Preface: These two lectures–one posted today (Monday, Feb. 27, 2017) and the other to be posted later this week–were delivered at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas on Feb. 23 and 24 of this year (2017). I promised to post them here partly because some people were only able to hear one of the two lectures and they do constitute one lecture in two parts.
“Can a Bridge Be Built between the Christian Political Ethics of Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas?”
The Currie-Strickland Distinguished Lectures in Christian Ethics
Howard Payne University 2017
Roger E. Olson
Common sense says only trained and expert engineers should try to build bridges; “Theologians: Hands Off!” goes without saying. We theologians and theological ethicists hardly know anything about bridges. Fortunately, however, the bridge I seek to build is one not even an engineer would attempt to build. Unfortunately, it might be impossible even for a theologian. Please bear with me as I explain.
A little later I will describe in a bit more detail the challenges faced by anyone who would attempt to unite or even find a shaky via media between the two greatest Christian theological ethicists of the past fifty to one hundred years: Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas. For now I will only say that some who are very familiar with their works in political ethics, the subject of both men’s life’s endeavors, would consider such a task impossible and such a quest nothing less insane than that of fabled Don Quixote jousting at windmills. It would be difficult to name any two more different, some would say incommensurate ethical philosophies than those of Niebuhr and Hauerwas. Niebuhr would probably be spinning in his grave at the very thought and I don’t even want to picture how Hauerwas might react to the news that someone is trying to find some commensurability between his and Niebuhr’s political ethics.
And yet, I feel compelled to undertake this seemingly impossible task. Call it my “impossible dream,” but, like the mythical Quixote, I can’t help it. I simply must try. Here’s why. When I first encountered the ethical thought of Niebuhr during my doctoral studies under Christian ethicist James Sellers at Rice University I was simply awe struck—not only by Niebuhr’s words but also by his personality. Over the years since then I have devoured everything Niebuhr wrote and almost everything written about him. One of my most prized possessions, a holy relic, if you will, is my copy of Time magazine’s 25th anniversary issue dated March 8, 1948 featuring a cover portrait of Niebuhr. According to the author of one of the most recent volumes about Niebuhr’s political ethic, Time’s publisher Henry Luce personally chose Niebuhr to grace that special issue’s cover. There can be very little doubt that Niebuhr was the most influential American Christian theologian and ethicist of the twentieth century. And he is highly regarded in Europe, something that cannot be said of very many American thinkers.
My first exposure to Niebuhr was his small but powerful book An Interpretation of Christian Ethics which was published in 1935—at the height of Niebuhr’s rise to fame and influence. I read it first in about 1978 and have read it many times since. Even though Niebuhr later repudiated some of what he wrote then, I believe it still represents the key ideas of his ethical system. Niebuhr changed his mind about many details during his career which spanned the decades of the 1920s through the 1960s, but he never changed his mind about the central ideas of what he called “prophetic religion” and its application to the political life of humanity.
In brief, whenever I read Niebuhr, even if I disagree with a particular stance he took vis-à-vis a particular issue, I find myself deeply moved to profound agreement with his basic impulses. Niebuhr was one of about five great Christian thinkers who, through their writings, liberated me from the cave of fundamentalist separatism and apocalyptic indifference. To me Niebuhr’s is a voice in Christian social ethics that is both prophetic and realistic, both challenging and comforting.
I am not alone. Almost every presidential candidate since the 1960s has mentioned Niebuhr when asked to name a great thinker who has influenced him or her. When the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in the early days of this century many people asked “What would Niebuhr say?” Every year one or two books are published with titles like Why Niebuhr Now?—the specific title of the recent volume I mentioned earlier by John Patrick Duggins. Niebuhr seems to be the eternal “Come Back Kid” and, like the Energizer Bunny, his influence goes on and on, never running down or quitting. It is often said that Martin Luther King’s main inspiration was Mahatma Gandhi, but King himself pointed to Niebuhr as his main influence.
All that is simply to say that, together with a host of other Christian ethicists, both professional and non-professional, both scholarly and non-scholarly, I find in Niebuhr my modern muse, my modern guide, my modern conscience.
