Responses to “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist” by Reinhold Niebuhr

Posted: February 23, 2010 in Uncategorized
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I’ve just read “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” and here are my brief responses. I realize the following does not necessarily summarize that to which it refers. Niebuhr is a dense writer, so I’d encourage you to read the actual text if you want to know more. Here are my almost-stream-of-consciousness thoughts:

Niebuhr seems to emphasize the power of sin over the power of love. This was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s critiques when he read Niebuhr’s work.

As in Moral Man & Immoral Society, Niebuhr attacks a kind of Enlightenment idea about the perfectibility of man in the course of his assault on pacifism as a Christian norm such that one has a hard time differentiating between the lines of attack. The result is that his attack on pacifism proceeds from his assumptions about the premises of pacifism about human nature and destiny which many pacifists, including myself, do not hold.

Just as Niebuhr attacks a particular brand of pacifism that fails to reckon with sin (although I’ve never come into contact with this sort of pacifism), he himself has constructed a “realism” that fails to grapple with revelation, or at least to take it seriously. Christian realism should be called Christian pragmatism in a way that includes all of pragmatism’s negative connotations.

Niebuhr here assaults Christian pacifist sectarian withdrawal, whereas in Moral Man & Immoral Society, he assaults it Christian principled nonviolent activism. Niebuhr seems only willing to entertain a Christian emulation of Christ’s rejection of violence if it is paired with disengagement with society. Compare this with the life and activity of Christ. For Niebuhr, conflict and violence are conflated, and he’s unwilling to entertain the idea that Christ urged people into conflict with hatred and injustice and evil but gave limits and examples for how that conflict should be waged. In all three of the seminal examples for Christian behavior in the Sermon on the Mount (turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving the undergarment when the outer garment is asked for), conflict is an issue. Even Paul understood this – that the response of love can be a form of resistance (“heap coals of shame upon their heads”). Ironically, Niebuhr attacks pacifists who reject Pauline accretions but fails to note this problematic outlook for his thesis.

Niebuhr accepts a form of individual sectarian pacifism as a legitimate Christian calling when it’s involved in a dialectic with the norms of society. What’s not clear is why, if this were true, it would not be basic to the Christian faith. While the New Testament calls for the respect of the different roles of the members of the church body, it doesn’t call for different norms of ethical behavior.  In addition, his assertion of pacifist sectarian withdrawal as the realization of the law of love seems out of kilter with what we read of Jesus in the New Testament. This form of withdrawal was a political and theological option in Christ’s historical context and his mentor, John, may have been part of such a movement. Christ, however, was not.

“It is important to recognize this lack of conformity to the facts of experience as a criterion for heresy.”

Interesting. In Moral Man & Immoral Society, Niebuhr defends violence undertaken by disinherited people for the sake of justice. Yet historical experience in the course of the 20th century shows that violent means are less effective than nonviolent resistance in these situations. Using his own reasoning, Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” might need to be rejected as a heretical admonition to the Christian body.

“If we believe that the only reason men do not love each other perfectly is because the law of love has not been preached persuasively enough, we believe something to which experience does not conform. If we believe that if Britain had only been fortunate enough to have produced 30 percent instead of 2 percent of conscientious objectors to military service, Hitler’s heart would have been softened and he would not have dared to attack Poland, we hold a faith which no historic reality justifies.”

Note that here, Niebuhr’s community of reference is the nation, not the transnational church. His dismissal does not reckon with the Christian church preaching the law of love or even a simple, uncompromising rejection of violence in Germany as well as in Britain. And, once we reject his interpretation of Jesus’ call for nonviolent engagement as one of nonresistance, we can see that there were in fact several promising examples of nonviolent resistance that worked to thwart Hitler’s aim, notably at Rosenstrasse in Berlin and at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France (with the Le Chambon example being an action specifically motivated by a French pastor’s reading of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent engagement and the “law of love.”). To be charitable, though, these incidents remain widely unknown even today, and Niebuhr may not have known about them.

Niebuhr critiques pacifists for making “Christ into the symbol of their faith in man.” But  the word “faith” also has another meaning, more relevant to the context of Jesus’ time: one of loyalty. Ironically, it is Niebuhr who has become an enabler for the rejection of loyalty to Christ and to his means and teachings versus loyalty to the teaching and means of Caesar and the state.

Much of the remainder of Niebuhr’s critique hinges on a debating opponent who thinks that conflict can be eliminated in human life. I do not. I believe he is largely correct that our particularity and limited experience of the universe and of others’ needs makes the perception of total truth and perfect empathy impossible. That’s what Gandhi means when he says “Each of us holds a piece of the truth.” However, whereas for Niebuhr this inevitable conflict makes violence justifiable, for Gandhi it makes it impermissible because destroying another and their particular perspective cuts us off from the fuller knowledge of truth. Conflict with a competing view of the world is a good thing, for Gandhi, because it allows us access to wider truth.

To sum up, Niebuhr:

  • Doesn’t take revelation as seriously as the faculty of reason, which he ironically spends considerable time attacking.
  • Attacks an anachronistic form of pacifism in a way that makes his argument reliant on a critique of liberal social gospel ideology.
  • Elevates an ill-defined “responsibility” above faithfulness to Christ’s teachings and example.
  • Misinterprets Christ’s injunctions against violence as injunctions against conflict and resistance.
  • Launches attacks without the benefit of relevant information about the feasibility of nonviolent resistance.
  1. I just wrote a criticism of Niebuhr on more secular grounds, so I was interested to read your post. Niebuhr’s ideas were useful to those in power, and sadly they continue to be.

  2. I’ll immediately clutch your rss feed as I can’t to find your email subscription link or e-newsletter service. Do you have any? Please let me recognise in order that I may just subscribe. Thanks.

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