Responses to Niebuhr’s Critique of Christian Pacifism in “Moral Man & Immoral Society”

Posted: February 16, 2010 in Uncategorized
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I just finished reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man & Immoral Society, a work that greatly influenced President Obama’s formulation of the role of his faith in his foreign policy. This book contains much of Niebuhr’s thought about pacifism, nonviolence, conflict and violence. Here are my initial responses to his arguments:

  1. Niebuhr’s critique, along with many others’, rests on a strange distinction between individual and social morality. Many of the moral teachings in the New Testament deal with interactions between two or more people. There’s an implicit complaint in this sort of reasoning – that Jesus didn’t offer guidance for those in positions of executive or military power. This complaint proceeds from a bad assumption – that Jesus wanted his followers to seek or retain executive or military power. The record seems to indicate that early Christians certainly did not believe this. Niebuhr seems to think that when individuals are de-individuated into opposing social groups in conflict, Jesus’ teachings are not applicable to the interactions between the individual components of those social groups, or, rather, that we must incur the guilt of violating Jesus’ commands in these situations to be “responsible” and rely on God’s grace. Aside from the absurdity of asserting that a good Christian will violate Jesus’ commands to serve a value Jesus never much elevated in his teachings, here’s my response to this: it is the job of the Christian in situations of conflict, especially among opposing social/political groups, to remind themselves and others that they are individuals to whom the commands of Christ apply, and that the claims of Christ on us must take priority over claims of a state or other social or political group. It is the duty of the Christian to break violent unanimity.
  2. Niebuhr’s critique is premised on Jesus having called for nonresistance versus nonviolent resistance. If this is not true, Niebuhr’s criticism loses much of its energy. Walter Wink’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount, to name just one example, almost completely demolishes this assumption.
  3. Related to #2, Niebuhr often conflates violence, injustice and coercion.
  4. Related to #3, he proceeds from an untrue (and certainly unproven) assumption that violence is not viewed as inherently unethical in the teachings of Christ.
  5. He endorses class loyalty as a corrective to nationalism and imbues the proletarians with a redemptive mission to modern society, but it is not clear why he does not imbue the church with a similar mission. (p. 229) He asserts the irrationality of choosing national loyalty over class loyalty because such a choice “makes for a premature internal peace and for unnecessary war.” But, to capitulate to the demands of violent nationalism is also to prefer international conflict to the struggle against the spirit of domination itself.
  6. Niebuhr is involved in an intramural conflict with liberal pacifist theologians of his day, but his controversy with them leads him to improperly critique all proponents of nonviolence based on the social strata of origin for his immediate opponents’ views. He seems to critique pacifism as a phenomenon that arises from middle class naivete. This totally ignores the context for the injunctions against violence and military service within the early church, and it certainly ignores the social and class situation of the original followers of Christ, to say nothing of Christ himself. Niebuhr’s critique in Moral Man & Immoral Society is almost impossible to isolate from a critique of Enlightenment thinking in the 20th century Social Gospel.

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