But, having sung Niebuhr’s praises, now I must explain why my current undertaking is understandably seemingly hopeless if not just downright insane. I also agree with Stanley Hauerwas! Now wait. If there are any persons hearing or reading this who are knowledgeable about both modern Christian ethics and psychopathology they might assume I’m a divided personality, a split personality. Or simply confused. Stanley Hauerwas, now in his retirement from Duke Divinity School, who also taught at the University of Notre Dame, has made much of his reputation at the expense of Niebuhr! But more about that in a minute. First, two brief sketches of Hauerwas the man and Niebuhr the man for those who may not know about them.
I never met Niebuhr who died when I was just out of high school. I wish I could have met him. I have met and interviewed people who knew him including some of his students who tell me they called him, even to his face, “Reinie.” He was by all accounts a unique personality and teacher at Union Theological Seminary. I have met Hauerwas twice in person and corresponded with him a few times by e-mail. I have heard him speak several times. He is, by all accounts, “salty.” That is, he is a somewhat prickly person who also loves a good joke and laughs at himself. If Niebuhr was the quintessential 1950s buttoned-down but affable mainline seminary professor, Hauerwas is the quintessential Texas bricklayer-turned-university professor who breaks all categories and stereotypes. He says he cannot help it if he occasionally, even in a high academic setting, lets fly a profanity or two in the middle of discussing Thomas Aquinas or some other angelic doctor of the academy or church.
Time magazine did not grace any cover with Hauerwas’s portrait or photo, but it did in 2001 call him “America’s best theologian.” When asked to respond the then Duke professor said simply “’Best’ is not a theological category.”
My first exposure to Hauerwas’s own writing was the published version of his prestigious 2001 Gifford Lectures entitled With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology. Before quite finishing the book I literally threw it away. I think it may be the only book I have ever simply discarded, consigning it perhaps not to flames but to the trash bin. Put bluntly, it angered me. But it angered me enough to plant a seed in my mind that would not stop germinating and growing and bearing fruit. Eventually I returned to Hauerwas’s writings and have devoured as much as I have been able to. He is and has been an even more prolific writer than Niebuhr if that’s possible. Recently I asked him how many doctoral dissertations he has guided. His guesstimate is about seventy-five, beating the record among theologians held by the late Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Today there is a whole tribe of Hauerwasians teaching Christian social and political ethics at places like Baylor University.
Among the retired Duke Divinity School professor’s other influential books are the even better known Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony and The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Last year, in 2016, he published a volume of essays under the title The Work of Theology. At age 76 he is still active in writing and speaking and especially promoting his version of Christian pacifism largely inspired by Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder.
So why did I angrily discard With the Grain of the Universe in 2002 after having read only about two third to three fourths of the book? As I said earlier, much of Hauerwas’s reputation has been built on his offering, sometimes stringently and with harsh criticism, an alternative vision of Christian social and political ethics to Niebuhr’s. Niebuhr is Hauerwas’s nemesis. Not the man Niebuhr, of course, against whom Hauerwas has no axe to grind, but Niebuhr’s so-called “Christian Realism” in ethics which Hauerwas considers a profound betrayal of authentic Christianity. In fact, what finally caused me to discard the book was that in it Hauerwas declares Niebuhr not a Christian. Only later did I calm down enough to realize, or at least hope, that Hauerwas did not mean my hero was unsaved. What he meant, I now take it, after reading the whole book and the ensuing conversations it provoked about Niebuhr, is that Niebuhr’s social and political ethic, but also his theological foundations, are not Christian.
So here is my dilemma and the challenge I face in these two lectures: Might it be possible to agree with both Niebuhr and Hauerwas—possibly, even probably against their wishes—and discover a via vedia, a middle way, that takes the best of both and leaves behind the worst of both? Or are these two grand and extremely influential systems of Christian social and political ethics truly and hopelessly incommensurate? If the latter is the case, then I probably need a therapist because I find myself in deep agreement with both of them—about certain key ideas in each.
My task, then, is a Hegelian one, to say nothing of a Herculean one. I don’t feel up to it, but, to the best of my knowledge, nobody else is even attempting it. It is simply assumed by everyone that it cannot be done, that Niebuhr’s and Hauerwas’s social and political ethics are so incommensurate as to exist on different planets or in different dimensions. No bridge can be built between them that will not crumble and collapse as soon as anyone attempts to cross it in either direction.
