Why bring up Neibuhr today? Candidly, I'm struggling with something I am observing in our culture. In the words of a friend of mine "I am constantly doing battle with justice militants who think that the way to perfect the Church is to endlessly proliferate episcopal mandates for righteous living." and then later..."On the right it is the delusion of personal righteousness...on the left it is the absurdity of social utopia. I find both to be equally naive and equally pernicious."
I am not such a skilled writer. Heck, I barely passed Mrs. McKinley's eighth grade english class with a C minus. But, today I'm resonating with these words. You want my translation? "People on both sides of the cultural/political/church world have no interest in living in reality, they just want to have their say, damn the torpedoes whether it helps us have a better world."
So this is why I think of Reinhold today, He was a Christian realist, and he understood power and the corruptive nature of power on society. Because society is corrupt, it's not possible for human beings to be moral, largely because individuals are forced to compromise the ideal of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Niebuhr argued that human perfectibility was an illusion, highlighting the sinfulness of humanity at a time when the world was confronted by the horrors of the Holocaust, Hitler, Stalin etc.
In the New York Times obituary upon his death in 1971, the author Arthur Schlesinger Jr wrote, "[Niebuhr's] emphasis on sin startled my generation, brought up on optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectibility. But nothing had prepared us for Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, concentration camps and gulags. Human nature was evidently as capable of depravity as of virtue... Traditionally, the idea of the frailty of man led to the demand for obedience to ordained authority. But Niebuhr rejected that ancient conservative argument. Ordained authority, he showed, is all the more subject to the temptations of self-interest, self-deception and self-righteousness. Power must be balanced by power."
Now, at this point let's bring in Martin Luther. "Simul Justus et pecator" which means "We are simultaneously saint and sinner." We need Luther to be in conversation with Neibuhr. Oh, wow, would that be a Table Talk at the local pub. I'd love to be in on that conversation. Luther reminds us that we need to let go of the delusion of personal righteousness...and the absurdity of social utopia. It ain't gonna happen. Our redemption in Christ is central. Our humanity as saint/sinner describes our condition.
Why is this important? Because as long as both the left and the right cling to these fantasies, and the idea that they can be legislated, mandated or persuasively generated...we are toast. How's that for elegance? Human beings are wonderfully beautiful, broken, majestic, selfish, generous, god-forsaken (note the small g), grace imbued creatures. When we recognize that, believe it, and swim in that water, well, it changes our expectations and our dreams.
I would also argue it puts us on a more sober path toward addressing the critical crisis of our time which include all of the causes you want me to insert right here, but fall under a larger umbrella for both individuals and society to take responsibility for their own spiritual, social and emotional maturity.
How do we do that? I have no clue, except maybe a hint:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
*Thanks to my friend WM for influencing this post.