second World War–following the bomb–America had become the most powerful nation in the world. It had an unmistakable, and uniquely ironic, place in history.

Yet for all his love of country, Niebuhr never learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. What he did love was that Americans, as a nation, really worried about the bomb. We knew our power, and understood that we were free, and suddenly capable, to exercise it–but never without guilt. The irony of our history was based in knowing our real culpability in becoming a world power, in recognizing that we were far less innocent than our theories of democracy, free-market capitalism, militarism, and evangelicalism assumed. “Success in world politics,” Niebuhr contended, “necessitates a disavowal of the pretentious elements in our original dream, and a recognition of the values and virtues which enter into history in unpredictable ways.” In 1952, America was this political success story.

On the other hand, the “monstrous evil” of communism, America’s great foe, was inflexible and, like a religion, was concerned with ultimate ends, apocalypse and paradise. Playing the messianic role in history, communism risked identifying its own utopian interests with the “final purposes of the God of history.” Such were the frustrations America was to deal with for the duration of the Cold War. The enemy had the audacity to claim divine purpose. America, said Niebuhr, knew better.

There is no question that The Irony of American History is dated, but its datedness is, indeed, Irony‘s great value. Now suddenly Niebuhr’s Missouri–among many other places comprising 2.5 million square miles of America–has issued what the Bush administration calls a “mandate,” one that rewards and lauds as American virtue the very inflexibility and messianic pretensions that seemed so frustrating in our “idealistic” enemy for over forty years. American fundamentalist evangelicals have given up on Niebuhr. Our place in the drama of history now threatens to be without the awe, modesty, contrition, and gratitude that Niebuhr identified in his Christian realism. And he worried that this might happen, that Americans might lose their faith, and America its ironic place in history. “For if we should perish,” he concluded, “the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Irony was said to have died on September 12, 2001. I’d date its demise to a few years later–November 3, 2004. And as a holdout Christian realist often (rightly) accused of idealism, I’m praying for its resurrection.

Scott Korb is the author of Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine. He is also is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury 2007).