German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, of course, believed in the coincidence of opposites. For him, universal history is the process of syntheses arising out of theses and antitheses. He called the process Aufhebung—a German word without an English translation. Most translators use “sublation” to translate or interpret it. For Hegel it is the inevitable clash between two competing ideas resulting in their inevitable mutually corrective unification in a higher idea. While I do not agree with Hegel that this is the key to interpreting all of history and culture or that we should call the process “Absolute Spirit” coming to “Self-realization,” I do tend to think that some seemingly absolute contradictory ideas can find sublation, mutually corrective unification, if we put our minds to it.
I find much truth in both Niebuhr and Hauerwas and, against all good advice and caution, I forge ahead to explore whether it might be possible, without falling into utter contradiction, to create a synthesis of their systems of Christian social and political ethics.
So, on to Niebuhr’s key social and political ethical ideas and why Hauerwas considers them unchristian and I do not. I necessarily must be concise.
Put most bluntly and concisely, Niebuhr believed this world, by which he meant the social systems developed by humankind and the institutions that express and sustain them, is so fallen and corrupt, that responsible and effective Christian involvement in them, no matter how well-intentioned, will always require compromise of Jesus’s ethical perfectionism and reliance on non-Christian philosophies to establish even a modicum of justice. And he believed that it is essential for the good of humanity, especially the weak, the vulnerable, the oppressed, that at least some Christians take the risk of soiling their souls with compromise with non-Christian, imperfect, even sinful systems of political life and that, if they do so with eyes wide open and hearts full of repentance, God will forgive them. That’s it in a nutshell. Niebuhr’s approach to Christian social and political ethics has been labeled “Christian Realism.” That’s because Niebuhr intended to be realistic about human nature—especially as it plays out in complex social and political systems such as corporations, governments, and nation states.
The key point of conflict with Hauerwas, according to Hauerwas himself, is Niebuhr’s endorsement of so-called just war theory. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; what lies beneath the surface in terms of Niebuhr’s whole view of human nature and political life is more important or at least must be taken into account in attempting to understand his defense of some wars. I say “some wars,” because, contrary to some of his critics, Niebuhr was not a warmonger or even a defender of righteous military crusades; he didn’t believe in any such thing. What he thought was that some wars, and some other conflicts involving violence, are sometimes regrettably necessary and forgivable because they are necessary.
So what lies beneath the surface of the “iceberg” of Niebuhr’s whole Christian social and political ethic? Let’s begin with his view of humanity. Let a few of his more pungent maxims express it: “There is no act of man that is not tainted with egoism” and “Love everyone; trust no one” and “There is no greater pathos in the history of humankind than the cruelty of righteous people.” I could go on. Hopefully you get the point. Niebuhr almost single-handedly resurrected the doctrines of original sin and total depravity within a modern, even neo-liberal Christian theological framework. He did not believe in inherited sin or a historical fall or that every person is evil and deserving of hell. To him, the story of the fall of humanity, of Adam and Eve, in Genesis 3 is myth—a narrative expression of a universal truth about humanity. Original sin, Niebuhr argued, is simply a fundamental fact of human nature and existence, but it has no beginning or source. It just is. And it takes many forms but the most basic ones are selfishness and pride.
Niebuhr was swimming against the stream of liberal Protestant theology that dominated American Christian social and political ethics from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. That dominant Protestant social and political ethic has been called “The Social Gospel.” Its most notable representative was Baptist minister and theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. Niebuhr complained that it was overly optimistic about human nature and overly optimistic about the “infinite perfectibility of man.” To many Social Gospelers the Kingdom of God, a utopian society organized by love, was just a generation away and could be brought about by love of enemies which included passive non-resistance to evil. After all, in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said “Resist not the evil doer.”
Niebuhr thought he saw how the optimistic Social Gospel played into the hands of oppressors, the so-called Robber Barons, the captains of industry who mistreated their workers. And he thought he saw it weakening the ability of Great Britain and America to stand up against the rising tides of Fascism and Communism in Europe. For Niebuhr, Jesus’s love ethic, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and in other teachings, is an “impossible ideal”—something other worldly to strive for but never claim to reach. It serves as a prophetic critical principle especially for Christian effective involvement in shaping relatively just social and political systems, but it is impossible to achieve in human, historical systems. An individual, filled with the Spirit of God, might occasionally and for a while show perfect love to another person, but as soon as people organize their social life into complex systems, justice replaces love as the highest achievable ideal. But love is not thereby ignored or discarded—something many of Niebuhr’s critics somehow overlook. For him, Jesus’ love perfectionism always hovers over all our best achievements of justice calling them to greater and higher achievements.
