Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Reinhold Niebuhr and President Obama's World View

"Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."
 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944) 

"We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us and still strive for justice.  We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity.  We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace."  
            President Barak Obama, Speech in Oslo, 2009

If American citizens, the general public, the media, right, left and center, understood the theology and philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr, they would understand the thought and actions of President Obama.  That was one of the messages of Fr. Jim Bacik's lecture at Lourdes University's Franciscan Center last week.

Niebuhr on Time cover.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was one of the most influential theologians in America in the 1950s and 1960s, Fr. Bacik reminded a faithful audience of over 100 people.

Niebuhr, a pastor, professor at Union Theological Seminary, and writer, developed a "public theology" based on his belief in "original sin,"  the existence of evil in the world and the need actively to fight against it. Fr. Bacik calls him "a pessimistic optimist."  His "Christian realism" had a far-reaching influence.

I remember Niebuhr for his opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, and I say the "Serenity Prayer," which he wrote during World War II, every day.

I didn't know that Niebuhr is one of President Obama's "favorite philosophers," and that his beliefs undergird our president's thought across the spectrum of social, political and international issues.   It has now become clearer.

President Obama accepts Peace
Prize in Ozlo, 2009
Fr. Bacik referenced an interview with journalist David Brooks in 2007, wherein Obama, then a senator, stated what he had learned from Niebuhr: 1) We must be realistic about evil in our world and be humble about eliminating it;  and 2) this is not, however, an excuse for cynicism and inaction. He repeated the lesson two years later in Oslo, upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: "There's evil in the world, but we have to do all we can to eradicate it." 

Fr. Bacik  
I have, I think, become more Niebuhrian with time.  I once believed we could shape human nature and control change, that we were born innocent and learn evil, that human agency was the basis for creating peace and justice.  Perhaps.  But I see how the doctrine of original sin, the belief that evil exists and will always exist, "moderates this utopian idealism," as Fr. Bacik put it.

Niebuhr's theology helps place inhumane extremism, war, and man's ongoing inhumanity to man in broader perspective: ISIS and Middle Eastern violence; Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the tragedy of MH-17; the Ebola crisis, the Syria crisis, the African refugee crisis, the multiplying destructions and death that dominate our times. It's a perspective Pope Frances and many change agents around the world seem to understand and embrace.

Yes, there is evil in the world.  And yes, we have to do all we can to fight against it, to try through our actions to make the world a better place.  We cannot eliminate evil; but we can work to achieve "proximate justice" and "proximate peace."  It's a lesson I needed to hear.

Some reading:

Obama quotes that show the influence of Niebuhr (in Fr. Bacik handout):
"We begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes."

"We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected."

"I know that engagement with oppressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation.  But I also know that sanctions without outreach--and condemnation without discussion--can carry forward a crippling status quo.  No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of a open door."

"No Holy War can ever be a just war....if you truly believe that you are carrying out the divine will then there is no need for restraint, no need to spare the pregnant mother or the medic or even a person of one's own faith."
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