Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Niebuhr Brothers and Syria

H. Richard Niebuhr
Diana Butler Bass has a very interesting piece at the Huffington Post on how the Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard, might have responded to the crisis in Syria if they were alive today.  You may recall that Barack Obama is on record saying that Reinhold Niebuhr is one of his favorite philosophers.

Here is a taste of Bass's piece:

Reinhold Niebuhr, whose career spanned the mid-twentieth century, was an influential theologian when public theology mattered to a largely Protestant church-going population. Niebuhr taught at New York's Union Theological Seminary and articulated a theological and political position known as Christian Realism. In 1932, his most famous book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, argued that when collective powers (such as a tyrannical state) harm the weak, then other states (especially states indebted to Christian religion) can or must use force to combat them. 

When it comes to Syria, President Obama seems to be channeling Reinhold Niebuhr as he presses for U.S. military action to punish the atrocity of a nation gassing its own citizens. Syrian violence must be met with forceful coercion from moral nations, and America must use its military power toward the ethical goal of eliminating chemical weapons. This echoes Niebuhr's assertion, "As long as the world of man remains a place where nature and God, the real and the ideal, meet, human progress will depend upon the judicious use of the forces of nature in the service of the ideal." Thus, violence is justified to end violence.

If President Obama had fully followed Reinhold Niebuhr, the strike would have surely commenced by now. However, something odd happened on the way to retaliation -- a pause. To talk, argue, reflect, and vote? Our politics-obsessed culture depicts this as waffling or weakness or presidential second thoughts based on bad polling numbers.

But what if something else is at work?

There was another Niebuhr, Reinhold's younger brother H. Richard, who taught at Yale. In 1932, the year Moral Man was published, the two brothers held a debate in the pages of the Christian Century on an important political question of the day -- whether or not the United States should intervene on behalf of China in light of atrocities inflicted on them by a Japanese invasion. 

The elder Niebuhr argued to "dissuade Japan from her military venture" by whatever means necessary. Contra his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested that doing nothing was the way toward peace. H. Richard outlined a theology of moral "inactivity." Against the rush of events, an ethical nation must reflect upon the causes of the problem, form potential courses of action, and discern self-interest in the conflict -- all within a framework of God's intentions in history. This constructive inactivity is the moral opposite of immediate reaction, a response akin to what H. Richard compared to an angry parent who corrects bad behavior with a "verbal, physical, or economic spanking." Unlike his brother, H. Richard thought that violence could not be reconciled with any sort of meaningful faith or "radical trust" in God.