But, for Niebuhr, no human social system will ever be organized according to love alone and to think so is to fall into delusion and eventual complacency. Love is transcendent; it is a gift and not an achievement. And human nature is too finite and fallen ever, before the coming of God’s kingdom, which only God can bring about, to establish a social order on the basis of love. “Justice,” Niebuhr often said, “is the closest approximation of love under the conditions of sin.” And sin is ever present and profoundly corrupting all power.
The second aspect of the submerged iceberg of Niebuhr’s social and political ethic is his assumption that social and political effectiveness is an essential good and goal of the Christian calling. Not every Christian is called to be involved directly in social transformation for the cause of justice, but some Christians are so called and it is important that the churches support them and join in their endeavors. For example, when Niebuhr pastored Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit in the 1920s he frequently invited labor union leaders to speak from his pulpit. That was at a time when labor unions were relatively new and highly controversial and necessary, at least according to Niebuhr, for ameliorating the unrestrained greed of the auto industries.
Niebuhr simply assumed that since Christians, both individuals and churches, acquired social and political power, they would be irresponsible to avoid using it for the cause of justice—even if that means compromising the perfect love that even Niebuhr believed Jesus taught and called for. Remember, for Niebuhr, the love that Jesus taught and called for is perfect love for the other—love that has no strings attached but it pure benevolence for others. Niebuhr agreed with the Social Gospelers and Anabaptists who argued that such love requires non-violence, even non-resistance. But he thought that would require withdrawal from effective involvement for justice for the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed. Sure, he agreed, one could still follow the Salvation Army creed of “Soup, Soap, and Salvation,” that is charity, but when it has power and influence to steer the course of history and bend the arc of the universe toward justice, the church, as well as individual Christians, must get its hands dirty and make the best of the filthy tools of politics. To do otherwise is to abdicate responsible use of power for the sake of remaining pure—which is really not possible in this life anyway.
Now, admittedly, a stronger biblical case can be made for the first aspect of Niebuhr’s submerged iceberg of social and political thought—the finitude and fallenness of humanity. Psalm 14, quoted in part by Paul in Romans 3, supports it—as does human history itself. Even those of us who are not quite so cynical as to claim that there is no human act untainted by egoism can and perhaps must agree with Niebuhr that humanity is incapable of perfection. One of Niebuhr’s harshest critics was Friends (that is, Quaker) theologian Rachel Hadley King who, in her 1964 book The Omission of the Holy Spirit in the Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr claimed that the great ethics professor forgot about the elevating power of the Holy Spirit in human life. Niebuhr, however, would simply have swept aside her critique as irrelevant to social ethics. One of Niebuhr’s most influential early books was his 1932 classic Moral Man and Immoral Society in which he argued that, while individuals may act ethically, even if not perfectly, it is simply too much to expect collective systems such as institutions, corporations and nation states to act ethically—without extreme pressure. The Social Gospelers had called for the “salvation of institutions” as if corporations and nation states could act lovingly, without self-interest. For Niebuhr, the Holy Spirit is simply not relevant in social and political ethics except as a motivator and energizer—to drive Christians and churches to take the risks of effective involvement even when that means compromising with evil, advocating for the lesser of two or more evils.
I tell my students that it is impossible fully to understand any theologian or other thinker without understanding his or her social context. One cannot understand Niebuhr without understanding the social and political context of the 1930s. Niebuhr’s parents were German immigrants. Interestingly, to me, anyway, they came from the same German town my ancestors came from and settled in the same Illinois town where my ancestors settled—at about the same time. They belonged to the same denomination. I suspect they knew each other. Niebuhr traveled to Germany much and saw and heard with his own eyes and ears the Nazi and other fascist demonstrations. He knew what Hitler and other monsters had planned for Jews and other Untermenschen and for the whole of Europe—to make it Lebensraum (“living space”) for the German master race. He was convinced of the inherent evil and violence growing at the heart of Fascism and also of Communism in the Soviet Union. Back in the U.S. he worked overtime to convince mainline Protestant pastors and lay people, pacifists under the sway of the Social Gospel, to support America’s involvement together with France and Great Britain in stopping especially Fascism including Naziism. The mood of the country, however, was against Niebuhr in this; he was a voice crying in the wilderness. Much of his fame can be attributed to the fact that he turned out to be right—at least about Europe.
