Niebuhr v. Niebuhr

Paul Harvey

John Fea has beaten me to the punch in pointing to Obama's Theologian, a recent Speaking of Faith radio interview about Reinhold Niebuhr with E. J. Dionne and David Brooks. It's an interesting conversation, and far be it from me to deny the recent Niebuhr revival its just due. If economists are all Keynesians now, religion and social policy thinkers seem to be all Niebuhrians, from Obama on down. Aside from Lincoln, and maybe M. L. King, it's hard to think of anyone Obama channels in his addresses more than Niebuhr.

With all that in mind, perhaps it's a good time to take a cold bath and feel a little uncomfortable chill from all this necessary but sometimes impoverishing realism. I felt a little bit of that chill yesterday evening as I was just cracking open Kip Kosek's Acts of Conscience, which I just mentioned here at the blog a couple of days ago. I'm no further than the introduction, but the author grabbed my attention immediately with this passage:

". . . the tough liberals of the mid-twentieth century [ignored] the Christian nonviolent tradition's most profound insight. The problem of the twentieth century, the pacifists contended, was the problem of violence. . . . It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness. . . Pacifists certainly failed to solve the problem of 'permanent war,' but the uncomfortable truth is that everyone else failed, too, even the liberal realists. Recent estimates put the total number of people killed by oranized violence in the twentieth century between 167 million and 188 million, which works out to some five thousand lives unnaturally ended every single day for a hundred years. Of course, the deaths came not at regular intervals, but rather in concentrated spasms unprecedented in their destructive power. . . We should take radical Christian pactifists seriously not because they were always right, but because they force us, as they forced their contemporaries, to confront these terrible truths. They insisted more emphatically, more sanely, than Niebuhr and the realists that the elimination of violence was not mere tilting at windmills but the most urgent modern project. "

Kosek focuses his book on the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a group with which Niebuhr was intimately involved during his time at Union Seminary. In researching Freedom's Coming, I encountered Niebuhr as an inspirational professor who sent a remarkable number of idealists on projects (I was focusing on civil rights) that must have seemed quixotic at the time. Discovering the inspiration for the likes of Howard Kester, James Dombrowski, Myles Horton, and others was exhilarating, and Niebuhr was central to the expansive dreams of this lot. The liberal realists of that era had no answer to American apartheid; the dreamers did.

Later, Niebuhr moved out of the religious left of the day and into a vision of liberal realism;that's the Niebuhr primarily that is celebrated today. Kosek has a less celebratory take: "the decline of the Fellowship's strain of radical Christianity has not led to enlightened secularism, but rather to an impoverishment of political discourse about violence."

More to come on this, but listening to the Niebuhr program in conjunction with just a short survey of Acts of Conscience has been a rich treat already.


Anonymous said…
Funny, you and I have been swimming in similar sea! I just finished Acts of Conscience (am doing a review of it), then listened to the Tippett discussion while making breakfast on Saturday. Also, last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the FOR's headquarters in Nyack, NY.

The Niebuhr thread runs throughout Acts, an ever-present shadow to the movement Kosek describes, the only critic of them he seems to let concern him. I'm glad you raise the quotation about "an impoverishment of political discourse about violence"—it sure seems to be at work today, when the "change" candidate arrives and promises to get us out of Iraq only to get busy on copying the Iraq conflict in Afghanistan. Can't we think of anything better to do?

Would love to hear more of your reactions to Kosek as you progress through the book.
Paul Harvey said…
Nathan: Thanks, I'll surely post more on the book a bit later after getting through the rest of it. Send me a link to your review when it's done (assuming there is a link) and I'll post it here. And thanks for your excellent blog, I've got you blogrolled here now.
Anonymous said…
Oh, yes, I meant to express my appreciation for the blogroll! Thank you. You're on mine too:)

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