Reflections on Reinhold Neibuhr and the Christian Tradition's Views on the "War on Terror" and American Power
An excellent article in this month's Atlantic Monthly entitled "A Man for All Reasons" by Paul Elie recounts how the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, the great 20th century American theologian, has been used by all sides in debating the intellectual and moral issues of the American use of force post 9/11. It is a fascinating article that I highly recommend. Here's the conclusion, reading of which will not detract from reading the entire article (which can be found on-line here):
Where, in such a situation, is the wisdom Niebuhr called for to be found? All the recent ritual invocation of his thought suggests that the place to look is not in his aphorisms and pronouncements, not in the particular petitions he signed or the committees he founded, but in his sense of history and our role in it.
Niebuhr was what Flannery O’Connor called a “realist of distances,” and the distance that gave his realism its clarity and explanatory power was gained through a grasp of what was known in his time as sacred history. In his view, the youth and optimism of the American experience was offset by the Founders’ conviction that we are a biblical people, enacting in the New World an older history. For Niebuhr, the aspirations that shaped our common life predated the republic: They were the visions of the promised land held by the patriarchs and the apostles, described in the history of Israel’s origins and destiny, which, in our early settlers’ account, became the story of our origins and destiny as well. This history tells of a people confident of its special role yet thwarted again and again on account of its pride, and growing in wisdom through a sense of the frailty of human nature and the limits of earthly powers. This history records that nations rage and peoples rise up together—that war sets brother against brother, despoils the land, and rends the social fabric; it counsels that you go to war with a heavy heart, for the truly good war has never been fought. This history acts as a restraint on national pride, not a stimulant to it, for it is not merely history, but in some sense our history, a story that cannot but be a cautionary tale, for it tells us who we are and what we are prone to do.
The war in Iraq, and the debates about the war, suggest that this history is now lost to us. On the surface, our society is thick with religion, but it is religion whose history is merely decorative, like the fiberglass pillars and aluminum gaslights of a McMansion in the suburbs. The Christianity that has a voice in official Washington has as its patriarchs Reagan and Falwell, not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and yet it has managed to make the nation’s longer biblical history repulsive to the liberals who once acknowledged it as a basic fact of our heritage. Lacking this history, liberals have a mainly ahistorical, secular political culture—one that assumes liberalism began with the New Deal or in 1948 and that would stand apart from religion altogether at a time when an understanding of the religious outlook is crucial to our grasp of the challenges of a globalized world.
In such circumstances, it’s no surprise that we fail to hear the voices of prophets like those who, during all the U.S. wars of the past century, called the ruling powers to account. To an astonishing degree, churches have underwritten the war in Iraq, recasting the biblical tradition in accord with the policies of the White House. They’ve replaced two millennia of thinking about war and peace with grade-school tutorials on Islam and facile comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, attempting to make a usable past out of events that are hardly even past.
Niebuhr would say that a biblical perspective, once lost, is not easily recovered—cultural regeneration being an abstract enterprise doomed to failure, like most human projects. Yet it’s worth recalling his conviction that history isn’t a true measure of things, that posterity is only a proximate judgment. “There is no way of transmuting the Christian gospel into a system of historical optimism,” he observed. “The final victory over man’s disorder is God’s and not ours.”
Even so, Niebuhr insisted, “we do have a responsibility for proximate victories”—“for the health of our communities, our nations, and our cultures.” What might this mean for the war in Iraq? It would mean frankly acknowledging, first of all, that the war as fought—in the misbegotten hope that Iraq, with its fractious history, could be remade in our image—has been lost. And second, that a full American withdrawal from the country is no more possible than a swift and easy victory was. Americans and Iraqis are bound together for the foreseeable future, regardless of the terms on which U.S. forces are drawn down—even if we are driven out of their country by rival factions in a civil war. “To love our enemies cannot mean that we must connive with their injustice,” Niebuhr wrote in 1942. “It does mean that beyond all moral distinctions of history we must know ourselves one with our enemies not only in the bonds of common humanity but also in the bonds of common guilt by which that humanity has become corrupted.”
As it was in Western Europe, so it is in Iraq. Its history now has an American chapter—and the other way around—and this shared history brings a shared responsibility, whether we like it or not. The recognition of this fact would be not only realistic, but the beginning of wisdom—the first step in the recognition of the limits of our power.