Niebuhr believed it was the duty of thoughtful, reflective, responsible, world-wise Christians to work effectively together with non-Christians for the cause of justice even if that meant confrontation, conflict and occasionally violence in response to violence. But he made no pretense that these were consistent with Jesus’s love ethic. So, he made Jesus’s love ethic as taught in the Sermon on the Mount a “counsel of perfection,” a critical principle impossible of real implementation in the rough and tumble of social and political life. And he made the Kingdom of God transcendent and eschatological, impossible of achievement by human effort.
The point of all this is simply that for Niebuhr Christian social and political ethics requires use of extra-biblical reason, of philosophy, of political maneuvering, even of conflict, confrontation and occasionally of violence. It requires doing things Jesus would not have done, although he could point to Jesus’s cleansing of the temple as a hint that even Jesus was not immune from violence when a law higher than man’s requires it because of the sinfulness of humanity.
My own reading of Niebuhr leads me to believe his critics are simply wrong when they claim that he was an “apologist for power,” a “warmonger,” and a person, perhaps a Christian, who wrongly thought Jesus’s teachings are irrelevant to ethics. That latter claim was made, for example, by Yoder in The Politics of Jesus and I think it deeply impressed Hauerwas who was very much influenced by Yoder. Both seemed to overlook or ignore all that Niebuhr said about the ethical relevance of an impossible ideal. For Niebuhr, perfect love, agape love, disinterested benevolence, absolute non-violence, are all relevant to Christian social and political ethics in every age and every place, but they are relevant as critical principles impossible of actual achievement. Their relevance lies in their always reminding us that, with regard to justice, we can do better. Love, for example, requires Christians to show mercy to enemies they must oppose and to forgive them rather than wreak vengeance on them. Love, for example, requires repentance when we must use violence, and eschews celebrations of war and any violence.
All that does not satisfy Hauerwas, to say the least. Following hard on the heels of Yoder, influenced by him, Hauerwas has accused Niebuhr and his followers, so-called “Christian Realists,” of brushing aside Jesus in Christian social and political ethics and compromising with evil to the point of dissolving Christian witness, if not denying Christ altogether.
Referring again to the illustration of an iceberg, I will say that the tip of the iceberg for Hauerwas is peace. What does that mean? In all of his writings Hauerwas argues forcefully that peaceful existence and peace-making lie at the very center, the core, the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is not an Anabaptist, not a member of one of the so-called “Peace Churches” that also include Friends (i.e., Quakers) who are officially pacifist. Yoder, of course, was one. He belonged to a Mennonite church. Hauerwas brought Yoder to Notre Dame after Yoder ran into difficulties at his Mennonite college and seminary. There the two, Hauerwas the Methodist and Yoder the Anabaptist, worked together and Yoder’s influence is evident in especially Hauerwas’s later writings.
As I said, I consider Niebuhr a prophet. He prophecied, forthtold, the forgotten truth of human corruption and sin manifested in egoism. He prophecied, forthtold, the necessity of Christian risk-taking in effective involvement in shaping public policy even when that requires compromising with evil for the sake of a greater good—justice. I also consider Hauerwas a prophet. Let me explain by now doing what I did with Niebuhr earlier—briefly sketching a portrait of Hauerwas’s own particular and basic Christian social and political ethic.
For Hauerwas, Christian use of deadly force is always wrong and never necessary. That is not to say he wouldn’t do it if his grandchild were being attacked; nobody knows what he would do. In principle, however, he argues that Christians should never plan or prepare for violence against other Christians, especially, but even against other human beings. Following Jesus, Christians are called by God to take the risk of eschewing violence—including planning to use violence, arming for self-defense, studying war with an eye toward engaging in it, cooperating with the violence of human institutions including nation states. For Hauerwas, pacifism is basic to Christianity since Jesus. And for him, Christianity, or “Christendom,” fell into a sinful state when it adopted Constantine as its leader and followed him and his followers, later so-called Christian emperors, in using violence.
What lies below this pacifist tip of Hauerwas’s iceberg of Christian social and political ethics? As with Niebuhr, much lies below the surface. It’s essential to see it to understand Hauerwas the prophet.
First, Hauerwas assumes that the Christian church, the people of God, is called to radical faithfulness to the ethical message of Jesus even to the point of death. A Christian is a person who, together with the church, the people of God, lives as a potential martyr for the cause of peace. But the peace Hauerwas is talking about is not the uneasy, negotiated, unstable peace of international treaties and “guaranteed mutual destruction” if weapons of mass destruction are used. No, the peace Hauerwas is talking about is the peace of Christ that passes all ordinary human understanding and is possible only because of the Holy Spirit indwelling the church of Jesus Christ. For Hauerwas, faithfulness to the way of Jesus, as spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount, takes precedence over effectiveness in shaping public policy. If the church can shape public policy toward the shalom of God through witness and prophetic speech, fine. It should do that, but ultimately the church, even individual Christians, who are really never individuals as Christians, must let go of the reigns of worldly political power and trust God to use its witness as he wishes to bend the arc of the universe toward justice. Bending the arc of the universe toward justice using worldly coercion, especially violence, is never justified for the Christian.
Below the surface, then, Hauerwas’s iceberg is composed of a strong and steady commitment to radical Christianity defined as Christian discipleship together, as a church, following the way of the cross and not the paths of worldly power. Unlike Niebuhr, Hauerwas does not believe the fact that the church and individual Christians have worldly power justifies, let alone requires, compromised use of that power to bend the arc of the universe toward justice. Such is sin, pure and simple.
Second, an aspect of the iceberg below the surface of Hauerwas’s pacifism is strong belief that Christian social ethics is the church. And the church is intended by God to be an alternative social order within the world. Christians, the church, are called to be “resident aliens,” a colony of citizens of a foreign kingdom, living in enemy occupied territory. From his perspective, and this is why he called Niebuhr non-Christian in With the Grain of the Universe, so-called Christians who compromise with evil even for the sake of justice are collaborators with evil. Jesus called his followers out of all the evil systems of this world to form a radically alternative system, a way of life, not withdrawn from the world but inserted directly into it while living according to a different charter—the Sermon on the Mount.
Third, according to Hauerwas, the Christian form of social activism is simply being the church as Christ intended it to be. For him, Christian social activism toward social transformation is called witness—the witness of the church living as a “city on a hill,” a “light to the nations,” showing God’s love in action among God’s people including peacefulness and peace-making. And, according to Hauerwas, this means being prepared to suffer rejection and even violence simply for being radically different. From a human perspective, Jesus was killed because his radically alternative social order, which he embodied, taught and actually began to organize, was a threat to worldly power. It unmasked it and showed it in all its ugliness. So the church, by its radically alternative way of life, unmasks the violence of the world showing it in all its ugliness. One of Hauerwas’s favorite lines is that one job of the church is to tell the world what it is. What is the world? It is objectively disordered, a social order based on violence.
Let’s examine a specific example of what Hauerwas means by the church showing the world itself, revealing it to itself. According to Hauerwas in his 2011 book War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity the “glue” that holds America together as one people, one nation, is not civil religion, a Judeo-Christian ethic manifested in a democractic public form of life. It is rather war. War has become the American religion; we are now always at war somewhere and we celebrate war religiously and we criticize war’s critics as if they are heretics. Our saints and martyrs are soldiers and our high priests are generals. Our sacraments are missiles and our rituals are celebrations of wars past and present. According to Hauerwas, the church’s public ethic, its social and political ethic, ought to be prophetically witnessing by example, word and deed, to the world calling it to repentance and peace. That is the way of Jesus Christ with regard to social ethics.
Now the question presses in on me: Are not these two giants of Christian social and political ethics, these two prophets of modern Christian public theology, impossibly separate, incommensurable in their thinking such that there can be no bridge between them, no via media, no synthesis of Niebuhr the thesis and Hauerwas the antithesis? So it seems—at least on the surface.
I will work on building that seemingly impossible bridge more in my second lecture. Here, for now, I will only hint at what stones might be put in place from each to build it. To start with, I will explore what the two standing on opposites sides of the gulf have in common.
First, however, let me step back and aside a moment and say this about the subject. I do think it is nearly impossible, if not completely impossible, to build such a bridge, to achieve such a via media, to discover such a synthesis, so long as we treat Niebuhr and Hauerwas as individual personalities. They certainly were and are that (or those)! They were/are giant personalities with huge egos and I don’t mean that as judgment on them. The problem I am pointing to is that of allowing their personalities and careers to get in the way of seeing some common ground in their thinking about reality. When viewed as personalities and careers they seem to live on different planets or they look like Karl Barth’s “whale and elephant” which is how he described himself and Rudolf Bultmann—both God’s creatures but unable to meet.
What I propose, for my purpose of attempting to build the bridge between them, is to treat Niebuhr and Hauerwas not as personalities but as types or modern prototypes of two seemingly radically different approaches to what H. Richard Niebuhr called “Christ and Culture” in his deeply flawed but classic work on that subject with that title. By “that subject” I mean the relationship between Christian being in the world (“Christsein”—Christian existence) and the world’s ways of being. It is usually supposed that Reinhold Niebuhr falls into the category of “Christ and culture in tension” whereas Hauerwas falls into the category of “Christ against culture.” Of course, this is the flaw in Niebuhr’s classic book; the five categories are too static; there are too many cracks within them and between them and they dynamically fluctuate depending on the culture in which Christians live and die.
Still, and nevertheless, there is some truth and value in the Christ and culture typology. Niebuhr does tend to lean toward the “Christ and culture in tension” model exemplified by, among others, Martin Luther and mainline Lutheranism with their “two kingdoms” theory. Hauerwas does tend to lean more toward the contrarian “Christ against culture” model exemplified by classical Anabaptism. But neither fits any category perfectly and there I see some opportunities for bringing them together—not as personalities or prophetic agendas but as representatives of general approaches to Christian social and political ethics.
To build such a bridge we have to begin with common ground. What do Niebuhr and Hauerwas share in common? On the surface, it would seem not much. But that’s if we allow their personal styles and agendas to get too much in the way.
First, both were and are committed Christians, whatever Hauerwas may have said about Niebuhr. Hauerwas claims in With the Grain of the Universe that Niebuhr’s theology was naturalistic, that he did not believe in anything supernatural including the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Well, that accusation was put to rest by Niebuhr’s former student and friend Gabriel Fackre in an excellent article responding to Hauerwas about Niebuhr published in First Things. I believe there can be no question of Niebuhr’s basic Christianity. He may not have held orthodox views on every doctrinal subject and he tended to shy away from formal doctrinal theology altogether. We might even say he was probably somewhat agnostic about metaphysics generally. His focus was on and interest was in ethics. But when it comes to believing in Jesus Christ as God incarnate and in the triune God and in salvation by grace through faith by means of Christ’s atoning death, I have no doubt that Niebuhr was Christian. And his personal life was entirely consistent with Christianity unless one pre-determines that justifying violence cannot be consistent with being Christian.
Nobody I know doubts or questions Hauerwas’s status as a Christian. So let’s move on to other common ground.
Both men share a profound distrust of power in the hands of human beings. Hauerwas believes no less strongly in human sin and depravity than Niebuhr did. That cannot be taken for granted; the ghost of Social Gospel optimism about human nature, human perfectibility through education and social engineering, is not gone. It still haunts the halls of much mainline Christian academia and even the pews and pulpits of many churches. Nobody questions Niebuhr’s pessimism about humanity apart from grace, but what about Hauerwas? I once heard him answer the question “What are we as human beings?” with a single syllable word that rhymes with “quit.” So there is significant common ground. And with it comes, of course, dependence on God’s grace for everything good that we can achieve. They might disagree about the reach of sanctification into the human heart and soul, but they agree about the extent of evil in the human heart and soul apart from grace.
Finally, for now, they agree about the need for Christian concern for and involvement with the world outside the church. They agree that Christians should not be primarily concerned about heaven and hell after this life but should be concerned also and perhaps even primarily about life here and now, about peace and justice in the world. Neither Niebuhr nor Hauerwas denied or denies heaven or hell, but I suspect the latter would agree with the former that “We should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” Both represent prophetic religion, specifically prophetic Christianity. And, I believe, whatever Hauerwas may say, both cared and care about America and its potential to become a light unto the nations—not because it has a “manifest destiny” from God but because it is powerful and there is good in it.
So what might the dreamed of bridge look like? I will spell that out more specifically in the second lecture, but here I will just hint at it and sketch it out very lightly as with a pencil drawing yet to be made into a blueprint (if ever that can be done!).
I believe the only way to build such a bridge is to consider ourselves under three identities: first, citizens of God’s Kingdom to come, the city of God; second, citizens of the church here and now in the “already but not yet” of the Kingdom of God; third, citizens of the city of man, the human polis that provides a common system for human living in a pluralistic world. These are not equal identities; I do not believe even Niebuhr would say so. But I agree especially with Hauerwas that the first identity is the controlling one and the second has priority over the third. But I agree with Niebuhr that the third one cannot be shrugged off or treated as irrelevant to my Christian discipleship.
With Hauerwas I regard myself as first and foremost a citizen of God’s kingdom and, with him, that involves citizenship in the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ worldwide, the alternative social order that seeks passionately to live under the rule of its master the man of peace and love Jesus Christ. But with Niebuhr I also regard myself as a citizen of the United States of America and of all humanity, called by God to “make the best of it” together with all God’s people in a world of injustice. Justice for the oppressed within the structures of the fallen world is also my concern and God has placed some small degree of power, mainly through influence, in my hands. I believe he expects me to use that power, that influence, miniscule as it is, to promote the cause of justice and that includes protecting the weak, the vulnerable and the oppressed—even from social-political predators and even sometimes by supporting force.
Now, Hauerwasians will predict that my bridge is going to be built with the stones of Niebuhr’s social and political ethic and that it will never reach the Hauerwas side of the divide. But please give me the benefit of the doubt as I add to what I already said that I do not believe compromise with evil is ever good or righteous and that the Christian’s social ethic is to help make the church the powerful witness for peace that Jesus called for in his Sermon on the Mount.
I may not be successful in building my dreamed of bridge, but I will try and I ask for your patience and understanding as I go about it. It may be a project only begun here, today, in this place, but one has to begin somewhere even with a seemingly impossible but necessary dream.
Tomorrow, in my second lecture in this series, I will talk about several Christian social and political ethicists of the past who are my guides and helpers in attempting to build the dreamed of bridge between Niebuhr and Hauerwas. Tonight, in this first lecture, I will only mention one with apologies to his numerous fans who may disagree vehemently with me that he stands “in the gap,” so to speak, between Niebuhr and Hauerwas. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Because most of you already know something about him, I will be extremely brief.
There is no doubt that Bonhoeffer was a Christian pacifist who saw the Christian’s main citizenship as in the Kingdom of God and secondary citizenship in the church. With Hauerwas, but long before him, Bonhoeffer sought to influence the social order through the church, helping construct Germany’s Confessing Church movement in the 1930s. Bonhoeffer was a man of peace who took Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount with utmost seriousness even writing an entire commentary on it titled Nachfolge (Discipleship). In America its title is The Cost of Discipleship.
In his unfinished book Ethics, however, the German theologian introduced the distinction between the “ultimate” and the “penultimate.” I believe this all-important distinction is influenced by Niebuhr with whom Bonhoeffer studied and taught at Union Theological Seminary. The “ultimate” in Christian social and political ethics is what Jesus would do. The “penultimate” is what we sometimes must do that Jesus would not do because of our predicament of having worldly power and influence in a world of oppression and tyranny.
In the end, of course, Bonhoeffer the pacifist joined the German army in order to participate in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and bring an end to Germany’s “final solution” against the Jews and other “Untermenschen.” Those twenty-first century pacifists who claim he did not participate in a conspiracy of violence are simply wrong; his own words as well-remembered by his friend Eberhard Bethge reveal that he did with great reluctance and an agonistic attitude. Bonhoeffer never rescinded his pacifism or discarded his ultimate loyalty to the Kingdom of God and the church of Jesus Christ, but he sacrificed them on the altar of necessity, opting for the penultimate over the ultimate and trusting God to understand and forgive.
Might Bonhoeffer’s life, death and teaching about the distinction between the ultimate and the penultimate help bridge the divide between Niebuhr and Hauerwas? I think so, but there are others who also help build the bridge and I will talk more about them in tomorrow’s lecture—“part two” of this series. I hope you will attend if possible and, if that’s impossible, read it on my blog later.